King of the Hill Country

Tuesday in the brewhouse: busy brewers, rich aromas and country music

Tuesday in the brewhouse: busy brewers, rich aromas and country music

Last Tuesday afternoon, it was just Jeffrey Stuffings and me standing beside the brand new 950-gallon coolship at Jester King in the Texas Hill Country outside Austin. The brewery is only open to the public Friday through Sunday, so the guys and gal over in the brewing area had some serious country music blasting through some even more serious speakers. The aroma of their mash-in-progress was almost intoxicating in itself. Upstairs, a gentle breeze wafted through the open windows behind us, reminding me of why coolships seem 180o counterintuitive to what every beginner homebrewing book or instructor teaches.

To pre-schoolers, the shiny copper coolship filled with wort might look like an awesome wading pool. To industrial-sized brewers, aiming for consistency with every brew, it would look more like a nightmare. To the brewers at Jester King, it was exclamation-point exciting as they had written that morning on the JK blog.

Jester King's new coolship

Jester King’s new coolship

“We have a new coolship at Jester King, as we begin our fourth season of spontaneous fermentation! Our coolship is used to capture airborne yeast and bacteria as the wort cools overnight. The wort then ferments “spontaneously”, meaning that we do not pitch our mixed culture of yeast and bacteria. For us, spontaneous fermentation is the ultimate partnership with nature when it comes to making beer inextricably tied to a particular time and place.”

Finished product area--heaven for fans of Jester King's hard to come by brews?

Finished product area–heaven for fans of Jester King’s hard to come by brews?

“You don’t have some occasional…mishaps?” I ask.

“Sure we do,” Stuffings readily replies with a grin. “Sometimes we even have to throw out a batch.”

That’s a pretty self-effacing response from a guy who, in less than six years since opening his brewery, has become recognized nationwide for his avant garde farmhouse ales. You’d expect he graduated from a prestigious brewing program or apprenticed under a famous Belgian brewer.

Instead, Stuffings got a political science degree, went to law school, passed the bar exam, and then, with no professional brewing experience, announced he was going to open a craft brewery. He had been homebrewing all along the way, however. When he decided to go pro, “I talked to every professional brewer I could find—and I knew what was good.”

One-on-one tasting with Jeffrey Stuffings

One-on-one tasting with Jeffrey Stuffings

We head outside via the small taproom where Stuffings chooses four bottles for our one-on-one tasting session. All seating at Jester King is outside. We pause on our way to the long picnic tables for Stuffings to introduce Ron Extract, one of his partners. (The third is Stuffings brother Michael.) I explain that I leave Austin early Friday. “So, you won’t get to see the weekend madness here?” Extract says with his own grin.

Madness sounds like the right word. During the 23 hours a week that the brewery is open to the public, JK sells 70% of its production on site. Of the 2200 barrels brewed in 2015, the remaining 30% was snapped up by mostly local retailers.

To start off the tasting, Stuffings uncaps a light golden Petit Prince with a nicely tart nose. “This is a very, very simple beer, really,” he says as I take the first sip. This beer, like the Wytchmaker and 2015 Estival Dichotomous, I had managed to find the previous evening, tastes anything but simple. In fact, the most salient characteristic of all six Jester King beers I sampled was complexity. These are beautifully crafted and aged beers that you sip slowly, giving the array of tastes—fruity, peppery, spicy, piney, funky, tart and more—time to present themselves.

Of the Bière de Miel that pours a hazy golden yellow, Stuffings says, “This was inspired by Saison Dupont. A lot of our beers are very classic styles.” JK gives their own twists, often with local ingredients like the honey in Bière de Miel.

Oak foudres

Oak foudres

Then there’s the mineral-rich Texas Hill Country water. JK rarely treats the water drawn from its 750-foot well. And of course, there are the yeasts and bacteria. Fermentation methods run the gamut from exclusively house yeasts to 100% spontaneous fermentation with only ambient wild yeasts and bacteria.

While we sip beer number three, 分桃 or Fēn Táo, Stuffings riffs on JK’s ample use of fruit during barrel-aging and the refermentation process which can last a year or more. The brewery is currently home to some 400 barrels. Most are 600-liter used wine barrels, but the collection ranges from 400-liter (105-gallon) barrels to 45-hectoliter (1189 gallon) foudres.

After barrel-aging and then months of bottling conditioning, the beers have fermented out to a nice dryness like this Fēn Táo. What hits me before the dry finish though, are the hints of peach and banana and the very present but not overly so tartness.

While I enjoyed all the beers, the final sample, a dark ruby red Cerveza de Tempranillo, is my favorite. Of this beer, aged with Texas-grown Tempranillo grapes, Stuffings says, “It’s definitely a wine/beer hybrid.”

Eye-catching labels on Jester King products at Austin E-Z Mart

Eye-catching labels on Jester King products at Austin E-Z Mart

I ask about the unique and sophisticated labels on all JK bottles. Artist Josh Cockrell, who has been with the brewery since the beginning, is the creative mind behind them. “We have him taste each batch. We talk about the beer, then we give him free range to do what he wants,” Stuffings says.

Those discussions yield names that are all over the place, like Atrial Rubicite (score of 95/world class on BeerAdvocate) and La Vie en Rose (named after the 1945 Édith Piaf song, BeerAdvocate score of 89). From there, Cockrell comes up with perhaps the most unusual narratives found on any beer bottles today.

The pricing on JK’s brews is surprisingly reasonable. A 16-oz. pour of Petit Prince at the brewery taproom only costs $5.00. The two 750ml. (25 oz.) beers I bought in an Austin store were $10.99 each.

Leslie with Jeffrey Stuffings and canine pal at Jester King

Leslie with Jeffrey Stuffings and canine pal at Jester King

The previous week, JK released the video below of Stuffings announcing the brewery had concluded the purchase of 58 surrounding acres. With Austin’s exploding growth, he promised the area will remain undeveloped. This spring, JK will plant its first crops and bring in bees to produce its own honey. “We have lots of plans for expansion that don’t necessarily involve beer,” Stuffings tells me. As in the video, he explains the plans for fermentation experiments with cheeses and breads, plus growing more of their ingredients.

The craft beer world is darned lucky that Jeffrey Stuffings decided to spend his days in the brewery instead of the courtroom.

Video courtesy of Jester King

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