Wednesday, 25 April 2018

An ode to Jester King Brewery

“Here in Texas, there are really only a couple of weeks a year when you need to wear a jacket, when you can see your breath,” our tour guide tells us. We’re standing next to a beautiful copper-lined coolship; this large, rectangular, shallow fermentation vessel is used to deliberately inoculate wort with wild, airborne yeasts and bacteria. Once nature has taken course, the liquid is transferred to wooden barrels, and undergoes spontaneous fermentation. Traditionally, this style of brewing is employed only in cool weather, when lower ambient temperatures will allow the wort to cool overnight and when the microbes in the atmosphere are thought to be at their most balanced. For Jester King, that’s a tight window of time.

The strange thing is that, although we’re in mid-April, our guide could be describing today’s surroundings. Arriving in Austin the previous day, our Uber driver remarked, “y’all are getting a little taste of the Texas weather”. It was a close, exhausting, almost prickly heat. Then a storm came and the temperature dropped drastically overnight.

Most of the patrons at Jester King this Saturday afternoon have jackets on; and scarves, and hats. Not me though; I packed nothing warmer than a thin wool jumper, because I was going to Texas in the middle of spring and didn’t think I’d need them. Fire-pits are lit, people huddled close to their warmth.  Grey ashy deposits stain their clothes and, occasionally, float into their beers. Others get stuck into photogenic pizzas from the rustic restaurant just down the hill whilst a band plays stripped-down Christian songs and old country numbers on guitars, banjos and harmonicas. Bizarrely, a party of frat-boy types swagger up with cans of Bud Light and are promptly, politely ejected.

What I’m trying to communicate is that Jester King is a magical, serene place, and I’d have braved far colder temperatures to drink there. Situated in Texas Hill Country outside Austin, it’s around a half-hour’s drive from the city. Along the way, strip malls and roadside restaurants thin out, replaced by vast ranch land. 

Jester King make farmhouse beers. This is a broad term that can encompass both clean saisons brewed with laboratory-cultivated yeast and altogether wilder, more rustic beers. Jester King’s output lean toward the more esoteric end of the scale but, for them, farmhouse is more than just a label. Their house culture includes commercial strains from the European breweries that influence them, such as Dupont and Thiriez, but also yeast and bacteria from plants in the land surrounding the brewery. This reflects their ethos of making beers that express something of their place; this can mean using foraged ingredients, local well water and Texas malt.

SPON, the series of beers born of the aforementioned coolship, are a fine demonstration of the brewery’s approach. Based on the techniques used in traditional Belgium lambic brewing, including the traditional long-winded ‘turbid mash’, they are not (and could never be) a simple imitation. The yeasts and bacteria found in the beers are unique to their surroundings – the same beer could never be reproduced elsewhere. SPON Three YearBlend combines young and aged spontaneously fermented beer, much like traditonal gueuze. It’s tart, but not so challengingly sour, nor as tannic and oaky, as the classics. It finishes dry and slightly bitter, leaving an impression of utter balance and harmony. SPON Peach & Apricot has a jaw-droppingly vibrant fruit flavour. It recalls the entire experience of biting into a peach; the sweet, juicy flesh, the dry sensation of the skin and the gentle acidity.

Also given the coolship treatment is Abscission, a collaboration with fellow travellers Scratch Brewing Co. from Illinois. Jester King’s ethos has been applied to this truly collaborative beer, which includes ingredients from both the Scratch farm and the Jester King ranch. The wort was infused with grapevines, fallen leaves, spicebush, juniper branches, laurel and sassafras – I honestly don’t even know what most of those are, but I can tell you they added up to a very tasty beer. Subtly tart and maybe a tiny bit salty, it has a wonderfully vibrant herbal and botanical flavour which is never overpowering; a less subtle approach could have ended up tasting like a high-end shower gel.

Funk Metal is one of the few Jester King beers that is self-described as ‘sour’. It certainly has more bite than those I’ve mentioned so far, but is no less balanced. An incredibly rich chocolate dominates the aroma and forms the foundation of its flavour, too. This is followed by sour cherry notes and an acidic red wine quality, and it finishes beautifully dry.

It’s always a pleasure to drink a brewery’s wares at the source but here, standing on the land that so heavily shapes these beers, it’s a particularly special privilege.

A word of advice; if you’re visiting the brewery using Uber, warn your driver that the map on their phone may try and take them up a rough track at the back of the property, and that they should look for the front entrance on the main road. When you’re being picked up at the end of your visit, I recommend walking down to said road and making that your pick-up point.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Old New Orleans Rhythm and Juice

Off the top of your head, what associations do you have with New Orleans? Jazz, perhaps, which originated there; Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which beautifully captures its humid buzz; the Hurricane Katrina tragedy; maybe, at a stretch, Lil Wayne? Beer is unlikely to feature on your list. A quick wander around the French Quarter will tell you that plenty of beer is consumed in the city, though. If open container laws apply here at all, they are openly flouted by carefree tourists spilling from jazz club to dive bar, beer in hand.

Granted, much of this beer is light lager from macro breweries but if that doesn’t satisfy, you don’t have to look hard for alternatives. If, say, you’re on a family holiday that is not specifically or exclusively beer-focused, this is particularly useful. Pizzerias, music venues, art gallery cafés and even bars aboard historic paddle steamers all have your back. You may stumble across an unassuming hotel bar quietly serving eight Louisiana craft beers on tap, and reflect on the fact that, in the UK, such an establishment would be trying to pass itself off as a specialist beer venue.

There are some places you should make time for, though, and I’ll get to those. First, an observation – the apparent trend amongst Louisiana breweries is for hazy, juicy beers in the New England style. Of the ten or so pale ales and IPAs I tasted in New Orleans, only a few poured clear, and even those – Bayou Teche’s LA-31 Biere Pale or Clean State from Wayward Owl, for example – had a touch of something tropical about them.

In a sense there’s nothing extraordinary about this, since the popularity of these beers seems to have hit just about everywhere with a craft beer scene, but it’s not what I expected. The swampy state is known for its sticky humidity, and I expected the brewers from such an environment to aim straight at the easy-going and refreshing. Hazy IPAs might be low in IBUs, but they’re also kind of intense and sometimes share the thick body of a fruit smoothie. On my visit, though, the weather was pleasantly warm but reportedly nothing like the still heat that New Orleans experiences in the summer months. And as such, I sure appreciated those juicy brews.

Amongst the best was Voodoo Pale Ale, from Baton Rouge’s Tin Roof; its tropical vibe was given further depth by a resinous, even slightly sharp edge, probably imparted by the Simcoe hop. Jucifer, brewed by Gnarly Barley in Hammond, was also sublimely juicy, with a touch of sherbet lemon and a gentle bitter finish.

The Courtyard Brewery dedicates a good percentage of their output to incredibly turbid IPAs, some of which almost seem to glow with a greenish-yellow luminosity. Situated a little outside the tourist centre of the city, it’s a self-described nanobrewery and looks like a tiny, tight space. You’ll need to come to the taproom to taste The Courtyard’s wares, as they do not distribute and sell all their beer on-site and on draught.

4th Best Body Surfer in the World has an allium aroma, and the flavour toes the line between savoury and juicy, like a mango salsa. The texture is creamy and smooth, and there’s a slightly raw bitterness in the finish. I liked The Wild Party better; it’s especially dank, with more of those onion-like notes, but also cranking the tropical fruit up a notch with bags of pineapple and a touch of blueberry. And to break up those IPAs, I tried And So We Can Acquiesce To Authority, a rosemary and blackberry witbier. It’s incredibly refreshing and the unusual ingredients have been added with subtlety. It instantly recalls the quenching sensation of biting into a slice of watermelon, though I’m conscious that making that comparison makes the beer sound watery, which it is not. 

The taproom is a must-visit; basic in the manner of Bermondsey’s most down-to-earth (though with the welcome addition of a plumbed-in toilet), it doesn’t amount to much more than a few tables and chairs placed out the front, but this is charming rather than half-arsed and chimes with the laid-back approach that earned New Orleans the nickname ‘The Big Easy’.

A short walk into the smart Lower Garden District you’ll find The Avenue Pub. Definitely a pub rather than a bar, it’s an old-timey place by American standards; thought to date back to 1845, it boasts quirks like a tin ceiling and fireplaces that, in the warmth of late spring, it’s hard to imagine are ever lit. Louisiana breweries are well represented on the extensive draught list, and I got my fix of juice from Urban South’s superb Holly Roller IPA. One of the highlights of the local beers I tried on this trip was All My Tomorrows from Great Raft in Shreveport. This is a saison brewed with rye, and has a slightly grainy, rustic farmhouse quality as well as bubblegum and black pepper. I could have sworn the version I tasted was brewed with Motueka or something similar, though can’t now find any reference to this online; my notes say that passion fruit and lime flavours intensified as it warmed, which doesn’t sound much the advertised hop bill of Mosaic, Citra and Bravo. Regardless, here’s the important part – it was utterly delicious.

Then came something really special. Each year, Montreal’s Brasserie Dieu de Ciel! release a series of variations on their imperial coffee stout, Péché Mortel, in an event known as Péché Day. Not only were several of these still pouring at the Avenue Pub, they were discounting them to $3 a pour as if they wanted to get rid of them. Péché Framboise is so good I feel privileged to have tasted it; it’s amongst the finest stouts I have ever tasted, astonishingly silky with a vibrant raspberry flavour that plays beautifully off the decadent chocolate notes. Péché Latte, with added lactose, was a desert-like treat, all sweet, creamy coffee. Do not leave New Orleans without going to the Avenue Pub. Miss your plane if you have to. 

Back towards the centre on the city, on the edge of the French Quarter, you’ll find Black Penny. This well-worn-in pub might have an appealingly divey feel during its late-night opening hours, but with the sun streaming through the window in the late afternoon, it’s pretty idyllic. Note the absence of the ubiquitous, OTT branded tap handles on the bar; all the beer here is in cans. Why this is, I don’t know, but I do know that’s it’s an impressive list featuring plenty of Lousiana breweries as well as those from further afield. You’ll find oddities such as Lion Stout, the Sri Lankan brew that Michael Jackson wrote about and which I’ve never seen anywhere before, and selections from Wasatch, the first brewery  in Utah since Prohibition – astonishingly, it opened in 1986.

Here I drank Hoppyright Infringement from NOLA Brewing Company. Once, Dixie Brewing Company made New Orelans’ local lager within the city, but closed after Hurricane Katrina and relocated brewing to Wisconsin. In 2009, NOLA became the city’s only active brewery. BeerAdvocate now lists about 15, of which NOLA is probably the most visible. The beer in my can at Black Penny is as good an example of the hazy fruit salad double IPA as you’re likely to find without queuing up overnight in New England (and I highly recommend their silky, hoppy Irish Channel Stout, too.)

I should point out, by the way, that the easy-drinking, refreshing brews I expected of the Pelican State are there when you need them; in the excitingly sweaty Maison jazz club on Frenchmen Street, I dodged IPAs in favour of Coop’d Up from Urban South, a refreshingly tart farmhouse ale with a beautiful peachy flavour and a slightly salty finish. Wayward Owl’s Family Tree is a kristallweizen – not normally a style I gravitate towards because I prefer the fuller, mealy body of its yeastier relative, the hefeweizen. Well, not in a humid jazz venue I don’t; the crisp, lager-like quality really hit the spot, whilst the rhubard, banana and clove flavours I love in German wheat beers were there in spades.

The visibility of good beer in New Orleans demonstrates, I think, at least part of what people are getting at when they say beer culture in the UK is “behind” that of the US. There’s plenty here to satisfy nerds like myself; but equally, there is a mainstream understanding and appreciation of craft beer here I don’t think yet exists at home. I like it.