“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.