The jester is nobody's fool. Often dismissed as dim-witted and simple, the jester carries compelling historical and literary significance. Just ask King Lear. Existing beyond societal norms and confines, the jester has the unique ability to criticize established power structures with little rebuke. It's all in good fun, after all. Indeed, craft brewers who are more playful, artful, and creative are often said to collectively wear the beermaking crown. In the case of Jester King Brewery, the idea is to assume the crown. All hail the jester.
In 2010, before the unofficial reign of Jester King began, the original founders and brothers behind the brewery, Jeff Stuffings and Michael Steffing, received a myriad of unsolicited advice about what it would take to be a successful brewery in Texas. Urged to produce a good amber, a blond, an IPA, a wheat, and a bock, Jester King paid no heed. Instead, the brewery decided to focus on wild ales and spontaneously fermented beers, each brewed with a unique sense of place. According to Stuffings, creating beers specific to the region adds to the level of enjoyment – a mental aspect beyond the aroma and taste. For Jester King, that unique place is 18 minutes southwest of Downtown, just outside of the Austin city limits.
On a scenic four acres of a 200-acre ranch that also houses Stanley's Farmhouse Pizza, the brewery utilizes mineral-rich well water which influences mashing, yeast behavior, and virtually every aspect of the brewing process. Additionally, locally grown and malted grains and native wild yeast are employed to create beers that, like their adopted mascot, the Satyr, exist among the fringes. From its inception, the brewery thrived by eschewing the conventional brewing process as it is widely practiced and embracing the more subversive and experimental. "We're not living by these established rules that seem to exist. We're existing here in the countryside making beers the way that we want to make them that are not in accordance with a lot of these pre-established brewing rules," said the brewery's resident philosopher, managing partner, and artisan of ales, Ron Extract. For Jester King, this is not only standard procedure, but a well-devised – if not unruly – art.
Inspired by the Michigan-based Jolly Pumpkin and Belgian breweries such as De La Senne, Cantillon, and Fantome, Jester King's primary focus is creating an excellent portfolio of wild beers, integrating techniques such as barrel aging and blending. As a result, sometimes the beer is going to be bad. Inevitably, there will be complete batch failures. However, it's all just part of the creative process. "Science isn't really our strong suit, it's really more of a sensory-based thing," says Stuffings, unfazed. Such is the life of an artisan. Avant-garde and intellectual, there's an element of whimsy woven through nearly every aspect of the brewery, from the house culture made from yeast captured from foraged flowers and berries to the award-winning labels created by label artist Josh Cockrell. Outcasts pulled from folk tales, literature, and the imagination of Cockrell, the art purposefully stands in stark contrast to the offensive and marginalizing marketing strategies employed by big brewers and some noted craft brewers. One would only have to look so far as the label for Mad Meg, a provision ale. It features "Mad Meg," a peasant woman derived from Flemish folklore, also known as "Dulle Griet" or "Dull Gret." Blood-spattered and wielding a sword, Meg is leading an army of women to pillage hell. Then there's Boxer's Revenge, a barrel-aged wild ale that features Boxer from Orwell's Animal Farm as an anarchic pugilist seeking retribution on his corporate masters. Each label, beautiful and sometimes haunting, tells a tale. So does the beer.
Set for a Memorial Day release is Encendía. The name, from the Spanish word meaning "to light," is a dry, well-attenuated, farmhouse ale brewed with agave nectar, epazote, and ancho chiles, and aged in mezcal barrels from Oaxaca, Mexico. It's made in collaboration with Kristina Bozic of West Lakeview Liquors in Chicago, Ill.; her visage is subtly featured on the label. True to form, the attention to detail in every facet of Jester King's beers is palpable. Perhaps the best representation of this ideology is Noble King. Unfiltered, unpasteurized, 100% naturally conditioned, and named for the wealth of organic noble hops used in the beer, the wild yeast characteristics from the native microflora shine. The locally malted grain and the use of well water converge to create a sense of place in the hoppy farmhouse ale. Says Extract, "We can make a perfectly good IPA using American ale yeast or British ale yeast and using whatever the new trendy hops are, but it's going to be a lot like other IPAs out there. It may be slightly better executed, and it may be a really good example of that, but it's not going to contribute materially to the world of beer. We have higher ambitions than that."
Undeniably, they do. Earlier this month, the Brewers Association awarded Jester King with the F.X. Matt Defense of the Small Brewing Industry Award for 2014. Named for the late F.X. Matt, a staunch defender of the small brewing industry, the award is given to breweries that actively champion the rights of craft brewers and the industry as a whole. Jester King received the award, at least in part, for the brewery's activism during last legislative session, and for their winning lawsuit against the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission that saw reversals to Texas' antiquated beer laws. Always more work to be done: Jester King is already gearing up for its next battle – the legal right of brewers to receive compensation for their territorial distribution rights.
Thoreau writes in Walden that we need the tonic of wildness. If there is such a remedy, Jester King embodies it. A literal force of nature, Jester King doesn't just want to brew great beer, they want to change the world. Says Extract, "The way that we can make a big difference is to add something to the world of brewing, to make beers that will, in small ways, change people's lives, that they'll taste and find eye-opening, that we'll create combinations of flavors they haven't had before and that will really transport them to some place that maybe they've never been, or if they've come to visit us before, will help to bring them back. The best beers I've had in my lifetime have done that for me, and they've really made me stop for a moment and reflect on where I was and take it all in and to interrupt this desensitized mode that I might have been living in up to that point, and that's what I hope our beers can do for people."
Jester King Brewery is located at 13005 Fitzhugh Road, off of U.S. 290 W., about 18 miles west of Downtown Austin. The tasting room is open 4-10pm Friday, and noon-6pm Saturday and Sunday. They offer brewery tours at 6pm Friday, and at 1, 3, and 5pm on Saturday and Sunday.
See www.jesterkingbrewery.com for more info.
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