As I sat down beside Jeffrey Stuffings, the founder of Jester King Brewery, in Austin, I noticed he was covered in grass clippings. Apparently I had interrupted the weed whacking he was doing in the surrounding fields to prepare for the customers who would line up that afternoon, awaiting the release of the brewery’s über-popular seasonal raspberry sour beer, Atrial Rubicite. But I hadn’t come to talk to him about that but about something else entirely: Jester King’s obsession with spontaneous fermentation, a brewing technique developed in Brussels and the Pajottenland region of Belgium. Spontaneously fermented beer begins with all the normal ingredients—grains, hot water, hops—except the active one: yeast. The brew is left exposed overnight, allowing it to be fermented instead by the natural bacteria and yeast in the air, which continue to live in the beer as it ages in the barrels. Jester King is currently the only brewery in Texas—and one of only a handful in the country—brewing with this method.
Aaron Chamberlain: You began your spontaneous brewing project in 2013. Why did you choose to brew this way?
Jeffrey Stuffings: To capture our environment. Through modern practices and procedures you can practically make a beer taste more or less the same anywhere on earth. When we travel, it can be a minor frustration that we have beers that taste exactly like another brewery’s. Our aspiration is to add something meaningful to the beer world—something that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Spontaneous fermentation with as many native ingredients as possible is the way to go about that.
AC: Can you briefly describe your process of brewing these beers?
JS: We take a very traditional approach. It involves a grist [a combination of milled grains] of 60 percent malted barley and 40 percent raw wheat. We do a turbid mash [a mix of hot water and grains that creates a complex “wort” of sugars, starches, and proteins, which provides nutrients for the yeasts and bacteria that will slowly ferment the beer over a very long period of time]. It involves a number of temperature rests and transferring the wort back and forth from the kettle [a brewing vessel where the wort is boiled] to our mash tun [a vessel where grist is soaked and heated to convert starches to sugar], manipulating some very under-modified grains, and then the wort is boiled for 240 minutes. We add aged hops that have spent quite a lot of time drying; we put ours in burlap bags and keep them in the attic of a horse barn, and they get wilted, oxidized, and funky. Historically this was to harness the preservative qualities of the hops without having a whole lot of bitterness, as the bitterness drops out in the aging process. After the boil, we knock out the wort to our coolship [an open, flat cooling vessel]. Ours holds eighteen barrels’ worth of wort and is eight-foot-by-ten-foot stainless steel—basically a shallow pan.
AC: When do you do this?
JS: Our coolship season is December through February. We wait for a really cold night of the year, when overnight lows drop into the low 30’s, which serves to chill the wort and also to eliminate some of the thermobacteria and other harmful microorganisms that could lead the beer to go bad. We do not touch the wort until it cools overnight to 60 degrees. We get nice airflow through the room to bring in microflora from the outside. It falls into the wort and inoculates the beer. Then, the next morning, we pump the mixture into large oak casks that are about four hundred to six hundred liters. The beer slowly ferments spontaneously. Another important ingredient is well water, untreated and unfiltered right from the Trinity Aquifer beneath our feet. Well water, Texas grains, old hops from our barn, and native microflora are used to make something unique to this part of the Hill Country.
AC: How long is the aging process once the beer is transferred to the oak casks?
JS: It varies. We have tasted some of our spontaneously fermented beer and thought it could be worthy of blending after just six months. Typically, to achieve a beautiful, highly complex beer, you have to have a large stock that can develop across multiple years. That’s why we have been patient: wait and attain. This winter we will have three-year-old, two-year-old, and one-year-old spontaneously fermented beer that we can start blending.
AC: You were inspired by Cantillon Brewery, in Brussels. Who were your other inspirations for using this brewing technique?
JS: Yeah, number one would be Cantillon. Up there as well is 3 Fonteinen, Oud Beersel, and a new blender, Tilquin, also right outside Brussels. And then domestically, Allagash, in Portland, Maine, has made some impressive spontaneously fermented beer.
We are careful to refer to Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen, and Oud Beersel’s [spontaneously fermented] beers as “lambic,” because it’s a geographic term. There is no legal protection like there is with champagne, but we have heard Jean van Roy, the owner of Cantillon, whom we respect immensely, say, “I’d rather not have American brewers call their beer lambic, because it refers to our region of the world.”
And what’s the point of trying to make something that tastes exactly like that part of the world? At Jester King, we are trying to represent what’s here in this part of Texas. For that reason we have never tried to rip off their names.
AC: What styles of beers will come out of this project? Will you start with a gueuze-style, a straight blend of younger and older barrels? Will you be using fruit?
JS: Just as we are hesitant to use the term “lambic,” we would say the same thing for “gueuze.” The first blend we make and release will be a straight, unfruited, spontaneously fermented beer, so people can hopefully enjoy and learn what a native fermentation is like at this particular location. And that is not to say it will be the same down the road. We will eventually do fruit re-fermentations as well.
AC: Do you think your first spontaneous fermentation blends will be available in bottles in 2016?
JS: I anticipate that, but there are no guarantees. What we are tasting in the barrels is really great. We are excited about the way it has fermented. We think we should be able to blend and bottle this winter. Unknown is how long we want to allow it to mature in the bottle. It might be ready around summer of next year.
AC: What Jester King beer should we be drinking in the meantime?
JS: Le Petit Prince, a simple farmhouse table beer.