With defiantly local beer from the Texas Hill Country, Jester King is breaking all the rules
Jester King Craft Brewery isn’t trying to make it big. The outfit’s first beer, brewed in a barnlike former machine shop tucked in a holler in the Texas Hill Country, was a rich, dark, low-alcohol English mild—too malty for the Bud-swigging set, too weak for the snobs. The brewery called it Commercial Suicide. It failed.
Thankfully, Jester King didn’t, though it has remained anything but conventional. Its wild, funky beers are unique in even the snootiest beer towns, and unheard of in Texas. Jester King is an outsider. It always was.
In 2009, Jeff Stuffings left his law job in Austin, sweet-talked his brother, Michael, down from Chicago, and with home-brew-fueled visions of barrels and rubber boots aswirl in the dust, hit the road looking for land. He found a plot in wine country, about twenty miles southwest of town. When Ron Extract, a former beer importer, joined the team soon after, the Stuffings brothers drove him out to see the future. “We went through some cow gates, and Jeff and Michael pointed out to this pasture,” Extract says. “I was looking at a couple angry cows staring back at us. That’s it.” They broke ground in 2010 and sold their first beer that fall.
Texas is rough country for craft beer. The state’s arcane liquor laws stop many of the stronger European and American imports at the border, and shackle local beer makers with restrictions. Still, Texans drink. Twenty-four gallons of beer per person in 2010, to be exact, making it the sixteenth- thirstiest state. “If you wanted to come to Dallas, Houston, and Austin and visit fifty breweries, you could,” says Leslie Sprague of Open the Taps, a local advocacy group that, along with Jester King and a coterie of like-minded Texan brewers, has fought with some success against those old laws.
But while you could visit fifty breweries—even all seventy-one, statewide—you might get bored. That’s because most of them play it safe, taking their cues from the Anheuser-Busch plant in Houston, or MillerCoors in Fort Worth. “Some new breweries starting up feel like they have to come into the market with a standard lineup,” Sprague says. Which is exactly what folks told Extract. “The overwhelming advice we got was, if you’re starting a brewery in Texas, you need a blonde ale, a red ale, and a wheat,” he says. “But on the other hand, there are no preconceptions. In California, the expectation is for big, hoppy beers. Here, it’s a blank slate.”
Once Jester King decided to scrap the standard blonde-red-wheat lineup, it was in wide-open country. Extract and the Stuffingses brewed the beers they wanted to drink—rustic, barrel-aged farmhouse ales inspired by centuries-old Belgian tradition. Sure, they make Black Metal, a roasted, chocolaty imperial stout, and Noble King, a hopped-up pale ale, but even those more-common styles are warped into beers Extract calls, simply, “out there,” by a funky, peppery Belgian yeast.
And then there’s Jester King’s crown, the barrel room. About a quarter of its beer is fermented in its 250 barrels, not with traditional brewing yeast, but with a concoction of wild yeast and bacteria—some of it previously unidentified, Extract says—gathered from old barrels, the cider press down the road, and beer left on the brewery roof overnight, like a giant petri dish. Beers like Das Wunderkind! and Boxer’s Revenge are richly sour, earthy and dry, warming and tart, like cider and sharp cheese eaten at a picnic on a horse blanket.
No one else makes beer like this. “We want our beers to convey a sense of place, and that comes from our house yeast,” Extract explains. He calls it “Texas terroir.” “What’s happening in our barrel room is unique to our barrel room.”
Still, it takes a certain breed of faith (the might-be-crazy kind) to stake your future on wild bugs. “We were pretty concerned at first,” Extract admits. “But we brew what we like, and we feel that if we make top-quality beers, we’ll find an audience for them.” Sure enough, they have—Jester King is doubling production this year. They’ve opened the frontier, and drinkers are following, through the cow gates, over the hills, and way, way out there.
Two other Southern breweries pushing the beer boundaries
Three South Louisiana brothers make beer specifically geared toward Cajun cooking, like the biscuity Bière Pâle (think crawfish bisque) and the cherry-wood-smoked Boucanée (andouille gumbo). bayoutechebrewing.com
Cutting-edge even in craft beer–besotted North Carolina, Fullsteam uses local crops in “plow-to-pint” beers like a corn grits cream ale and—the standout—Carver, made with sweet potatoes. fullsteam.ag