Jester King Brewery
Address: 13005 Fitzhugh Road, Building B, Austin, Texas 78736
Jester King Brewery was founded in 2010 by Jeff Stuffings and Michael Steffing on a 200-acre ranch in the Texas Hill Country. The brewery is deeply rooted in the principles of authenticity, terroir, and self-sufficiency. The widespread success of their mixed culture beers helped encourage the brewery to initiate a formal spontaneous beer program in 2013.
Jester King has released six spontaneous beers under the SPON brand, most notably SPON - Méthode Gueuze, a gueuze-inspired blend of one-, two-, and three-year old spontaneous beer, SPON – Raspberry & Cherry, a 3 Fonteinen Hommage-inspired blend of two-year-old spontaneous beer aged on Washington raspberries and Michigan cherries, and SPON – Peach & Apricot, a fruit lambic-inspired blend of two-year-old spontaneous beer aged on Texas peaches and California apricots.
Jester King brewed its first batch of spontaneous beer on February 26, 2013 but the spontaneous program has roots dating back to 2010. Not long after the brewery opened its doors, Stuffings was performing “coolship experiments” – small volume spontaneous inoculation on the rooftop of the brewery. The experiments were ultimately successful, resulting in wild yeast isolates for use in mixed culture beers. In 2012, Stuffings visited Brasserie Cantillon for the first time and was inspired by traditional Belgian lambic production to attempt spontaneous beer in Texas using a similar method.
The success of the early spontaneous batches gave Jester King confidence to rapidly grow their program. Today, the spontaneous beer program represents 5-6% of overall beer production (120-150 bbl annually). Stuffings is heavily inspired by traditional lambic producers such as Brasserie Cantillon, Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen, Brouwerij Girardin, and Brouwerij Oud Beersel. He is a spontaneous beer romantic, driven by the concept of producing beers uniquely tied to a time, place, and people, never to be recreated again.
In November 2016, Jester King released its first spontaneous beer; SPON - Méthode Gueuze. Four distinct blends were bottled, numbered, and released. With the release came an introduction to the controversial certification mark Méthode Gueuze. The mark was born out of Jester King's strong desire to inform customers of their use of the traditional Belgian gueuze method and dissatisfaction with simply calling the beer "spontaneous" or "coolship." During the struggle to find an appropriate name for the beer, Stuffings reach out to Jean Van Roy of Brasserie Cantillon, who ultimately suggested the term Méthode Gueuze. The use of the Méthode Gueuze certification mark is heavily debated among Belgian gueuze and American spontaneous beer producers.
Jester King has a strong desire to experiment with some future spontaneous beer batches, deviating from the traditional Belgian method, including the use of non-neutral barrels, new fruit combinations, single year cuvées, bière de coupage, soleras and things they haven’t even thought of yet.
The brewery is working towards becoming wholly self-sufficient, where all beer (and food) ingredients come directly from the brewery premises. Recent strides include the purchase and conversion of 58-acres to a working farm and the activation of a 78-kilowatt solar panel system that will allow the brewery to run off 100% solar power.
Brewing Spontaneous Beer
Due to the hot Austin, Texas climate, Jester King limits spontaneous brewing to only the winter season (January-February, sometimes December) for traditional batches. Brewers target an overnight temperature between 30-45°F, but even in the dead of winter, only one dozen nights may get cold enough for a spontaneous batch. For experimental batches, an immersion chiller, build within the coolship, allows use outside of the desirable temperature range.
Since 2014, Jester King has brewed a "momentum batch" at the onset of each coolship season. The batch is designed to wake-up the spontaneous microflora now resident in the brewery. This was recommended by Allagash Brewing Company in 2013. The annual momentum batch receives a pitch of mixed cultures after coolship inoculation, and therefore is not released under the Jester King spontaneous beer brand.
The traditional grist is composed of 60% Pale Ale Malt (or sometimes Pilsner Malt) and 40% Unmalted Hard Red Winter Wheat, whereas experimental grist often includes adjuncts such as oats, spelt, and rye. Since 2016, most of their grain is locally-sourced through Austin-based Blacklands Malt. Jester King uses whole-leaf hops that have been aged onsite, in burlap bags in the attic of a horse barn, for several years. They do not have a preferred aged hop variety and much of their inventory comes from local breweries trying to rid themselves of "old" hops. Some of their oldest aged hop inventory is from 2008 or 2009. Jester King considers the cheesy, funky, and dirty sock aromas from aged hops highly desirable because Stuffings believes much of classic gueuze aroma can be attributed to aged hops. They also use raw well water for their spontaneous beers. The brewery is connected to an aquifer which pulls the water up through limestone, making it very hard and alkaline. Despite boiling the water before use, only some temporary hardness is precipitated out, leaving the water still quite hard.
A turbid mash is used for most of Jester King’s spontaneous beers. The mash schedule was adapted from Wild Brews and tailored to Jester King brewhouse specifications. It begins with a very dry initial mash-in (0.28 qt water/lb grain) for 10 minutes, followed by a 15 minute rest. More water is added, in steps, until a loose, wet mash-in is achieved (2.0 qt water/lb grain) with the goal of breaking down as much protein and beta glucan as possible. The sparge is performed at 190°F.
Jester King uses a straight-forward, extended four-hour boil. First-year spontaneous batches were hopped at 1.25-2.0 lb/gal and despite using aged hops, were still intensely bitter years later (laboratory measured 75-80 IBUs). The subsequent year, hopping rate was reduced to 0.5-0.75 lb/gal, but was perceived as being "maybe too low". In year three, Jester King increased hopping rate to 1.0 lb/gal. Today, the brewery finds 0.67 lb/gal as a "sweet spot", but varies hopping rates between 0.5-1.25 lb/gal throughout the season to have a variety of blending stock available.
After the boil concludes, the wort is whirlpooled for 20-30 minutes followed by a 30 minute rest, then transferred into the coolship. The original stainless steel coolship measured 18" deep and held 18-19 bbls. It resided in the Jester King barrel room and spontaneous inoculation was encouraged with open doors. Former head brewer, Garrett Crowell, believed the dense, mixed culture microflora living in the barrel room helped contribute to spontaneous beer inoculation. Current head brewer, Averie Swanson, believes the spontaneous beers are not influenced by the mixed culture microflora due to the remarkably different flavor profiles. In 2015, a new coolship was fabricated in-house, using a stainless steel frame and copper overlay (for better heat transfer properties). It measures 16' x 7' x 1.5' and holds 30 bbls. Special attention was paid to the surface area to volume ratio - Jester King wanted a broad design to maximize surface area. The coolship also features a stainless steel hop basket and copper immersion chiller. The latter is reserved for experimental batches only, and has only been used approximately four times through 2017. When in use, the immersion chiller circulates water at 5 L/min, which helps mimic the traditional cooling rate in warmer temperatures. To help establish the native microflora, oak paneling was installed around and above the coolship, which resides in the loft/mezzanine of the barrel room. Spontaneous inoculation is encouraged by open windows/doors and fans in the barrel room.
The wort is remains in the coolship for 12 hours, overnight. Typically by 7AM the next morning, the wort has cooled to its target temperature of 70°F, though overnight wind and humidity can impact this usual timeline. The cooled wort is transferred into a stainless steel cylindro-conical tank and recirculated for one hour to achieve microflora homogenization. This step was instituted after the first year, when brewers saw significant (one month) fermentation lag time among barrels, due to transferring non-homogenized wort directly to barrels.
Fermenting Spontaneous Beer
Jester King prefers neutral French or Hungarian oak puncheons (400-600 L) to ferment spontaneous beer. The large format barrels are used specifically for spontaneous beers to reduce overall oak character by minimizing the beer surface area in contact with the barrel. Despite the use of puncheons, oak character is present in the final beer at greater levels than traditional lambic, as perceived by Jean Van Roy and Yvan de Baets. In preparation for fermentation, the puncheons are vigorously rinsed then steamed for 5-10 minutes each to inhibit microbes in the wood. Brewers adamantly believe that the microbes in the wort out-compete anything remaining in the puncheon. The puncheons are reused indefinitely, even if they have off-flavors, unless they exhibit acetic acid. The puncheons are pyramid stacked, requiring in-place cleaning and filling.
Puncheons are filled with homogenized wort and left unbunged for the first two weeks during primary fermentation. Jester King typically sees visible signs of fermentation after 2-4 days, but some batches have needed upwards of 1-2 months. Some puncheons even undergo multiple rounds of high krausen. The krausen that forms on the exterior of the barrels is left to dry and not cleaned to further promote microflora incorporation into the barrel room. Once bunged, brewers taste the spontaneous beer for the first time. Often, this initial sample is extremely bitter and astringent with a grain/corn flavor. After 1-2 months, the bitterness and astringency begin to fade, allowing brewers to screen for off-flavors, despite the beer still being "rough". Common off-flavors include butyric acid (vomit), acetic acid (vinegar), isovaleric acid (stale cheese), wet dog (musty), or mud/swamp. Approximately one in four barrels requires dumping due to off-flavors. Beers that do not develop a significant off-flavor eventually develop lemon, hay, and Brettanomyces qualities within the first year.
Most puncheons demonstrate one of five characteristics; acidity, bitterness, sweetness, body, and oak. Acid barrels either have a soft lactic or intense citric/acetic acid quality. Bitterness varies with hopping rates, but lab samples report 30-40 IBUs. Sweetness can be due to residual sugars or perceived sweetness via esters. Body can vary between full and very thin (like an ice cube). And oak character varies by barrel.
In general, the Jester King spontaneous beers feature stone fruit characteristics; peach, apricot, mango, and pineapple.
Adding Secondary Ingredients to Spontaneous Beer
Stuffings believes that beer fermented with fruit is greater than the sum of its parts, unlike beer with fruit concentrate or fruit added after pasteurization.
Jester King prefers local fruit for use in its spontaneous beers, such as fresh Texas blueberries, dragonfruit, peaches, and wine grapes. Fresh California apricots, frozen Washington raspberries and frozen Michigan cherries have also been used when Texas fruit is not available. Fresh fruit is cut, pits are removed, and the flesh is blended. Frozen fruit, used for structural integrity and convenience, is added as-is. To highlight the qualities of the fruit, between 3-5 lb/gal is used in the spontaneous beer. The fruit is first added to a stainless steel conical fermenter then beer is racked on top. The beer is recirculated and the fruit is punched-down to keep it in solution to continue flavor/aroma extraction. Occasionally, a oak foeder is used instead of a fermenter, in which case only the punchdown method is used.
To date, at least two fruits have been featured in each Jester King fruited spontaneous beer as a way to layer flavor. For SPON - Peach & Apricot, 18-26 month-old beer was blended then transferred onto fruit for one month before bottling.
Jester King has also experimented with adding grapefruit zest and juice directly to the coolship.
Packaging Spontaneous Beer
Jester King has adopted a sensory-driven approach to spontaneous beer blending. They utilize acidity as a way to achieve overall balance and to harness softness, brightness, and drinkability in the blend. Interestingly, Jester King does not monitor pH during fermentation since they do not have an in-house laboratory, thus pH readings are performed by an outside lab at packaging. Blenders avoid acetic acid in the blend at all costs. Jester King intentionally brews various recipes to have a variety of blending stock with different character.
Blend percentage varies among the different spontaneour beers. For example:
- SPON - Méthode Gueuze is a blend of 60% one-year-old, 30% two-year-old, and 10% three-year-old batches to create a final product with an average age of 18-months.
- SPON - Peach & Apricot is a blend of 25% one-year old and 75% two-year-old batches.
- SPON - Raspberry & Cherry is a blend of 100% two-year-old batches.
Jester King believes bottle conditioning is critical to spontaneous beer. They believe that extended maturation in the bottle can create beautiful, integrated flavors and aromas.
The spontaneous beers are hand-packaged in 375ml and 750ml champagne bottles, corked with natural Portuguese corks, and finished with a crown cap. Green bottles are preferred due to Stuffing's love of slightly light struck beer character. Some spontaneous beer is also packaged in large formats, including 1.5 L magnums, stainless steel kegs, and one-way kegs.
For carbonation, Jester King originally experimented with blending in young spontaneous beer (as is done with gueuze), but bottles did not carbonate in a reasonable amount of time. They also experimented with dextrose, dosing at different amounts to monitor carbonation progress. Ultimately, they settled on 5.5 g dextrose per 750 ml bottle, added at packaging without yeast. Similarly, Jester King compared the impact of vertical and horizontal bottle conditioning. They found that horizontal conditioning provides an enhanced texture, softer carbonation, and creamier mouthfeel.
Bottles are conditioned at 70°F for several months then moved to 60°F. Jester King sees desirable carbonation in 4-6 weeks, however flavor integration requires many months. Bottles are conditioned for 6-12 months prior to release.
Three phenomenons occur (besides carbonation) during bottle conditioning; acidity increases, bitterness softens, and Brettanomyces character becomes more evident. Blenders plan ahead for these changes by creating a more mellow initial blend. 
Jester King produces a variety of spontaneous beers under the SPON brand, including:
- SPON - Méthode Gueuze - a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old spontaneous beer made using the traditional method of authentic Belgian gueuze
- SPON - Albariño & Blanc du Bois - a blend of two-year-old spontaneous beer refermented with Texas Albariño and Blanc du Bois grapes
- SPON - Blueberry & Pitaya - a blend of two-year-old spontaneous beer refermented with Texas blueberries and pitaya (dragonfruit)
- SPON - Peach & Apricot - a blend of one- and two-year-old spontaneous beer refermented with Texas peaches and California apricots
- SPON - Raspberry & Cherry - a blend of two-year-old spontaneous beer refermented with Washington raspberries and Michigan cherries
- SPON - Flor - a blend of two-year-old spontaneous beer featuring (suspected) Oloroso sherry flor character
- A. Swanson, Knocking Out Into a Coolship - An Overview of Spontaneous Fermentation at Jester King: American Homebrewers Association, 2017