Last week I got back to the states to visit family and friends in Texas. However, I couldn’t get that close to one of my favourite places in the world, Jester King, without a visit. They really need no introduction but they are likely one of the biggest influences on me, creating the beer that got my whole Farmhouse addiction started: Noble King. I got in touch with them and asked if I could visit and work with them for a week. I was totally fascinated by their beers, some of the hype surrounding them and thought that over a week I might get even a slight insight into what makes them so special to so many. Luckily for me… and for you I guess, they said yes.
That week was eye-opening and I mark it as one of my most fortunate experiences ever. That being said, I didn’t get what I was initially looking for. When I went there I think I expected to gain knowledge about their brewing, fermentation and ageing processes. What I actually gained, and far better in my opinion, was the realisation that their beer is a true expression of the people there and their location. I learned something that I already knew but actually believed it this time: Farmhouse beer is about making the best of what you have. I am going to spend the majority of this article explaining this phrase in regards to JK but don’t let that fool you into thinking that their equipment is sub-par or any of their ingredients are less than exceptional because all of these things are perfect for their beer. Their specified approach to brewing solely Farmhouse ales has yielded fantastic results because of the people who make them and their in-depth knowledge of their process. There is nothing specifically special or unique about what they do, it’s simply what works best for them.
When I was homebrewing, my most frequent approach to recipe development was cloning. I thought if I could reproduce popular beers then I would be well on my way to understanding how to brew. While it wasn’t a mistaken path full-stop, looking back it greatly hindered my knowledge of my own process, my focus blotted out the periphery. Not only would I follow recipes meticulously matching water profiles and utilising hops from all around the world, but I also aligned my palette to what others had distinguished as ‘world-class’. It hit me from both sides eventually. I travelled back to the states on one occasion and got into a conversation with an American brewer who was using these new hops called galaxy. I had never heard of them, although I was living and home brewing in Australia. Likewise, when I drank my first saison I had this really guilty feeling about the fact that I preferred it’s much lighter flavours than the DIPA’s I was brewing. That was when I realised I didn’t really like getting punched in the mouth with hops, pretty much thinking ‘I like craft beer’ and ‘this is the best craft beer’ so ‘I guess I like really hoppy beers’ in that order. The fact was that I had valued exterior consensus over internal observation. Making Farmhouse beer, and certainly in Jester King’s case, is more a practice of searching within, quite literally an in-sight, understanding what one has to offer before determining what one will make.
As I hinted before, the most overwhelming part of my time there was how each individual at the brewery had an impact on their final product. I am going to share a few stories of exchanges I had with some people I am now lucky to call my friends to help explain their influence.
My second day I was able to sit down with Jeff and Ron, two of the three owners, over an amazing pastrami at the nearby Pieous cafe (which is worth a visit in its own right). We got to speak at length about some of their early and continual operational decisions. Two things stood out to me that are worth mentioning here. Firstly, their original steadfastness to make Farmhouse style ales regardless of the negativity they received when they decided not to open with an IPA and pale ale. They have been very vocal about this in the past; however, Ron shared a story of when they sold only eight pints of beer at a release party of the aptly named Commercial Suicide that he and partner Amber were at when the brewery just opened. Ron confirmed that he and Amber we responsible for at least five of them… after all, those are the beers they love. However, they did tell me that although early on they felt the need to force carbonate a few of their beers, they wouldn’t do that again. Secondly, they have rarely ever hired from the brewing industry. The staff at Jester King instead come from diverse backgrounds that share input from their respective pasts encouraging a range of approaches for solving problems. The entire staff there are also, by the way, incredibly good people. But I think this was important for me to recognise, as again they didn’t cherrypick the most qualified, ‘best’, staff in the world; instead, promoted some talented individuals from their community and encouraged them to thrive in their own environment.
I also got to spend some of time with Ismael, one of their brewers, who has been with Jester King from the very beginning. Ismael had help build the brewery, literally, and when they finished he joined the staff. He told me stories of hand labelling bottles five days a week for two years. If you have been with a small brewery at the beginning, I’m sure you can relate to his experiences. Thankfully for Ismael, there is now a small production staff who works through those mountains of pallets. These days he helps with everything, he’s a surgeon with a forklift and always the first to offer someone a hand. As Garrett, head brewer, said, he is the glue that keeps the place together. However as well I got to taste a test batch of a beer he is working on that mimics some of the flavours of dishes he misses from Dia de los Muertos festivities. When he was describing some of these foods, I was salivating and honestly can’t wait to hear how they eventually turn out. Just think of Ismael though if you ever had a Jester King beer from their first two years or get a chance to visit their brewery. While his influence isn’t per-say direct he is an integral part of making that place run and a great example of Jester King’s diverse workforce.
On another afternoon, I started taking to Ian, one of their brewery engineers. He had been testing the PID controllers for the fermentors all day and as a trained physicist I was really impressed with his electric acumen. Turns out that I had no idea what I was talking about compared to him or how incredible their entire engineering staff is. Michael, the third in the trio of owners, also studied physics but when he decided to leave his investment banking job to help his brother Jeff start the brewery invested a ton of time reading industrial engineering books. He then proceeded, with the help of Ismael, to build Jester King. Not just the building though, all the plumbing and electrical too. Along the way he has enlisted a small team of engineers, of which Ian is one, to help him with these projects. Ian walked me around and showed me all of the things they had completed, were working on or designing. I was floored, honestly, at how much was done in-house. The boiler water treatment, pumps, glycol chiller, old and new coolship, stainless steel sanitary welding, brewhouse plumbing and electrics, new barrel room, structures for new fermentors, the list of things that they have done or are planning is exhaustive. One of the really cool things they are working on is an upgrade of the brewhouse. Ian and Michael have been sitting down with the brewing team and designing their new brewhouse plumbing and pumps to exactly what they want. At the time we were talking, Ian was having a hard time trying to find manual controls for the new hot/cold liquor mixer which regulates the temperature of the strike and sparge water. Automatic ones would be much easier to find but Garrett insisted on manual ones so that he can make mistakes. Their homegrown approach might seem to slow them down but they have a distinct advantage when something breaks or goes wrong. I heard more than a few stories of overnight or hour-long fixes that could have spelled disaster for other places. Thanks to this team, Jester King is more than a little rustic but I truly believe that’s a benefit for its beers.
I could go on for some time about the things I learned from them; but, so many times the explanation for doing things this way or that was either the nuances of their equipment or that was just how they knew to do it from their background. That was really what I took away and caused me to pause the most about my own brewing. How many times did I brew without the capabilities of my system in mind or trust the advice of another over my own intuition. Bad practice is a real thing in brewing, but you can’t use them for long because they yield poor results. Honestly, once you understand the basics of brewing, the techniques for any multitude of things are as varied as the brewers that make them. For any homebrewers reading this, if there is honestly something you want to know by all means email me, or the great people at Jester King for that matter, there are really no secrets. However, once you get the basics down, trust your instincts.
I wonder how many people are chasing something they may not even desire. I think in all craft it should ring true that your product is primarily an extension of the people involved in its making. But all of this boils down to my first post about what Farmhouse brewing really is, what the term really means. Maybe it is just a nomenclature problem; but, after this past week I’m convinced it’s a philosophical problem and Farmhouse beer really has substance greater than the sum of its parts endowed by the people who make it.
I need to add a huge thanks to all the staff at Jester King who welcomed me during the visit! I can’t wait to be back and see what y’all do next!