Who: Jeff Stuffings and Michael Steffing
What: Founders of Jester King
Where: Austin, Texas
Craft beer might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Texas, but a few new upstart breweries near Austin are trying to change that. One of those breweries is Jester King, an authentic farmhouse brewery nestled along the open landscape of Texas Hill Country. By incorporating wild yeast and interesting techniques (barrel aging, natural carbonation) Jester King is elevating beer into something truly special. Join me for a behind-the-scenes Maker Tour of the facilities where all the magic happens.
Brothers Jeff Stuffings and Michael Steffing make up Jester King, along with fellow brew connoisseurs Ron Extract and Jordan Keeper and aesthetics director Josh Cockrell. They've chosen to embrace the oldest styling of brewing, a farmhouse method that is less structured and more unpredictable than its monastic counterpart. Because farmhouse yeast is more delicate and sensitive to its environment, this method requires more patience and intimacy with the process than most breweries may be comfortable with. The extra work, however, produces something much more crafted and unique, bringing forth flavor complexity and depth that you can taste.
The Jester King brewery is a mix of rustic charm and industrial minimalism, the hillside landscape serving as a beautiful, yet contrasting, backdrop to the shimmering steel fermentation vessels that lie inside the farmhouse structure. When you step inside and breathe in the open air you get the sense that not only is beer made here, but great beer is made here.
The process of making beer at Jester King starts with milling grains in a back room to prevent dust from entering the main brewing facilities. From here things are piped up to a hopper where they are dropped into a mash tun. The milled and malted grains are allowed to steep in warm water then mixed to an oatmeal-like consistency as the starches break down into sugars.
The mixture is then filtered and pumped into the adjacent brew kettle, where it is brought up to a boil. Hops are added to make beer, contributing wafts of aromatics and notes of bitterness that contrast against the sweetness of the malt. Jester King does two hop additions to preserve those aromatic qualities: one at the beginning of the boil and the other just before the wort is pulled from the kettle. The clear wort is extracted delicately with a heat exchanger that chills it slowly as to not kill the farmhouse yeast in the large stainless steel fermentation vessels.
In these vessels most of the fermentation takes place within the first 48 hours, and if Jester King was focused on speed they could go from kettle to beer glass in the span of a week. But at Jester King complexity and sophistication reign supreme, so beer ferments for 3-5 weeks to complete dryness. Sometimes a third batch of hops are added to the vessels to introduce yet another layer of aromatics. Beer isn't force carbonated either, but instead gets bottled and packaged with sugar so that the natural fermentation process of sugar breaking down to alcohol and CO2 gets trapped in the bottle for natural carbonation.
Some beer is destined for even greater refinement inside their barrel room where it's aged in distillery casks. Jester King mixes together beers with different flavor profiles to create ones that hold the tasting notes they're looking for. Since each barrel is unique, with its own traits, Jordan has developed a notation system to mark up and identify the beers and characteristics inside each particular cask. Their sour beer is crafted in a minimum 6 month process: one month in the tank, two to three months in a barrel, then another two to three months in the bottle. All beer batches are conditioned and tasted before leaving the site, and if things don't meet their quality standards they are dumped and the process starts over.
The Secret Sauce
Jester King succeeds because the people behind it are only concerned with making the best beer possible. They have their eyes set on creating world-class beer and they let that end goal guide their decisions and growth. It's the reason they embraced the farmhouse brewing method and it's also why they barrel age their beers and don't force carbonate. They would argue that all these things introduce subtle complexities into the beer that they appreciate.
When crafting the recipes everything is done small scale, with test batches literally starting in a 5-gallon barrel until perfected. Things are then scaled up and tweaked for brewing in the 30 barrel (900 gallon) fermentation vessels before being finalized for brewing in the 60 barrel (1800 gallon) vessels. Everything takes time, but the people behind it are patient so that you can taste the hard work and development in every bottle you open.
The Business Plan
Unsatisfied with his day-to-day life at a law firm, Jeff Stuffings approached his brother Michael about plans to start a craft brewery in the Texas Hill Country. The plan was to create true farmhouse ales—ales rarely made in the world and even more rarely made in the States. Michael was feeling similarly unfulfilled in his career and got fully behind this idea.
Jeff wrote up a huge, detailed document hundreds of pages thick with precise detail on the equipment they needed to buy, the people they needed to hire, and the manufacturing and distribution contacts they needed to make. They gathered money from friends and investors and built up a small team of knowledgeable brewers who shared the same passion and taste for the delicate flavors of craft beer. Jester King truly is hand-made, as Michael and Jeff moved a farmhouse from Victoria, Texas and built it together by hand in the plot of land they acquired. They recall a time when the fermentation vessels were in place, and the building was just a framed roof without walls. They could see the sun set along the horizon of the country hillside while working with the equipment and perfecting their brewing method. Something extraordinary was surely in the making.
The folks at Jester King mentioned that they couldn't have gotten where they are now without the help from the brewing community, and local breweries such as Real Ale and (512). When they had questions or concerns, these breweries offered their advice and sometimes even their time to help Jester King get off the ground. It's this embracing, non-competitive culture that helps local businesses thrive in Austin, and it's the type of fellowship and community that you sense when you talk to the makers of a particular food or beverage.
Jester King now works with hopeful upstart breweries in the same manner as those that helped them. Noting that if they all make great beer then perhaps collectively they transform Texas into a craft beer destination, and that's something that'll benefit everyone. Jester King also holds family-friendly tasting tours on the weekends. The tour includes a souvenir glass, a chance to sample some of the beers, and a few moments to enjoy the beautiful farmland the brewery is set on. Food trucks, bean bag toss, community benches, and fresh open air ensure that it's a fun experience for everyone. Just as you can see the fingerprints of these fine gentlemen on every hand bottled beer that you buy at the store, they're leaving their imprint on the Austin community as well.
6 Quick Questions for Michael Steffing
Favorite online resources for your kitchen?
Smitten Kitchen, Simply Reciples, Online Stopwatch
The one thing you can't live without
If you could spend a day with anyone, who would it be and why?
Jacques Pépin for being (on TV at least) so calm and welcoming.
What's in your Google Reader?
The Epicurean Dealmaker
Stuff Parisians like by O Chateau
The Mad Fermentationist
Sky Full of Bacon
If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it?
Buy a bottling line so we don't have to fill and label our bottles by hand.
What is your favorite thing to eat with beer?
Thanks Jeff, Michael, Ron, Jordan, and Josh!
Related: A Visit with Colin Howard of House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Oregon
(Images: Chris Perez)