Austin’s Jester King Brewery announced in early January that it had purchased 58 acres of Texas Hill Country surrounding its current location from the brewery’s landlord, and planned to begin ambitious project including farming, wine making and even a restaurant. Unsurprisingly, founder Jeffrey Stuffing has been busy since then. We caught up by phone to discuss what the land purchase means for his beer and the farmhouse brewery’s future.
DRAFT: How did this purchase come about?
Stuffings: I got a call out of the blue in 2009, when I was looking for a place to start Jester King, from a rancher: “How would you like to build your brewery out on my ranch?” That was about six years ago. Last year, our landlord came to us and said “I’m looking to sell off a portion of my ranch. Are you interested in buying it?” It never occured to us that buying a big parcel of land would be something we’d do, but we figured if we didn’t do it, who might buy it and what might they do with it? Secondarily, something we did have interest in long-term is getting into agriculture and livestock and farming.
What does the land look like now?
It’s mainly open, and there’s a fair amount of live oak trees.
What’s going to be the biggest challenge with this purchase?
I think it’s twofold: One, just finding the money, frankly. After having now bought the land, we’ve had a number of farmers approaching us. It’s been cool to get talented, experienced resumes but, well, we don’t really have a budget to hire a farmer. That’ll solve itself over the long term as we can find money to start farming. Since buying the land wasn’t really something we’d planned on, we burned through a lot of our dry powder financially. The other challenge, as I see it, is just our climate; it’s variable. There is a good track record here for fruit, especially grapes and peaches, but we’ll see what nature will allow and what it won’t. We’re cautiously optimistic for growing some, if not all, of our own grains. There’s a good track record for wheat but not for barley, and a very poor to non-existent track record for hops. Fruits, spices, herbs, vegetables are something we can definitley make. We’ll let the seasons dictate what we make; we’re under no pressure to consistently pump out a flagship beer or anything.
Philosophically, why was it important to do this as a farmhouse brewery?
Being a real farmhouse brewery to us means making beer with a sense of place, unique to a location and time that would not exist but for being made at that place, where the flavors and aromas are directly tied to the land around us. The rise of pure culture and fermentation has made making very consistent beer anywhere attainable, and there are lots of positive associated with that, but negatives to us would be that uniqueness has been slightly diminished along the way. Right now, beer with a sense of place really stems from our microflora and well water; we use locally malted grains, however, at this time, barley is not grown in Texas. It’s grown in Colorado and malted in Texas. It’s a really high quality product but hopefully going forward, we’re growing more of our own raw ingredients.
Can people really taste locally grown grain in a beer?
I think we’ll find out. There are so many variables at play given the weather, the process. I do feel strongly that there are differences. I think there will be much more individualty. You can get grain form the big malt houses in the Pacific Northwest or the UK or Germany, and its the same grain everyone is using; it’s really high quality but I think there is something to having something more small scale that has that randomness involved. It’s allowing natural variation to occur: the way microorganisms work with or against each other, or the way a sudden temperature rise or drop can affect fermentation. These are the variables outside of our control.
Someone once told us, and I think it’s really true: “I feel, with your beer, you’re not trying to be avant-garde or intentionally achieve odd results, but you’re trying to do the same thing twice with a rawness with your process that will naturally arrive at variation.” So I’ll quote him on that.
You mentioned an orchard and vineyard. Do you aspire to make wine and cider?
We do endeavor to make wine and perhaps cider. At this point, I think we’re a little more intent on making wine. My five- to ten-year vision is that we’re planning to plant about an acre of grapes this spring—Blanc du Bois, a white varietal, and Black Spanish, a red varietal—which tend to be hardy, thick-skinned grapes that can stand up to very hot summers and rocky soil. Our wine-making friends around us have said to expect three to five years for fruit that will be in good shape. My vision for Jester King is not to grow in terms of volume but to focus inward on a place where it’s this kind of really great spot for fermentation across both food and beverage.
I bet that will contribute pretty nicely to your native yeast.
We’ll see where that goes for sure. I certainly know our mixed culture was derived from fruits and berries, but now our spontaneous fermentations are inside of our barrel rooms. You hear the Belgian lambic blenders talk about the importance of the room itself and the microflora that exist on the plant life around the brewery. We will get a little window of insight this winter with a couple experiments we’ll do with our koelship, putting it out in the fields in a vineyard about half an hour away that supplies our grapes, and also out to an orchard that supplies our peaches and see what overnight inoculations will do in each place to the same base beer.
Any plans for bee keeping or pollinator work?
A friend of mine—from when I used to work at Austin Homebrew Work—does beekeeping. This is a thing we can start doing, using the land, breathing life into it and without a ton of money, having him set up some beekeeping here. So yes, that will practically be the first thing we do.
What sort of livestock are you looking into?
There’s a cheesemaker down the road from us, Pure Luck Farms. They’re starting to build a little brewpub out there and we’re trading notes right now, helping them with brewing and they’re helping us learn to raise goats and milk them and make goat cheese. We currently have horses and chicken and then we’re thinking cows and maybe pigs as well. We have a lot of land, but at the same time we do have a lot of neighbors. So we’ll see about the pigs.
Is the restaurant actively in the works or is it coming farther out?
That’s more in the long term. The restaurant, unlike the grapes which are kind of a crapshoot in terms of whether it’ll take, the restaurant can be more viable by the end of the decade. I have no restaurant experience, so I’ll have to find a good GM and really talented chef, but we’d be using the farming around us to make dishes that are very much of the land.