Jester King Craft Brewery

All Jester King Beer Now Naturally Conditioned

Since we began brewing sixteen months ago, Jester King has produced only unfiltered, unpasteurized beer, and with our barrel program, we’ve actively explored the world beyond cultured brewers’ yeast. In addition, every bottle, cask and gravity keg we’ve ever filled has also been naturally conditioned, but, until recently, most of our kegs have been force carbonated. What that means is that instead of adding sugar to the beer at the time of kegging and allowing the yeast to consume that sugar slowly, producing carbon dioxide (CO2) and a small amount of alcohol, we’ve been carbonating the majority of our kegs by bubbling compressed CO2 into solution from a tank. As of last month, we no longer do any force carbonation. Everything we brew, whether in bottle, cask, gravity keg, or standard keg, is now 100% naturally conditioned.

Jester King Stillage and Firkin Hammer

There’s nothing wrong with force carbonation per se. Some of the best beers in the world are undoubtedly force carbonated. However, in our experience with our beer, we’re solidly convinced that natural conditioning results in better products. We’ve now done more comparisons than we can count between force carbonated and naturally conditioned versions of all of our beers, and we all consistently judge the naturally conditioned versions to be more flavorful, complex and interesting than their force carbonated counterparts.

So if we like the naturally conditioned versions of our beers better, why haven’t we been naturally conditioning all of our kegs from the start? Much as we hate to admit it, a big part of the answer is that we bowed to the pressures of efficiency, consistency, and marketability when it came to filling kegs. We knew by force carbonating our kegs we could have beer ready for market four to six weeks earlier and that, in most cases, that beer would pour well on virtually any draught system. Waiting an extra month or so to be able to sell kegs from each batch is a huge burden for a new, small brewery that’s trying to gain a foot hold in the market. It translates into less beer that’s available to sell each month, which means less money coming in, and also consumes a good deal more storage space. Force carbonation is also much more of a controlled process, allowing brewers to dial in carbonation levels with a precision that isn’t always possible when keg-conditioning. The stakes are simply higher by naturally conditioning because its easier to screw up a naturally occurring process played out over several weeks. If there’s a little too much sugar, the beer becomes too effervescent, pouring with more foam than is acceptable in bars where a high premium is placed on serving speed. If there’s too little sugar, patrons who are accustomed to fizzy, soda-pop-like beer will consider it flat. Like bottle-conditioned beers, keg-conditioned products also contain a natural sediment, which means the first pint poured from a given keg may look and taste somewhat different from the last. For an artisan brewer or artisan beer consumer, this doesn’t present a problem, but for certain draught accounts, it might. In the end, some establishments are certain to regard keg conditioned products as far more trouble than they’re worth, and others with particularly finicky draught systems simply may not be able to serve them at all.

As a young brewery in 2011, we felt compelled to force carbonate our kegged beer so it would be ready for market faster and accessible to more bars and restaurants. While this was not, by any means, the biggest offense that a new brewery could commit, and may well have been the right decision at the time, this tactic isn’t one that we look back on with favor, simply because we know now and probably knew then that it was not the method that would yield the best beer. We often describe ourselves as artisan brewers, but a big part of what that term means to us is taking the necessary time, expense and energy to make the best beer possible. If that means sitting on kegs for an extra month or two, if it costs an extra few thousand dollars per batch, if it involves tedious and inefficient production methods, so be it.

The pressure to give in to market demands can be incredibly strong, and perhaps if we hadn’t given into them to the extent that we did, we might not have had the opportunity to make some of the choices that we’ve made since. Whether we were right or wrong to make the compromises that we made is difficult to say, but what we can say is that as we’ve begun to mature as a brewery, we’ve gained the confidence to embrace more fully the artisan principles to which we aspire and that from this point on, when you drink beer from Jester King, whether on draught or from a bottle, you’ll know it’s unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally conditioned through refermentation in the vessel from which it’s dispensed. The old world method of priming the beer with sugar and letting the yeast work its magic over the course of several weeks may be slow and inefficient, but we’ll take slow and inefficient if the end result is beer we’re proud to brand as ours.