When we, at Jester King, talk about “farmhouse brewing”, we’re thinking about the processes that are used by a handful of small, rustic breweries in southern Belgium and northern France. Many of these are on actual working farms. Others may be in less pastoral settings. Either way, a common thread that links all of them and that has been a huge inspiration behind what we’re trying to do is that each of these breweries has its own distinctive house character that can be found throughout the various beers that it brews.
Part of this may be derived from variations in individual breweries’ setups and processes, but a much larger part often comes from multiple strains of yeasts working together with a harmony and balance that’s unique to the microclimate of a given brewery and that would change significantly if that same group or yeasts were ever transplanted anywhere else. This is in contrast to most New World breweries, which tend to use different varieties of single strain, laboratory yeasts, depending on what kind of beer they want to make, with each individual fermentation taking place within its own isolated environment. Whereas some brewers strive to control everything, and see the slightest variation as the sign of a problem, farmhouse brewers tend to embrace nature as part of their process, accepting and in many cases delighting in the idiosyncrasies that this approach can bring. An even more extreme example of this attitude can be found among the handful of Belgian brewers (and blenders) who still make authentic, 100% spontaneously fermenting lambic.
The most common association with the term “lambic”, if there is one, tends to be with very sweet, fruity, brightly-colored, wine-cooler-like beverages that sometimes bear that name, but have little if anything to do with the traditional product. Unfortunately, you won’t find the real stuff in Texas because the handful of artisan producers that still make it don’t make nearly enough to justify paying the $4000-$6000 in biannual licensing fees that it would cost them to sell it here (not to mention the cost of printing special labels). More on that topic another day.
Much like traditional sourdough bread, real lambic doesn’t rely on added yeast, but instead ferments using the naturally occurring organisms in the atmosphere. Airborne microorganisms are everywhere, and in many cases, they have been great allies to mankind. Among other things, they’ve given us beer, wine, cider, cheese, yogurt, bread, pickles and penicillin. On the other hand, they also cause our milk to sour, our fruit to rot, our bread to mold, our beloved beverages to turn to vinegar. Whether their impact is positive or negative depends not only on which specific organisms we’re talking about, but also the conditions under which they’re acting and the nature of the substance that they’re acting upon. Wort left to cool in the autumn air of Belgium’s Zenne Valley can serve as the ideal growth medium for a cadre of wild yeast and bacteria that, under the right conditions, can transform that wort into some the world’s most complex, flavorful beer. Normally, those conditions involve aging from 1-3 years in oak barrels, with beer of different ages getting blended to taste and sometimes serving as the base for the additional of local cherries, raspberries, or apricots, which are also allowed to ferment to dryness, adding yet another layer of aromatic complexity. Sadly, not all barrels will enjoy such a noble destiny; some of their beer will simply never be suitable to drink in any form. Embracing nature means embracing a certain degree of risk, and not every risk is going to pay off.
We’re not brewing lambics at Jester King (at least not yet), but the process that we’re using for the production of our farmhouse ales involves inviting nature into our brewery and allowing it to run its course. After a controlled primary fermentation with “French saison” yeast, the beer is transferred to barrels, some of which are inoculated with different strains of brettanomyces, including the strains that we were able to isolate several months ago in our coolship experiment. Others receive a dosing of lactobacillus or pediococcus, while still others are left to mature without any secondary additions. Periodically, we sample each cask to determine whether it’s ready for blending, needs more aging, or, in some cases, needs to be considered a failed experiment. To be perfectly candid, our first few experiments yielded beer that we didn’t feel was going in the direction that we wanted and that we ultimately decided not to save.
The Boxer’s Revenge that we served at the Grand Opening party, and then again at a few odd events over the course of the last couple of months, was the first batch that we felt had truly begun to showcase the flavor characteristics that we were looking for. Even that beer, though, was more of a prototype than a finished product, as it involved the blending of barrels that were all filled from the same batch at the same time. We ultimately plan to integrate components of different ages and different treatments, in order to achieve greater complexity overall. As we continue to brew, we’ll start inoculating barrels with our favorite blends, in hopes that the various organisms involved will eventually take hold on their own and achieve a stable equilibrium.
We’ve now brewed several batches each of Boxer’s Revenge and Das Wunderkind!, which are currently aging in our barrel room. Every time the primary yeast is ready to pitch, we brew another batch, and once we’re able to free up the fermentation capacity to do so, we plan to double that pace. If all goes well, we may be able to start blending and kegging some of these beers some time in the next few months, and maybe bottling by late summer/early fall. Then again, it may take longer. As we’ve said all along, these beers need to tell us when they’re ready, and until the message comes through loud and clear, we make no guarantees.