Jester King Craft Brewery

Our Third Coolship Season Begins

Wort brewed on January 12, 2015 rests in our coolship as our third season begins

Yesterday we began our third season of making 100% spontaneously fermented beer. We first started this method of beer making in during the winter of 2013 and continued to do so during the winter of 2014. The winter of 2015 marks our third season to date.

Making 100% spontaneously fermented beer involves chilling unfermented beer or wort overnight in our coolship and allowing it to become inoculated with the wild yeast and bacteria that naturally exists in the night air. By doing this, the wort ferments “spontaneously” without us as brewers physically adding any yeast or other microorganisms to the wort.

The world around us is teeming with microorganisms capable of fermenting sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Historically, all beer, as well as wine and other forms of alcoholic beverages, would have fermented spontaneously using just the yeast that’s in the air. As science and technology progressed over the centuries leading all the way up to present day, brewers were able to isolate pure cultures of yeast that were good at converting sugars into alcohol in a fast, efficient, consistent, and predictable manner. These pure cultures became known as “brewer’s yeast”, which is used to ferment the vast majority of beer made today. Most commercial brewers will purchase a single strain of yeast from a laboratory and conduct an isolated fermentation in a closed vessel where the brewer’s yeast dominates.

This makes a lot of sense from the perspective of running a brewery. You want to know how long it’s going to take to make the beer and exactly what it’s going to taste like when it’s finished, so you can move on to the next batch and keep your distributors and customers happy. But when fermentation is opened up to nature, as it is with our spontaneously fermented beer, the results become a lot less predictable. We don’t know which microorganisms will dominate and which will play a secondary role. We don’t know how long fermentation will take, nor how the finished beer is going to smell or taste. Often, various mircoorganisms in the fermentation do not start to really shine until much later on when most of the sugars in the wort have already been consumed. Therefore, out of necessity, we have to be patient and not give the beer any set amount of time to ferment. We allow the beer to sit in oak barrels for years to slowly ferment until we eventually decide if it’s any good. Inevitably, some of the beer will be bad and will go down the drain.

Arguably, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. The time and space at our brewery used to make 100% spontaneously fermented beer could be devoted to making some really tasty beer in just a few weeks time using brewer’s yeast. But the downside of this, in our opinion, is that this beer will taste very similar to a lot of other beer that’s out there, could be replicated in most places on earth, and is unlikely to contribute in a meaningful way to the world of beer. Our guiding principle here at Jester King is to encapsulate the land around us through beer making, so that our beer takes on a sense of place unique to the Texas Hill Country. We want to make something that’s unique to our small corner of the earth and can be shared as a representation of our locale. Making 100% spontaneously fermented beer is the best avenue we know of to achieve this goal.

Along those lines, our 100% spontaneously fermented beer is made with raw, unfiltered, untreated well water from the Trinity Acquifer, which is the water source for much of the Texas Hill Country. Our well is about 750 feet deep and draws water from mineral rich limestone. We use grains, including Texas-grown wheat, that we get from our local maltster, Blacklands Malt, in Leander. We use hops that have spent over two years aging in burlap bags in the attic of a horse barn near Jester King, and finally, we use native microorganisms captured from the night air at the brewery to ferment the wort. To us, this is the ultimate way of making beer with a sense of place, and we continue to be willing to go through the time, expense, and setbacks involved in seeing it to fruition.

As far as our progress to date, we do not anticipate blending and packaging our 100% spontaneously fermented beer until this season’s beer has had about a year to ferment. At that point, depending on how things progress, we may have a nice diversity of stock spanning all of 2013 to 2015 from which to blend. Unless we don’t! In that case, we’ll remain patient and continue to allow the beer to slowly ferment in oak barrels until it’s ready.

One thing that’s new for the 2015 season is that we plan to begin experimenting with spontaneously fermented beer that’s less traditional. We’re in the process of working on new recipes that depart from the traditional wort made from a turbid mash of 60% malted barley and 40% raw wheat, with aged hops added to an extended boil. We’ll continue to make spontaneously fermented beer every year using a traditional approach, but we’ll use this season as our first opportunity to inject some new creativity into our program.

Finally, we haven’t decided what we’ll eventually call our 100% spontaneously fermented beer. We’ll likely somehow incorporate “Texas Hill Country” into the name, as it identifies the origin of our place-based beer. We do know what we will not call it, however. We will not call it “Lambic”, “Gueuze”, “American Lambic,” “Lambic-style,” or any other play on the word “Lambic.” Authentic Lambic and Gueuze come from Brussels and the Pajottenland and are 100% spontaneously fermented using the micro-flora in that region. Our 100% spontaneously fermented beer is brewed with Trinity Aquifer well water, Texas grown wheat, and fermented with microorganisms from the Hill Country. By definition, we will produce a beer that is not Lambic or Gueuze, and we will respect the appellation of the authentic Lambic breweries in Belgium.

Wort filling the coolship

Chilled wort resting in the coolship the morning of January 13, 2015 after overnight cooling and inoculation by airborne microorganisms

Oak puncheons to be filled with 100% spontaneously fermented beer