Funky Jester King imports Belgian tradition for Méthode Gueuze beer

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016 Austin360

As one of the most experimental and forward-thinking breweries in the country, Jester King Brewery has actually looked back, bringing an ancient method of beer-making to the forefront.

Crowds larger than average will flock to the farmhouse brewery in the Texas Hill Country this weekend in the hopes of getting a bottle of the new, spontaneously fermented beer that has taken wild ale-focused Jester King nearly four years to produce. The 2016 SPON Méthode Gueuze is the first of its kind in the U.S. — a beer that owner Jeff Stuffings hopes other U.S. and world breweries will be inspired to make by following the same Belgian tradition.

Gueuze “is my favorite style of beer, and it’s something I’ve been massively intrigued by since tasting this beer maybe seven or eight years ago,” he says.

He decided to see if spontaneously fermented beer was a possibility in Texas — with a climate that could prove too hot for the process — after an inspiring visit in the fall of 2012 to Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels, one of the most respected gueuze producers in Belgium and a faithful follower of traditional methods.

The name (pronounced “gooze,” at least by American tongues) refers to a type of lambic made by blending multiyear beers together. Each one is created through a process of spontaneous fermentation: allowing the wort (a mixture of raw wheat, malted barley and aged hops) to inoculate naturally with airborne yeast and bacteria, then having it ferment over time in barrels. Most beer is made by quicker fermentation in stainless steel tanks.

To get the beer inoculated with microorganisms from its surroundings, Jester King’s brewers have to wait until a cold winter’s night, when the air will be the optimal temperature for the microscopic critters to start doing their jobs. An open-air copper vessel called a coolship facilitates the inoculation in an upstairs cranny of the brewery’s barrel room with the help of open windows nearby and a wooden ceiling above, luring in the native Hill Country yeast and bacteria.

From there, the beer slowly ferments in dust-covered old barrels that have largely lost their oaky flavors. The Méthode Gueuze took so long to make in part because Jester King needed multiple years of blending — in this case, beers from 2013, 2014 and 2015, the first three years of the process — to keep the beer authentic.

Authenticity is at the heart of everything the brewery has done since opening six years ago. So is a close relationship with the natural world around the building: Jester King uses well water from the Trinity Aquifer for every beer and has also recently started a farm on the property in the hopes of having locally grown herbs, fruits, grains and vegetables in the beers.

“For us, spontaneous fermentation is the ultimate partnership with nature when it comes to making beer inextricably tied to a particular time and place,” Stuffings said at a tour last year.

But he wasn’t about to call his spontaneously fermented beer a lambic or a gueuze, two styles that nod to where they’re made in Belgium. Coming up with a name, he says, was tricky.

“We struggled with what to call this,” he says. “We wanted a neat and tidy way to convey the process and tradition behind what we’ve sought to do here, but we also didn’t want something that would take 25 or 30 words to explain. We saved that for the back label.”

After consulting with Jean Van Roy of Cantillon, the modern-day godfather of authentic gueuze beers, Jester King settled on Méthode Gueuze because the “blend deserves even more to be called ‘lambic’ or ‘gueuze’ than a lot of fake Belgian Gueuze,” Van Roy told Stuffings. “The way to use ‘Méthode Gueuze’ is a bit the same used in the wine world for some sparkling wine. The most well-known being Méthode Champenoise.”

Along with Cantillon, Jester King and a few other supportive breweries created a nonprofit that officially owns the trademark on the phrase “Méthode Gueuze.” It’s not owned by Jester King, Stuffings says, because he wants it to “be available for any brewer to use as long as they meet that criteria behind making the beer. Literally Anheuser-Busch could make a Méthode Gueuze if they wanted, so long as they followed the discipline and didn’t cut corners.”

Even though Jester King, Allagash Brewing in Maine and a few others around the world are the only ones thus far to dabble in spontaneously fermented beer, Stuffings thinks that’s going to change in the next few years.

“I can see the writing on the wall,” he says. “I gave a lecture on spontaneous fermentation at the Craft Brewers Conference this past spring, and the room was packed with almost 1,000 people who you could tell were all excited about it.”

Jester King’s growing fan base is enthusiastic as well, with many people projected to fly in for the weekend to get a bottle.

But even if massive crowds turn out, the brewery is prepared. The initial release will have more than 2,000 bottles available of each of the two sizes (375 and 750 milliliter) on both Friday and Saturday, and if all of those sell out, there are other ways to try the Méthode Gueuze — as well as three other spontaneously fermented beers the brewery is ready to share.

The other beers in the series include the SPON Flor — made with a blend of the 2-year-old spontaneous brew that “developed a unique character” thanks to some nearby sherry casks during aging — and two fruited beers, the SPON Peach & Apricot and SPON Raspberry & Cherry. These feature first-use fruit from other beers that Jester King makes, including the ever-popular Atrial Rubicite.

Stuffings wants to debut them in bottles on a different weekend to keep Méthode Gueuze solely in the spotlight. But, unlike many of the limited Jester King releases, this first batch of Méthode Gueuze will be available beyond November as part of a new cellar program that will allow visitors to the brewery to continue to enjoy it on-site.

“The reason we sealed the bottle with both a cork and a cap was that it was a beer that should really last for decades, like the Belgian gueuze,” he says. “We’re going to be holding back a significant part of every batch and allowing it to cellar for a really long time. It’s a big part of the story, I think, that these vintages can be remarkably different from one another, and after they’re blended, the beer continues to transform in the bottle. The beer is alive, like its own animal.”

At the moment, one of his favorite aspects of the Méthode Gueuze is the aromatics. Take a gentle sniff and you’ll pick up notes of earthy, rustic barnyard, which might not seem appealing but is a key allure for lovers of wild farmhouse ales.

If you mention Jester King’s status as a farmhouse brewery to Stuffings, you’ll notice that he gets thoughtful. For him, the work at Jester King always comes back to authenticity — doing things traditionally, the way brewers have done them for hundreds of years — and he’s not sure the brewery is there yet.

“I think not until there’s a working farm and more of a symbiosis between our surroundings and the beer will we possibly be able to say we’ve gotten where we wanted to get to,” he says. “Having an ecosystem of humans working with the land to create something unique to this place and time and people, that’s the ultimate vision. So this beer I would say is a step in that direction, but it really isn’t the endgame.”

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