Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 59 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.
Is there a certain way that brewers go about doing business? Should it be assumed that as long as a brewer puts out a quality product that the rest of the business will take care of itself? What happens when that’s not enough?
And what happens when sitting idly by doesn’t seem like the right thing to do?
That is the predicament that Austin, Texas’ Jester King Craft Brewery finds itself in as it has taken the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission to federal court, alleging that the Texas ABC is violating Texas brewers’ first and fourteenth amendment rights. Meanwhile, Jester King is producing some of Texas’ most intriguing beers in a style that seems more suited to Belgium than the American Heartland.
Texas brewers have been working toward revising the state’s restrictive alcohol laws for years. Specifically, breweries want to change labeling laws that require beer sold in Texas to be labeled as “ale” if it is over 4% alcohol, and “beer if it is below that (anyone care for a nice English Mild Beer, anyone?), they want to be able to tell customers where their beer can be purchased, they want to be able to provide descriptive language on their labels that refers to the strength of the beer (e.g. Belgian Strong Ale), and they want to be able to sell beer directly from their brewery – as wineries in the state can – and they want brew pubs to be allowed to distribute their beer.
Essentially, they want the same freedoms granted to the Texas wine industry (and wines imported to Texas) for their product. The previous plan of attack was always to go through the Texas legislature, which meets every two years, with bills aimed at easing these regulations. The bills have always gained a good deal of attention, but have yet to pass for various, frustrating, reasons
“It’s been something of a Groundhog’s Day,” said Michael Stuffings, who is one of Jester King’s three owners along with his brother Jeffrey and their partner Ron Extract. “Texas Legislature meets every two years and by the end of that waiting period all the brewers are getting optimistic, and it leads up to a lot of disappointment every two years…going through the courts is our next option.”
According to Extract, the original idea for the lawsuit began with Jim Houchins of Authentic Beverages, a distributor and co-plaintiff in the case along with the bar and restaurant Zach’s, who wanted to get as many plaintiffs as possible to sue the state commission.
“When we were approached by this we hoped to build consensus and have it as a Texas craft brewers action and not just a Jester King action,” Extract said. “Unfortunately there wasn’t enough of a consensus for that to happen”
At the time of this writing, the suit had plenty of media attention but little in the way of progress. The plaintiffs have filed a motion for summary judgment, asking judge Sam Sparks to side with their case immediately, and expected the Texas ABC to file a similar motion – thus beginning what could be a lengthy and costly legal battle, albeit one that the plaintiffs believe in.
“The simple answer is that there are laws here that we feel are unfair and in many cases are unconstitutional,” Extract said. “All other efforts to change them have failed, so a lawsuit seemed like the way to go.”
Michael and Jeff have obviously known each other for a long time, but Extract was a late addition to Jester King. Extract, who previously worked with Shelton Brothers as a beer importer, was looking to start his own brewery or get in with a group that was doing the same. He happened to find the Stuffings brothers, and things progressed from there.
“We connected down in Texas,” Michael Stuffings said. “It was fortuitous and, knowing that (Extract) worked at Shelton Brothers, there was some respect to what he was doing. They’re bringing great beers into the country.”
Extract’s connection to the importing side of the business provides some insight into the motivation to change laws that charge hefty taxes on foreign brewers attempting to sell their beer in Texas. So does the fact that such taxes make it all but impossible for Texans to enjoy the kind of beers that sparked Jester King’s owners’ curiosity. For Extract, the decision to take the battle out of the legislature’s hands and into those of a federal judge seemed logical, as he had seen a similar tactic employed by a previous employer who felt that certain state laws were impinging on his company’s rights under the United States Constitution.
Jeff Stuffings is also well-versed in the complex and convoluted workings of the legal world, as he spent the earlier portion of his professional life as a public defender. Although he found the work rewarding, a higher calling seemed to be calling his name in the form of tiny bubbles popping around in a three-piece airlock.
“I enjoyed that work, but friends of mine introduced me to homebreweing and it kind of became an addiction where it was all I wanted to do was brew,” Jeff Stuffings said. “It was kind of a situation that I’d spend time at my old job just fiddling around on Promash instead of working. I just felt it was something I had to do.”
Michael, who had been spending his days crunching numbers for an investment bank in Chicago (where he was very familiar with Shelton Brothers and the work they did) eagerly joined his brother in an endeavor to build a new brewery. With Extract on board, the plans began to take shape and the brewery was built.
The original plan was to locate Jester King in an industrial part of Austin, but when a local farmer just outside the city contacted them and asked if they would be willing to build their brewery on his 200-acre farm, the three managing partners willingly accepted. Not only is it a picturesque location in the Texas Hill Country, but the nearby orchards help provide interesting wild yeast that find their way into Jester King’s beers.
Portions of the brewery’s interior look like a scene out of Breaking Bad, as the floor is littered with carboys filled with bubbling yeast experiments. Jester King uses an open fermentor, kind of like a small coolship, filled with wort and lets the wild yeast do its work. From there, samples of the fermented product are sent to a lab where the beneficial strains are isolated and sent back. Those strains then find their way into about half of Jester King’s beer, as many of their labels undergo a secondary fermentation in second-hand whiskey or wine barrels.
“The idea of terroir is very important to us in having the flavor profile of our beers be reflective of the land and atmosphere that we exist on,” Jeff Stuffings said. “In addition to the way we use yeast… we don’t use city water. We could if we wanted to, but inside we use it from a Hill Country well on our property which has a unique mineral character that is one of the signatures of our beer.”
Unique is an apt description of Jester King, which ferments its Farmhouse-Style Ales in an actual farmhouse using a Franco-Belgian Saison yeast as its house strain, followed by a secondary fermentation for many of its beers in the oak barrels. It is a painstakingly slow process, one that is just now starting to reap commercial benefits as the young brewery begins to open those barrels, some of which have held beer for over a year, and put their blended contents into bottles.
“I think at the most fundamental level it was just wanting to brew beers that were very unique – not only to Texas but really to the south,” Michael Stuffings said. “We don’t know of any beers being brewed like this down here… As we say on the bottles, we brew what we like. In our case, it happens to be beers that really only reach a level of expression over a long period time. It’s just a result of brewing what we like.”
The next step for Jester King will be calling their beer what they like, and telling their customers where to get it. That, however, remains a decision for a federal judge. And like a good Wild Ale should, that too will take time.
Sean Lewis is a homebrewer and freelance writer. He is currently working on his first book.