For Texas breweries, the pandemic has presented a unique set of challenges, from the series of local government-mandated closures to reopenings with an entire new game plan for operating safely. Yet even as it faces ongoing changes, Austin’s brewery scene continues to expand and thrive. Throughout it all, Hill Country’s Jester King Brewery has proven to be resilient. This is all thanks to the quick thinking of cofounders and brothers Jeffrey Stuffings and Michael Steffing, plus the brewery’s handy vast acres of land.
The atmosphere at Jester King, typically a destination brewery for those who who want to linger with beers and pizza or stop by after state park hikes, is a lot different now. The indoor tasting room is closed, and the long lines to place beer orders are gone. Groups of 10 people or fewer sit at spread-out picnic tables in various areas — one with a view of a pen full of goats — of the sprawling acreage. Others choose to drive up to the curbside pickup area to take their beers and food to go. Even the shaded barn, normally packed with people, now features tall dividers separating spaced tables.
Though Jester King has had many years of success — last year marked the brewery’s 10th anniversary — it hasn’t been an easy journey for the brothers. The biggest hurdle has been remaining creative and relevant in a hyper-competitive beer market, says Stuffings, especially one as big as Texas. When Jester opened in 2010, records show that there were 59 craft breweries in Texas as of 2011, according to the Brewers Association. Now, there are over 300, with new breweries opening regularly. “It’s caused us as small-business owners to stay relevant and adaptive,” he says, “in the beers we brew, the food we cook, and then also in terms of hospitality we provide.”
Stuffings and Steffing decided to open Jester King because of their combined love for beer and the art of brewing. In the late 1990s, Stuffings volunteered at Blanco brewery Real Ale Brewing Company. Then, he worked as a home brewer at Austin Homebrew Supply in 2007. The experiences helped him “develop a desire to take the hobby and turn it into a profession.”
There’s no sibling rivalry here. Stuffings’s desire to work alongside his brother also served as the catalyst in their decision to open the brewery. Their skills are complementary: Steffing’s expertise lies in “the things that keep the brewery running,” according to his brother, like science, math, technology, and engineering, whereas Stuffings was drawn to the creative aspects of brewing and recipe development. “[Steffing] keeps the brewery running and I come up with the beers,” he says.
Jester King became known for its funkier farmhouse ale beers, stemming from its barrel-aging program focusing on fruitier variations and spontaneous fermentation. During pandemic-related on-site closures, the brewer, along with all other Texas food-and-drink-serving establishments, were only permitted to have to-go and curbside sales. The menu carries everything from Munich-style lagers to refreshing IPAs.
Jester King fans have not reduced the amount of beer they’re buying. In fact, the brewery is selling just as much beer as it projected in 2020, just in unexpected ways. “We used to put a good amount of beer in kegs and serve it on draft,” says Stuffings. “Now it’s almost all bottles and cans.”
Likewise, based on to-go sales, they realized that people really wanted “more creative beers,” says Stuffings. “We got even more of a free license just to create new things and experiment with new ingredients.” This led to collaborations with breweries across the country, fruity grisettes, a plum-based wild ale, a pale lager brewed with nixtamalized corn, the Italian-style pilsner, and Detritivore, a farmhouse ale aged with cherries, under beverage director Anne Claire Brewer.
Another major bonus point for Jester King is the fact that the brewery is exclusively an outdoor space, so the venue lends itself to safe social distancing. The brothers expanded spaces previously not open to drinkers in order to take advantage of their biggest resource: 165 acres of land. There’s plenty of outdoor seating and hiking areas for guests to enjoy.
Rather than wait in those long lines to place been orders in the before times, guests place orders for food and drinks online for pickups from the tree canopy lounge area, a densely shaded grove that’s 250 yards from the restaurant, without having much interaction. Though walk-ins are welcomed, reservations are encouraged for blocks of times so that areas can get cleaned and sanitized and the kitchen can prep.
Another change for the brewery is its new executive chef, Mason Huffman. He started out at Stanley’s Farmhouse Pizza, the brewery’s on-site but separately run pizzeria, back in 2012. (The brewery has since purchased the pizzeria.) The chef is behind the smoked meats and barbecue program now offered in addition to steadfast pizza.
Despite all of the challenges of the pandemic, Jester King still has big plans. It’ll expand its focus to include wine and cider production. Since the brewery already works with local fruit and growers, tapping into winemaking was a natural extension. “We work with so much fruit and we’re already using a lot of winemaking tools and techniques that it already felt normal and natural,” says Stuffings.
As part of the team’s ambitious farm plans, they planted their own vineyard two years ago. The first harvest, in August 2020, will be used this year as part of its first round of wines: albarino, muscat, Black Spanish, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc.
Lastly, Jester King is getting into the hospitality game as well. In October 2020, the brewery announced the acquisition of the Tipping T, a five-unit inn located on the grounds with private gate access to the beer garden and kitchen. Taking further advantage of its space, the brewery recently opened debuted a reservations-required two-mile trail which takes hikers through the Hill Country property.
Reflecting on Jester King’s tenure in Austin so far, Stuffings says that “being able to brew beer at a professional level was and is still really amazing.”
He continues: “If I had one legacy that I’d like Jester King to have, it would be that we contributed to the cultural fabric of Austin and made it a place that in a small way more unique and we’re providing things that otherwise wouldn’t exist.” And, really, what’s more Texan than wide-open spaces and beer?