Averie Swanson has never been one to shy away from a challenge. As one of 19 Master Cicerones—only three of which are women—on the planet, she helped push the ancient, alchemical art of mixed culture fermentation into the mainstream in the U.S. at Jester King. After three years as head brewer and a partial owner of the influential brewery, she achieved a rare level of prominence both in Austin and the beer world at large. Then, she decided to start something new.
“I couldn’t imagine a better place to grow as a brewer and a professional in this industry. By the time I left, I’d kind of exhausted my trajectory in that space,” Swanson says. “I could’ve done that for a few more years, but I was very excited to move to a different city and create something of my own.”
That something is Keeping Together, a solo endeavor rooted in Chicago that released its first beer in December. After taking a sabbatical, Swanson accepted Half Acre's request to offer her insights on their small, growing fermentation program. Last July, she brewed the first of many beers using their space.
Being able to work in an entirely new environment was something of a creative breakthrough for Swanson, yet The Art of Holding Space is in many ways a culmination of all of her previous experiences. The 3% ABV table beer uses a mixed culture yeast that Swanson hasd been crafting for years from her favorite beers. Half Acre’s Lincoln taproom carries the bottles, which feature a spare, elegant label design by Chicago-based artist Jessica Deahl. Every part of the beer feels highly intentional, including its sessionable nature.
“As a brewer, I’m around beer all day every day and I don’t want to be drunk all the time. So I really appreciate it when breweries provide low-ABV options,” Swanson says. “At the end of the day, I want to make beers that are very balanced. If something is super high-ABV, that doesn’t lend itself to drinkability.”
While chocolate-loaded pastry stouts and juice bomb IPAs can often conceal technical flaws, the styles to which Swanson gravitates rely on a precisely calibrated equation of flavors. The Art of Holding Space is a thinking drinker’s beer—it has enough nuance to hold a beer nerd’s attention, but it doesn’t hog the spotlight. As someone who has spent a decade obsessively talking about beer, Swanson says she wanted to create something that was, first and foremost, fun to drink.
“The idea was it was something you could enjoy with friends or over dinner without that being the focus of the meeting,” Swanson says. “In my opinion, beer was not intended to serve as the focal point—it’s a social lubricant and a facilitator of conversation. The idea being The Art of Holding Space was that it was interesting enough that you could have a dialogue with it, but it doesn’t have to steal the show."
All fermentations are an interaction between a brewer and a microorganism, but with mixed-fermentation changes the dynamic entirely. I like the idea of this unpredictable, highly collaborative experience that you don’t get with other beer styles.”
“The idea of The Art of Holding Space was that it was interesting enough that you could have a dialogue with it, but it doesn’t have to steal the show,” Swanson says. “In my opinion, beer was not intended to serve as the focal point of every meeting—it’s a social lubricant and a facilitator of conversation.”
Unsurprisingly, mixed culture fermentation is going to be at the core of Keeping Together. Prior to diving into homebrewing in 2010, Swanson picked up a degree in evolutionary biology at the University of Houston. When she started volunteering at Jester King in 2013, she was immediately drawn to the delicate science behind spontaneous and mixed fermentation.
“I love lagers, IPAs, and stouts as much as the next person, but mixed fermentation is where my passion lies,” Swanson says. “Ultimately, all fermentations are an interaction between a brewer and a microorganism, but with mixed-fermentation changes the dynamic entirely. I like the idea of this unpredictable, highly collaborative experience that you don’t get with other beer styles.”
That element of unpredictability is precisely what makes these beers so difficult to execute well. Yet the granular level of detail involved appealed to Swanson.
“It definitely has to do with my background in science, as well as my upbringing in the industry,” Swanson says.
Jester King may have quickly become trendy, but most of the styles and techniques they turned towards were centuries old. As Swanson grew as a brewer, she found herself turning more and more toward the kinds of beers that had languished in obscurity in the U.S. for years.
“Everybody at Jester King gravitated towards mixed-fermentation, so I cut my teeth on that as a brewer,” Swanson says. “I would say lambics were pretty influential, but they were hard to get and pretty intense in their flavor experience. There was a lot of drinking of Belgian saisons or Franconian unfiltered lagers. Beers that came off the beaten path, if you will.”
“Beers off the beaten path” might as well be a tagline for much of Swanson’s career. While Belgian saisons and mixed fermentation may now rest squarely in the craft beer limelight, when she started, the process still felt highly experimental.
“When I got hired in 2014, we switched to using exclusively the mixed culture fermentation,” Swanson says. “None of us had professional experience outside of Jester King, so we were kind of learning as we went. There was a lot of problem-solving. There was a lot of excitement about sour beer and mixed fermentation in the industry. We rode that wave.”
Now, after riding that wave, Swanson is excited to leap onto the next. After years in Austin’s small, but vibrant brewing community, she’s enjoying exploring Chicago’s decidedly different scene.
“I went from Austin, which has a very tight-knit scene to Chicago, which has a huge, very old beer scene,” Swanson says. “In Austin, people were very loyal to specific brands—not necessarily the brewery—whereas people here are loyal to the brewery itself. It’s a different kind of mentality.”
Since moving, she has noticed that this loyalty often translates to a highly engaged relationship. Brewers tend to reach out to their customers and customers often respond with informed opinions. As she gears up for Keeping Together’s second release this February, she already knows that there will be an inquisitive, knowledgeable public waiting for it.
“Here, consumers know just as much as the brewers and know specifically what they want,” Swanson says. “There’s a lot of beer education going on here. That definitely provides a positive ecosystem for a project like Keeping Together.”
Photo courtesy of Dustin Hall at The Brewtography Project