WHAT ARE FARMHOUSE ALES?
During the last decade, the term Farmhouse ale has grown exponentially in the craft brewing world. Sure, East Coast brewers have been privy to this type of brewing for a long time, with access to the best of French and Belgian examples, and with the 2004 release of Phil Markowski’s very informative book, Farmhouse Ales. But the hop happy west coast, where we live, was a little slower to adopt these eclectic group of beers oft brewed with unique brewing techniques. In fact, most Belgian related styles were hard to come by when I moved to Oregon in 2009. Today, some of the best brewers of Farmhouse Ales are found in Oregon. For those new to this vast array of beer styles originating in the rolling hills of French and Belgian farm country, I hope to give a quick inside peek and shed some light on what farmhouse ales are. For more in depth understanding, I highly recommend the aforementioned book.
A Farmhouse ale isn’t just a single beer style, but a set of styles with fuzzy boundaries. If one needs to know specifics, you could lump the following beer styles into Farmhouse Ales: Saison, Biere de Garde, Biere de Mars, Grisette, and perhaps even Sahti. The last three styles are arguably just sub-styles of the former two. Many of today’s American craft brewers who are producing these styles are also making beers like lambic, Flanders red and brown, gose and Berliner weisse. All these styles have similarities to Farmhouse brewing, but I won’t be touching on them, as that goes down a rabbit hole that is too in depth for the confines of this post.
TWO MAIN STYLES
First, to give a little overview of the two main beer styles, one may want to know the basics of a Saison and Biere de Garde. However, keep in mind that specifics of a beer style do not define farmhouse ales.
A saison (French for “season”) was typically a pale ale that is generally around 7% abv, highly carbonated, fruity, spicy, and often bottle conditioned. Historically, most Saisons were lighter, in the 3-4% range as more of a refreshing summer time beer for the farmworkers. Most saisons varied based on preference or what was on hand to brew with.
A Biere de Garde ("beer for keeping") is a a strong pale ale or keeping beer traditionally brewed in the Nord-Pas-Calais region of France. These beers were originally brewed in farmhouses during the winter and spring, to avoid unpredictable problems with the yeast during the summertime. Biere de Gardes were typically amber or copper to golden beers, often of higher strength than Saisons and packaged to be consumed later in the year.
While these definitions will help us understand what we are drinking, most breweries producing these beers have their own interpretation. The best part about this group of beer styles is that you don’t have to have narrow lines to stay within. There is much room for free styling, in my opinion.
Beyond grain and hop bills and yeast choices in these styles specifically, what I feel is the real essence of Farmhouse ale is process related. Three points to consider are where it’s brewed and where the ingredients are sourced, how it is fermented, and how it is carbonated.
One aspect common to all Farmhouse ales in the past, is that they were brewed in rural settings on farms. Agrarian Ales outside of Coburg, Oregon is one such example. While they make many farmhouse styles, they actually promote themselves just as a ‘farm brewery’ that creates ales on a farm. What differentiates that from a brewery located in an urban setting is that a farmhouse brewer can use, or sometimes HAS to use what they have on the farm. Well water. Check. Grains grown by the farmhands. Check. Wild harvested berries and herbs. Check. Today, Farmhouse styles can be brewed anywhere, while still giving a nod to the farm, yet still be located on city water and waste. However, if you want to truly make Farmhouse ales, move to the country.
Another process related aspect is the use of organisms other than cultured saccharomyces for fermentation. In days gone by, there may have been spontaneous fermentation, not unlike the lambics of Belgium. Also, the use of wood in fermentation would promote the growth of wild yeasts like Brettanomyces and bacteria like lacto and pedio. This varied ‘soup’ of critters would surely lead to some of the classic flavors in these rustic beers. Hay, earth, fruit, barnyard, and of course tartness, defined these unique beers. Filtration, of course, wasn’t a technology initiated in these days, so haze and yeast were quite common. Today, brewers can purchase and pitch a host of micro-organisms to simulate that mixed culture fermentation, and many of the best farmhouse brewers today have good control over their micro-organisms and are able to produce repeatable results. This ability, in my mind is what separates the average brewers from the masters. Paul Arney at Ale Apothocary in Bend certainly falls into this category of brewers who has a great understanding of their fermentation.
Finally, many brewers of Farmhouse styles will point to bottle conditioning for carbonation as a true essence of what makes Farmhouse ales authentic. Hundreds of years ago in the rolling hills of Northern France, you wouldn’t have the CO2 truck dropping off bottles of compressed carbon dioxide. You needed to call on your yeast and maybe some added sugar to provide a refermentation in the bottle. This not only adds authenticity to the beer that is being made, but also changes the mouthfeel, appearance, and some would argue the flavor. Sean Burke at Commons Brewery in Portland is known to be a big proponent of bottle conditioning as a key component to farmhouse ales.
In conclusion, I leave you with these questions to ponder. Can a Farmhouse ale be made in a large city? Can you order ingredients from far away or do you need to grow your barley? And can you force carbonate your beer to make a lovely and effervescent Saison? Of course, the answer to those questions are personal to each brewer. Many brewers today would say yes to those questions, because we are truly inspired by and influenced by the brewers of yesterday and the challenges they faced in making palatable beer. Paying homage to many of the components of farmhouse ales could be enough. But other very talented brewers might argue otherwise. Personally, I’d love to sit down with the makers at Ale Apothocary, De Garde, Logsdon and Commons breweries and have a lively debate on what is really the essence of a farmhouse beer. Regardless of the ‘right answer’ to these questions, farmhouse ales are personal, artistic, and eclectic. Despite the brevity of this post, I would challenge you to seek out farmhouse ales and truly get a taste of a brewer’s creativity and expression.