What is Farmhouse beer?

Craft beer has issues with nomenclature. Even calling beer ‘craft’ causes problems.

While defining an industry may be the worst of our problems, it is far from alone. The growth rate of our craft, sorry, outpaces our ability to delineate its differences. For example, the development of new primary ingredients, ie. malt, hops and yeast, cultivates brewers to create never-before-seen unnamed styles.  Additionally, diversity in brewing styles yields brewing companies brandishing names such as artisanal, sour and gastrobrewery. While the vocabulary grows, so does the ambiguity.

In an effort to dispel a touch of vagueness, I hope to in what follows answer the question of what sets farmhouse brewing apart. I have a deep passion for the aforementioned tradition; indeed this is the reason for the blog itself. Furthermore, I believe the rebirth of these sorts of ‘back-to-the-roots’, holistic methods and ideologies embody the spirit of our industry.

A recent article by the Food Republic set out to answer this question as well. While I loved the explanation they quoted from Jeff Stuffings of Jester King in Austin, the articles appearance in the current craft beer landscape encouraged me to continue breaking down the differences between farmhouse-styled beers and Farmhouse beer.

To be short Farmhouse beer comes from Farmhouse Breweries. The capitalisation of the word ‘farmhouse’ marks its use not as an adjective, but rather a noun. Simply put, a Farmhouse brewery exists, it is a place and by making beer in the way they do, they produce Farmhouse beer. Contrast that to breweries reproducing the styles of Farmhouse brewing and adopting the word to describe their beer.

Place

In other places as well as in the Food Republic article, the folks at Jester King have expressed Farmhouse beer as beer with a sense of place. I have loved this distinction since I first heard it, with a meaning deeper than it solicits.

Location

One of the ideas about this description is the physical location of the brewery. While I would not claim that a Farmhouse brewery necessarily has to be set on some random farm, I do mean to say that the land the brewery is set on becomes special for the reason that it might now be the home of a Farmhouse brewery. A Farmhouse brewery can’t just uproot because it has grown out of space in its current leased building, a Farmhouse brewery has a connection with the land it is on.

Brasserie Cantillon comes to mind for describing this. While there could be some debate as to whether their ‘Lambics’ are Farmhouse beers, this is an argument of style. The brewery itself is located in the middle of Brussels. For many craft beer lovers, visiting the brewery turns into a sort of pilgrimage. In dealing with growth, they purchased a small building down the road to age more beer in without upgrading to a larger system or moving to a place that could handle more barrels. If they had moved their location, something would have been lost. Furthermore, they could not contract their beers to be brewed elsewhere, they just wouldn’t be Cantillon beers. For Cantillon and Farmhouse breweries alike, brewing here is not the same as brewing there.

Materials

What follows from this is a second difference evoked by having a sense of place, the adoption of location. Farmhouse breweries and Farmhouse beer are a product of their region. They use local ingredients, raw and unprocessed. They are not driven to reproduce a beer they had elsewhere or utilise rare ingredients from the other side of the globe, instead they aim to work with their local producers, flora, microflora and even fungi to develop balanced beer with a character of its home. Its an approach more found in cooking than in brewing.

The best example of use of a local ingredients would have to be the utilisation of local, wild yeast for fermentation. Yeast is the single most important flavour producer in beer. Harnessing and employing wild yeast can produce inconsistent results, its risky. It takes a whole lot of time, experience and open-mindedness to use local, wild yeast in commercial brewing. A Farmhouse brewery must be willing to discard batches that do not turn out to be drinkable. Being a Farmhouse brewery implies that this loss would not constitute a move away from a commitment to using local ingredients; instead, a moment to re-double their dedication to creating better beer from what they have. Jester King in Austin is very open about their use of wild yeast as well as its ability to take beer places they do not wish, resulting in dumped beer. While the chance of off-batches exists, the potential for delivering beautifully complex beers keeps Farmhouse brewers going.

The second most important local ingredient is water. Water is the largest ingredient component and its chemical composition has the ability to make beers hoppier, softer, more rounded or more crisp. Pretty much every commercial brewery would augment their brewing water to match or enhance the style that they are brewing. However in Farmhouse beer, brewers embrace the water that they have and brew styles suited to their land with minimal-to-no adjustment of their water profile.

People

A third distinction given by the phrase has to do with the people. When we think of a place like our home or an office, we are most impressed by the people that filled the place rather than the four walls and roof itself. Farmhouse brewers and craft brewers alike strive and succeed to make their breweries a space from the people to the people. They are passionate about what they do and could likely talk your ear off if you give them the chance. In Farmhouse brewing, some of the brewers live onsite or very close to their breweries making them an extension of their home. Visiting a Farmhouse brewery is an invitation into someone’s personal space.

The idea of people making a place is exemplified well by Brasserie Thiriez in Esquelbeq France. Founded and run by brewer Daniel Thiriez and his wife, the brewery is open every day they brew. In a remote location, they welcome visitors on your time not theirs, an open-door policy. But crafting exceptional ales is one part of their vocation, they also run a B&B on-site if you want to stay.

Finally, for a beer to have sense of place it needed to grow up at some place. By spending large portions of its life in stainless fermentors, oak barrels or foeders, Farmhouse beer develops its own character. It does sound crazy but if you listen to some of the best beer blenders in the world talk about their barrels, you come to understand that we are just bystanders to a semi-magical process. In Farmhouse brewing, the utility of wild yeast often warrants slower fermentation times then clean pure-pitch fermentations. Batch by batch, the yeast mutates over time becoming something possibly unrecognisable from where you might have started. In a sense, farmhouse brewing is a letting go of the production and an embracing of nature’s timeline. The beer tells you when it is done, not the other way around.

Time is a component of Farmhouse beer exemplified in almost any sour beer brewery. The Boon brewery, for example, in Lembeek Belgium produces exceptional sour beer that often spend three years in oak before packaging. The Rare Barrel in Berkeley California generally allows 6-24 months for their fermentations allowing the beer to develop on its own. Taking time is commonplace for sour breweries and Farmhouse breweries alike; however, it is a rarity in the market as a whole with the vast majority of beer sold around the world spending somewhere between 3-12 days from grain to bottle.

Putting it together

What you end up with when combining these factors, and others that I have not listed here, is a product that is more than the sum of its parts. You produce beer with a soul. A soul filled with the place it is from and the people who produce it. The French winemakers call it terroir, a term becoming more popular for Farmhouse brewers. Farmhouse beer is not a style, it’s a product of a place with the substance of that place.

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