Yeast and Time: Brasserie Au Baron

In what I believe to be my final brewery visit of this year, I made the windy, rural trip to Gussignies, France. It is in this small corner of the world, one little brewery has been consistently pumping out quality for over 30 years.

Brasserie Au Baron is nestled into a fabulous brick structure alongside a creek with a nearby waterfall. The once little brewery is connected directly to the restaurant bearing the same name. Its one of those places that would be glorious to visit in the summer, sadly I was there in mid November; but, at any rate I was not going to miss the opportunity to visit this storied place. I say once little because they have just added 4 20hl fermentors, yay more Au Baron!

Au Baron is known primarily for their blonde/saison/bier de garde ‘Cuvée Des Jonquilles’. Shelton Brothers imports the liquid gold to the states and they have limited distribution around Europe; however, they exist for their local market as over 80% doesn’t leave France. While I wish I could easily source their beer when I am back in Australia, I respect and admire this decision to take care of their home market first. After all, this is really the spirit of Farmhouse brewing, isn’t it?

The Cuvée Des Jonquilles is a highly complex, bone dry, peppery and fruity beer. That being said, when you see it poured, it is immediately apparent that it is also very simple. From this, I don’t mean its common or lacks finesse; rather, its more similar to a table wine or loaf… utilising great materials mixed with experienced techniques to make something that is truly worth its value. If this doesn’t make sense to you, it may be a good idea to read some of my previous posts which talk about the value of restraint in brewing.

Before I visited the brewery, I had only ever tasted one of their beers. When I was at Jester King in October, I was lucky to share a bottle of Noblesse Oblige, the 4% collaboration beer between JK and Au Baron. It was the lightest beer I had ever seen, but wasn’t watery at all. I could tell their yeast was special, so I had to visit. Much to my delight, Au Baron makes a handful of other beers that I was able to try when I visited and they did’t disappoint. Notably, their Bier de Noel ‘Saison Saint Médard’, was incredible… I only had one bottle and immediately regretted not getting more. It was beautifully bready with a hue between amber and brown and what tasted like a modest mixture of seasonal spices that finished bone dry, encouraging you back to the bottle for a second taste.

However much I loved the Bier de Noel, it wasn’t the beer I was chasing… I wanted to know about the Jonquilles. So I spoke to Xavier about it most, and here is what I learned.

Making Jonquilles

I’m going to make this short, their process isn’t too far deviated from others I have written about.

Firstly, its 100% pilsner malt. Good ingredients make good beer, hey. So if you want to make this, start with your saison Dupont base and forget about the specialty malts. Shoot for 7% (or lower like I would). Single infusion mash, anywhere from an hour to 2 hours. With how dry it is, I would suggest to start on the lower side and let your sparge raise the temp slightly to get some more alpha amylase action.

In the kettle add some hops early to keep the boil down, use a low AA% from the old world. Throughout the boil add what you like. This beer is not about bitterness, this is a beer for your yeast to shine, I would keep the hops below 20 IBU, less if you can. The yeast will add the pepper you want. Hour long boil, knock out around 22-25 C (72-77 F).

For fermentation, add a healthy dose of their yeast. Grow some up from their bottles if you can, if not… the saison Dupont strain will work well. Stray away from the Belle Saison styles or the cleaner French Saison strains (WY3711). Pitch your healthy yeast into your tank and set your jackets to 27-28 C (80-82 F). Let fermentation continue at this temperature for at least 5 days.

After a week, transfer your beer off most of its yeast into another container and garde that sucker. By this I mean, hold the beer at a cold temperature for an extended period. At Au Baron, the magic formula is around 6 C (42F) for at least 2 weeks. If this doesn’t make sense to you, split your batch, do a side by side test of your beers… one with the garde one without. You tell me which one is more complex at the end, I have a strong suspicion as to which one will taste better. I spoke about this process a lot and its reasons in the Brasserie Thiriez post; however, Daniel gardes around 12C for 3 weeks.

After its garde, mix in some priming sugar and some more yeast if necessary and package your beer. It is imperative that a beer like this is bottle conditioned, preferably on its side too. If you aren’t bottle conditioning your saisons or Belgian styles they are missing something. Not only does this help the beer achieve the mouthfeel you are looking for, it also promotes a tighter bead in your foam. Once packaged, let it sit warm 20-22C (68-71F) for at least a month. You need to view this step as part of the fermentation, not an ends to a mean.

After that, drink it. Easy. Serve at cellar temp 12-15C (53-59F) to really taste the yeast.

Easy does it

Time and time again, I am blown away by the simplicity surrounding making these beers and the complexity they end up with. Its the provenance that created them, their terroir. If you want to make a good meal, don’t buy your ingredients from a supermarket… and if you want to make a great saison, get your hands on good malt, better yeast and put your watch in the drawer, it will tell you when its ready.

Postcard from Belgium

I’m having a little 5 day whirlwind trip through Belgium visiting family and some of places I missed before. Here are some photos from the trip so far. One of the highlights was visiting Brasserie de Blaugies!

the bar at the renowned In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst
the hops above the bar at the renowned In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst
the glassware @ In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst
the glassware @ In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst
Beer list @ In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst
Beer list @ In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst
Back at Thiriez
Back at Thiriez
3 Fonteinen
3 Fonteinen
Moder Lambic w/ Brussels Calling from Brasserie de la Senne
Moder Lambic w/ Brussels Calling from Brasserie de la Senne
Brasserie Dupont
Brasserie Dupont
Brasserie de Blaugies
Brasserie de Blaugies

 

Inside & Outside the Box

By adopting and embracing the use of native and local ingredients, Farmhouse brewers are somewhat constrained. They can’t, for instance, decide to make a traditional Irish dry stout or a clean crisp pilsner if their water profile doesn’t suit the style. Similarly with the time involved for complete fermentation as well as bottle conditioning, their production decisions limit output and turnaround.

I like to think of it as if you are starting in a box. Each new beer or process you experiment with must start from the same place. While these restrictions due to commitment certainly confine the diversity of styles made by a Farmhouse brewery, they are also a springboard for inspiration and tool for continual mastery of a certain topic.

On the first point, starting in a box assists the creative process of beer development. By knowing that you have to use this water and that yeast, Farmhouse brewers must innovate within these constraints. It makes the brainstorming process slightly easier by having a few constants as well as forcing a more critical analysis of the composition of the final product.

Its a make the best with what you have mentality. Its the difference between looking into your cupboard and making delicious meal with what you have on hand and purchasing every item on the list in order to recreate the picture in the cookbook.

On the second benefit of working with constraints, it aids Farmhouse brewers learn and specialise in their craft. Chefs, painters and potters all train in certain schools with a varied style of products from each school. Instead of pursuing to be a jack-of-all-trades craftsman, these artisans pursue a thorough and commanding understanding of a certain style. I often think of fusion chefs as the best analogue for Farmhouse brewers, taking flavours and dishes they love from a foreign cuisine tradition, reworking and recreating them with local ingredients or methods and producing entirely innovative yet reminiscent flavours.

I grow wary of the brewery that attempts to brew-it-all. Not only is there plenty of market diversity to support specialised breweries but also as we know a jack-of-all-trades is a master of none. I like to point to Allagash as a good example of development, innovation and mastery of a single tradition. I recently heard a story that Vinny Cilurzo from Russian River Brewing Company has spent the last six months at his brewpub trying to create a pilsner. He believes the american beer drinker’s palette is changing and is trying to make a suitable beer for the next stage. I think that says enough, its not the one and done approach taken by a few not to mention breweries; its a respect for the tradition and a commitment to a quality local reproduction of a beer that pays homage to that tradition. Master your process and your style tradition, your beer will be better with a stronger brand identity.

In a similar vein from before, this constrained starting point also encourages Farmhouse brewers to really think outside the box, drawing inspiration from other artisans. I, for one, love meeting other craftsmen and women to talk about their business, product and philosophy. We have a lot to learn from the chefs, winemakers, painters, distillers, etc. around us. This isn’t entirely unique for Farmhouse brewers by any means, but I feel that they have the most to learn from these diverse artisans.

Because of this, I will be posting on some of the non-brewing artisans I have met and what I feel we can lean from them in an Outside the Box series. They will mainly include food and drink makers, but are not confined to these.

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.