The romance and reality of rustic beer styles


Farmhouse Ale from Little Fish Brewery

By David Nilsen

The term “farmhouse ale” conjures images of a rustic farm in the middle of flowing grain fields, a line of workers in old-timey dress lining up for a tankard of beer in front of the barn, and the evening sun casting the scene in tones of ochre.

If you lend credibility to the popular origin story of farmhouse ales, those fanciful images are a window into the history of brewing. The common story is that saison and biére de garde (we’ll talk more about both in a minute) originated in southern Belgium and northern France respectively in the 19th century, brewed by farms for the refreshment and sustenance of seasonal field workers. Once changes in technology and economics made this model obsolete, the styles were adapted by commercial brewers into the farmhouse beers we love today.

The fact is, there’s often a lot of apocryphal lore in the stories of how popular beer styles came about (ask any mustachioed dudebro at a bar about where India Pale Ale came from and be prepared for a tall tale involving colonialism and sea commerce). While these “farmhouse” styles may well have been brewed at farms at some point, the story is likely not as simple and idyllic as it’s often presented, and in either case, most modern farmhouse ales are not brewed anywhere near farmhouses, but in the same commercial breweries giving us pale ales and porters. There is often a sharp disparity between the romance and the reality of these beers, though a little romance can be a good thing. The stories aren’t hurting anyone, and there are certainly some working farmhouse breweries breathing life into those sepia-toned daydreams.

The story of farmhouse brewing is much bigger than the one above, however. Until the broad commercialization over beer in the last half-millennium, all brewing was essentially farmhouse or homestead brewing, and that wasn’t restricted to Europe. While we often think of the story of beer as a European history, that’s mostly because Europeans wrote those histories. Beer has been brewed on every populated continent for thousands of years, and on most of those continents, local, agrarian brewing traditions are still thriving. Want to try tella, a traditional farmhouse beer brewed with teff, sorghum, gesho leaves, and bread that has been smoked over olive wood? Get yourself to rural Ethiopia.

The majority of American “farmhouse” ales, however, are based on the aforementioned Belgian saison. While many are brewed exclusively with pale barley malts, saisons can incorporate a variety of grains, and brewers often utilize rustic, heirloom grains to provide character. Saisons can be spiced, but most often derive their peppery aroma and flavor notes from their unique strain of ale yeast that ferments at temperatures up to 90 degrees. While most yeast will yield icky flavors at this temperature, saison yeast responds with elegant flair. Combined with saison’s dry, crisp finish and moderate hop backbone, these spicy notes make the style one of the most versatile food pairing beers in the world.

A related style known as grisette, which is basically a petite saison, is gaining popularity, and you might start seeing more of these showing up on beer menus and bottle shop shelves. If you like saison, think of grisette as its kid cousin.

French biére de garde is a maltier beer than saison. While it can be brewed in both pale and amber-colored sub styles, the darker version is more common. Expect a full but not overly rich mid-level toasty malt flavor, with some earthy character and subtle, spicy yeast notes. It’s not a challenging style, but one of refinement and subtlety.

American breweries bring a lot of creativity and variation to their interpretations of these classics. One of the most common American variations on saison involves the use of wild yeast or mixed fermentations of yeast and bacteria to produce sour and funky aromas and flavors. While classic versions don’t generally use these organisms, American brewers often use saison as a canvas on which to paint their most esoteric visions with microbiotic brushes.

Dark malt saisons can also be found, including an excellent example from Ohio’s Rockmill Brewery, as can more hop-forward saisons that showcase American aroma hops. Dayton’s own Warped Wing Brewing Company offers a saison aged in Chardonnay wine barrels, an elegant pour that recently earned them a gold medal at Chicago’s prestigious Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers.

A handful of breweries are taking the rural, frugal charter of “farmhouse ales” very literally with wild and foraged ingredients like berries, tree bark, and even mushrooms. Scratch Brewing in Illinois produce a biére de garde with foraged chanterelle mushrooms each year, and Branch & Bone Artisan Ales—opening soon in Dayton—pledge to use wild botanicals from our area in some of their brews.

As you can see, farmhouse ales aren’t just one thing. While most bottles with those words on the label probably contain a classic saison or maybe a biére de garde, be prepared for something unexpected. Whether brewed at an industrial brewery or a weathered homestead, these storied beer styles wed rustic and refined with beautiful results.

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David Nilsen is a beer writer living with his wife and daughter in Greenville. He is a Certified Cicerone and National Book Critics Circle member. You can follow him at DavidNilsenBeer.com and reach him at DavidNilsen@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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