Brewer and author Phil Markowski opens his seminal 2004 book “Farmhouse Ales” in the pastoral flatlands of Flanders, Belgium, spinning the now-familiar tale of farmers who brew beer to satisfy their field hands during harvest and into winter months. It’s a picturesque story still deployed to explain the origins of saisons and lesser-known styles like bieres de garde and grisettes. Today, in parts of Belgium and France, breweries like De Plukker, Hof ten Dormaal and Brasserie Thiriez keep the legacy of farm brewing alive, even if their beers are made for us and not for thirsty seasonal laborers.
But it’s in the foreword in Markowski’s book—penned by The Lost Abbey co-founder and brewer Tomme Arthur— that the reader first senses that “farmhouse” isn’t exactly cut and dry. “Because these beers,” Arthur writes, “belong to a ‘family’ of products with, in my opinion, no stylistic absolutes, few sources of authoritative information can be found.” If there are no stylistic rules, then one might assume that place of origin matters: Farmhouse beers come from farms.
Some contemporary urban brewers turn that notion on its head, arguing instead that farmhouse is a process, an approach to ingredients, and maybe something as spectral as an ethos. Farmhouse beers can come from a strip mall.
Ron Jeffries of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan, was one of the first brewers to call his commercial beers “farmhouse- style.” This was back in 2004. Jeffries was brewing on a 10-barrel system in a warehouse outside Detroit—hardly agrarian. But the beers he made, especially the gently sour, low-ABV Bam Biere, were inspired by an agricultural tradition.
“I wanted to make something evocative of pastoral times—that probably never existed—when you’d work on the farm and have some cheese and crusty bread and beer for lunch and go back to work until sunset,” Jeffries says. “I designed this recipe with a rustic feel, a little sour but still quite fresh because it would have been made on the farm.”
That’s the framework, very loosely. Jeffries explains, “No one was calling anything ‘farmhouse.’ Brewers were like ‘What are farmhouse-style ales?’ and I was like ‘I don’t know, I made it up. This is what I think a farmhouse-style beer is.’” But when pushed to define it, Jeffries points to ingredient choice. “To mimic the inconsistent malting that you would have had in those ancient, pastoral times of wonderment and bliss, I mix a couple of different base malts together. On a farm, you use everything, so if you’ve got some extra oats, you’re brewing with oats,” he says. “The other part, for me, is that farmhouse would mean not necessarily clean fermentation. You’d have some influences from something other than pure-strain brewers’ yeast, whether that’s Brettanomyces or some other bacterial culture because of not being able to keep everything sterile and closed. So farmhouse is equally a philosophy and ingredient selection and process.”
In the basement of a mixed-use building, Portland, Oregon’s Upright Brewing focuses intently on its French- and Belgian-style farmhouse ales. Barrels and picnic tables cluster nearly on top of each other in the subterranean space. This basement, dim and nearly windowless, could be anywhere.
“For me, farmhouse, in terms of style, has nothing to do with place,” says head brewer and owner Alex Ganum. “If there’s one commonality that should apply to all farmhouse beers, it’s that each should have a distinct yeast character. With our year-round beers in general, we’re not trying to make these huge phenol bombs, but something more elegant and balanced.”
Aside from striving to create expressive, yeast-driven beer, Ganum says a farmhouse brewery should also abide by some truly artisanal principles.
“It’s about keeping things hands-on,” he says. “Right now, Upright is me and three other guys and it doesn’t seem like a factory job. I did that on purpose. To me, that speaks to the history of farmhouse-style beers. It’s a very personal thing; it’s about lifestyle.”
But what about an urban brewery that contract-brews its beer (meaning it pays another brewery to brew its recipes)? Could its beers possibly be described as farmhouse? Central State Brewing, a two-year-old outfit from Indianapolis, specializes in sour and mixed-fermentation beers, many of which are inoculated with a house yeast culture that contains the funky, multifaceted yeast Brettanomyces. Central State calls its flagship beer Table (formerly called House), a “rustic blonde ale”—a term co-founder and head brewer Josh Hambright feels is certainly appropriate.
“The rustic character on that beer is justified by the fact that we don’t use any temperature control, we let it free-ferment,” Hambright says. “So the yeast expresses itself however it wants. That gives some batch-to-batch variation on that beer, which I enjoy. Likewise, we have a hop profile that we shoot for with Table, but we’re not tied to any single hop [recipe] on that beer.”
So Table boasts a unique yeast strain, variable hops and even some prickly rye in the grain bill. Sound like a farmhouse beer? Though Central State is used to hearing that word bandied about when describing its beers, Hambright is cautious about it.
“If we could have a farm, we’d have a farm,” Hambright says. “But due to our budget, we’re in a warehouse. We have a joke that we’d call our beers ‘warehouse beers.’ I think farmhouse is a mentality. It’s embracing the yeast for what it wants to do, and using more raw grains, using what you have. I think that it has to do more with your mindset.”
So, farmhouse is a mindset. Or farmhouse is about unique yeast. Or both, if you’re Dennis Hock, founder of Draai Laag Brewing Co., located in the unlikely farm-brewing hamlet of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Draai Laag occupies an industrial building that houses a cobbled-together 30-barrel brewing system; outside, food trucks often park near the fenced-in beer garden to dish up tacos, Belgian waffles and savory crepes.
For five years, Draai Laag (which loosely translates to “turncoat”) has produced wild-fermented beers through a singularly nerdy method. Hock has an academic science background, and he uses fluid dynamics and predictive modeling to pinpoint where the most intriguing microflora float through the fields outside the city. He and head brewer Tony Zamperini then swab and capture these bacteria and yeast; culture them up; isolate and study them; and ultimately, decide which are desirable for brewing beer.
“Airborne microflora are everywhere. It’s not like it’s segregated to farms and can’t be conducted,” Hock says, by way of explaining the tension between his urban brewery and the wild beers he brews. “But farmhouse beer has to be indigenous. It has to be reflective of your terroir.”
On this, Hock is adamant: To him, beers born of lab yeast are not farmhouse-style. But this is certainly not an agreed-upon point. Place matters most, or place is irrelevant—brewers of farmhouse beers swear by both philosophies.
“You can use an industrial space if you have enough knowledge to build up the terroir,” Hock says. “People might have a Draai Laag beer and say ‘I’ve never had a beer like that that before.’ And that’s because the beautiful yeast is from Pittsburgh.”
The Rustic Rainbow: Taste the breadth of the American farmhouse spectrum through these three beers
- Jolly Pumpkin Bam Biere: This classic dry-hopped saison riff is as relevant and refreshing as ever: Soft wheat and strawlike flavors mingle with a thread of underripe peach and dried lemon peel before a super-dry finish.
- Upright Oregon Native: Fermentation on pinot noir grapes using yeast from an Oregon vineyard lends this funky, moderately acidic brew a vinous quality, brightened by raspberry jam and smooth, fresh oak.
- Draai Laag R2 Koelschip Ale: Low in ABV but high in flavor, this 4.2% farmhouse ale gains peaches-and-cream flavor, gentle tartness and sparkling carbonation through open fermentation with wild Pennsylvanian yeast cultures.