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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Farmhouse Ales: More State of Mind Than Style

Farmhouse ales are the most inscrutable creature in the beer bestiary.  They can be strong or weak, pale or dark or more likely, ambrée.  They may have spices or not, be hoppy or sweet, be made with bunches of oddball grains or just pilsner malt.  They are everything all at once--but does that mean they are nothing, stylewise, too?  Tomorrow I'll be discussing a visit I recently had to The Commons, essentially a saison house.  It seemed like a great time to explore this "style" and see if we can come to some clarity.

The Olden Days
If you go back far enough, all beer was made on the farm.  Before specialization, brewing beer was a domestic activity, slapped together with whatever was on hand.  Eventually, maltsters and brewers and gruiters began to specialize as commercial brewing emerged.  Farmers never abandoned beer, though, and in the 19th century, they were still pretty common around Belgium.  We tend to romanticize rusticity, and when we think of farm-fresh products--pies on windowsills, plump loaves of bread, buttermilk, rich sausages--we imagine them as the highest quality.

It was not really so with beer.  Farm breweries were crude affairs that got used rarely.  Farmers malted their own barley and added unmalted grains in whatever amounts they had on hand.  They weren't trained brewers and didn't practice the art much.  The beers they made were "rustic" in the sense that they were made with undermodified malt on obsolete equipment by people who were in the best of cases part-time homebrewers.  The beer was unrefined, and that means in most cases not especially good.  A lot of it had to be actively bad.

Farmhouse Not Necessary
Modern saisons are revival beers.  They date back to the post-war period, when small Belgian breweries were trying to compete with more sophisticated products arriving from Britain and Germany.  They were made strong and bottled to communicate a kind of sophistication, and, to convey that, breweries had to clean them up and make them presentable.  What survived of the old tradition--and the lineage narrowed to just a few breweries--created the general blueprint for what we now call saisons.

Modern saisons embody that romantic notion we hold of farms.  Quality, for sure (among gourmands and beer geeks, saisons are très haute), but also intensity.  Products from the farm are made at the height of ripeness and express distinctive terroir; they aren't shipped, don't suffer the indignity of being stripped down or refined.  Saisons have those qualities, too--the inverse of highly-processed, factory-consistent beers.  The word "rustic" means "from the land," and in a saison, you should locate at least something of the farm.  Like:
  • Interesting grain character, which could mean a wheat softness, a silkiness from oats, or the nuttiness of spelt. In American saisons, why not a bit of corn?
  • A hazy appearance that might come from a variety of causes—grains or starches, hop matter, or yeast. When breweries started to be able to make perfectly clear beers, it was a signal to the customer that there were no infections or quality problems. A bit of haze suggests handmade ales of the pre-filtering age.
  • A spiciness that may derive from actual spices or come from hops and fermentation. 
  • A crisp, refreshing dryness.  Effervescence, minerality, hops, and/or yeast character may figure into the equation.  Most rustic ales have a vinous character that comes from their highly attenuative yeasts.
  • Finally, and non-negotiably, a pronounced yeast character.  "Rustic" can almost be read as code for untamed yeasts and the wild, fruity or spicy compounds they produce.  

Call Them "Rustic"
When I was putting together my chapters for The Beer Bible, I had to deal with the taxonomy of saisons and bière de gardes.  Having shared a distant history, they are often lumped together.  Anyone tasting a saison next to a classic bière de garde will wonder: these are similar, how?

It was WWI.  Prior to that horror, the area bordering Belgium, the Nord/Pas-de-Calais region, made saisons indistinguishable from Belgium's.  The war cut right through that region--if you tour the great bière de garde  breweries of France, you'll see memorial after memorial--destroying all the breweries and preparing the soil to accept the seed of lagers afterward.  Because lagers became the standard, ale breweries adapted their own style to match, and a classic bière de garde has much more in common with bock than saison.  These ales are silky, sophisticated, and extremely clean--and are lagered or "garded" in the manner of lager.  They are nothing to do with rustic.

Conversely, there are also plenty of rustic beers out there that we don't call saisons.  One of my absolute favorites is Kerkom's Bink Blond, which has a cakey malt depth leavened by assertive, rosemary hops and tangy yeast. Orval is one of the best examples, hiding in plain sight.  (When I visited Brasserie Dupont, Olivier Dedeycker told me he'd just put a case in the cellar for private consumption.)  Caracole, with a wood-fired kettle, is another.  For this reason, I think of this realm of beers as "rustic ales" rather than saison (which nobody understands) or farmhouse (which focuses, wrongly, on the place, not the beer).

It's the Yeast
Temperature gauges for the fermenters at Dupont.  The lowest
 is roughly 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest 95.
Ultimately, the thing that makes a rustic ale rustic is the yeast.  Brasserie Dupont makes the world's signature saison, and it is made with no spice and nothing but barley in the grain bill.  What it does have is immense yeast character--sometimes zingy and citrusy, sometimes herbal to spicy (variability is no liability for rustic ales).  It gets this flavor from a yeast that is tended by Dedeycker's wife, a microbiologist.  Famous in the brewing world, it works by rising to unthinkable temperatures in Dupont's shallow, square fermenters.  That's where the compounds of flavor--fruity esters and spicy phenols--emerge.  The yeast is available from Wyeast, but few breweries bother using it--the idea of letting a beer rise to blood temperature freaks most brewers out.  Yet if the yeast doesn't go that high, it will fail to produce the rustic character and usually stop working before all the wort's sugars are eaten.  It's a hothouse yeast.

Other breweries use different yeasts and get different flavors.  Blaugies has a hint of wild in its beer, an electric current of balsamic running down the middle of things.  When I can get it, I love Jandrain-Jandrenouille, which is a tropical fruit fiesta, keyed by lychee.  Brasserie Thiriez, a brewery just on the French side of the border, makes both standard bière de gardes and rustic ales.  His yeast (the "French Farmhouse strain from Wyeast) lends a peppery flavor in which I sometimes identify fresh celery and parsley. 

Breweries sometimes use actual wild yeasts to enhance their saisons, and that's fine, too.  But even the regular, un-wild rustic yeasts are actually a bit wild.  Modern brewing has evolved to remove yeast character, allowing the malt and hops to express themselves cleanly.  Even in American ales, this is more or less true--the "Chico" strain so common in the US does little more than add a bit of gentle fruitiness.  Rustic yeasts are untamed and natural.  They produce strain-unique compounds that give each rustic ale a distinctive house character.  They are particular, identifiable. They vary so much that you really just have to sample broadly if you want to get a sense of their nature.  And that, I can guarantee, is about the most pleasant work you'll find in this life or the next.


  1. Great article Jeff! I think you convinced me to go out and get a Bink here in Belgium tonight. Looking forward to reading the Beer Bible :)

  2. Surprisingly, many of the reconstructed breweries in northern France didn't switch to bottom-fermentation in the aftermath of WW I. That was a slow process that continued past WW II.

  3. So "rustic" beers (I like the rustic thing) are not a style as much as they are a family where pretty much anything goes.

  4. My wife and I toured Brasserie Thiriez in France and it made my whole trip to Belgium worth it. I wish I could get more of his beer here!