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Tuesday, July 05, 2016

American Farmhouse Ale

Post updated below (11:45 am, 4/5/16).

I was about to shoot the following thoughts and questions to Stan Hieronymus, who will release an excellent book called Brewing Local  in September (I've seen an advance copy). In it, Stan considers the nature of local beer, a straightforward question that turns out to be as solid as smoke, drifting lazily out of reach. You start poking that question with a few others--local ingredients? local styles? local tradition?--and it drifts ever further away. Of course, Stan doesn't just pose the questions, he tries to answer them, and you can read his conclusions this fall.

I've long planned to brew an American farmhouse ale, adapting the spirit of the old 19th century Belgian saisons to America. They were one of the products that came off the farm, made with what the farmer had on hand. They made those beers the way Belgians of the time did, with crazy-long boils and coolships, and I don't intend to make a beer like that. Indeed, I don't want to make a throwback beer. Imagine a modern farmer who happened to have a small brewery on-site. What would he make?
  • Corn is a must for an American beer, wheat seems like basically a must. Six-row barley might be in order, though I'm not trying to brew a 19th century beer--a modern farmhouse is likely to be growing modern barley. Oregon State recently released Full Pint malt, which is available at my local homebrew store.
  • Sugar beets are commonly grown in Eastern Oregon, so a pound of White Satin seems in order.
  • Hops are local to Oregon, but I figure a farmer who planted them for his own crops would be concerned about yield. Super Galena, Crystal, and Cascade are the most productive varieties. (I've never seen Super Galena for sale, so that's out--plus, Galenas are pretty rough hops.) Neomexicanus hops would be one choice, too--but they are not to my knowledge grown in Oregon nor, based on where they are grown (New Mexico) would they be much suited to Oregon.
  • Oregon now has a couple yeast suppliers, Wyeast and Imperial, though neither make a locally-obtained strain. Actually, Imperial has a yeast called Citrus that was harvested wild--I suppose it could be from Oregon. In any case, the strain should be pretty rustic if we're shooting for a farmhousy effect.
  • Other fruits/vegetable/spices could be thrown in, but I'm interested in doing one without them at the outset.
The one thing I think needs to be in play is the American penchant for late hops. This has become our national tradition, and it deviates quite a bit from the way the old Belgian farmers made their beers. So: a potpourri of grain including corn (mandatory), some sugar beet sugar, Cascades and/or Crystal hops, and a rustic yeast strain. That's as far as I got. What I was going to ask Stan, but what I'll throw out to hive mind instead (including Stan!), is this: how would you make it? What would characterize an American farmhouse ale? Is this exercise even valid--or at the very least interesting? I think so, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Update. Folks have been mentioning that there is no tradition of American farmhouse brewing and that trying to brew to that tradition is folly. I agree halfway. I'm thinking of "farmhouse" in a broader context than the saisons of Belgium. What would a rustic local beer made in America look like?--that's more the exercise. If it were made of ingredients grown on a farm (in, in my case, Oregon) and brewed on an imprecise, small-scale farm brewery, what would we expect to see? Farmhouse breweries predate the Belgians by a lot, and beer was made this way for millennia. There's no reason it couldn't be made this way in the US, but if it were, it would draw on the brewing tradition here as well as the local ingredients. That's really what I'm shooting for.


  1. The term "American Farmhouse Ale" is about as specific as "European Farmhouse Ale." What a farmer would use would vary by where in the country he/she lived. In Oregon, not so much corn. In Iowa, very much corn. It might be better to be more specific and brew an Oregon Farmhouse beer.

  2. I also think it makes sense to look at farmhouse brewing as a more regional endeavor. Its principles, akin to tuscan cuisine in my opinion, are towards simplicity, rusticity, and native...but even Belgian/French brewers had to source hops from other areas of Europe. The idea of local was perhaps built-in, but not a hampering limitation in any way. Brewing itself for them was a necessity, due to non-potability of water and as provisions for the saisonnieres. Here in America, these styles will surely take off, and the creative (rascal) nature of craft brewing will not make it easier to categorize this style of beermaking. Looking at how Spain and Italy are interpreting farmhouse (artigianale) is a good example of how different these beers can be handled. To answer your question about the exercise....I find it highly interesting, but possibly futile. Cheers!

    Bobby Fitzgerald
    Gunwhale Ales

  3. Leftfielder. Corn is actually a pretty common Oregon crop, though it's not indigenous. I like the idea because it's the only native North American grain. It's more "Oregon" than barley, for sure.

  4. Corn, yes. It is a must. 6 row or some other local barley would be nice; the lautering possibilities of 6 row will help offset the corn additions, so not merely "old-timey" reasons for their usage. For hops, old school American landrace. I'd like to make a case for using Comet for your late addition hopping--it is an interesting and delightful hop, and you seemed to appreciate the Comet beer of mine you tried. Plus it is rustic and scratchy in the farmhouse tradition. I could go on and on, but I'll stop there for now.

  5. Like so many things in the beer world, farmhouse ale is a lot like pornography. I can't tell you what it is, but I know it when I drink it.

    I think that in the modern world, which probably dates back 100+ years, Farmhouse Ale is a lot like India Pale Ale. Other than the name, not much to do with the farmhouse. However, in a few cases, that assessment certainly doesn't apply.

    Does Oregon have any micro-maltsters yet? Anything akin to Skagit Valley Malting up here in Washington? That would make it easier to stay hyper-local.

  6. Yes, OSU is making something, which I can buy at my local homebrew store. I may go with that, though six-row is alluring as well.

  7. OSU bred Full Pint, but not producing malt for sale. They have a small scale micromalter that just got back up and running and is starting to do trial batches for them. Mecca Grade ( is Oregon bred (by OSU), grown, and malted. Until Gold Rush Malt opens, Mecca Grade and Rogue are the only Oregon malts. Great Western had an Oregon designated malt for a little while but discontinued it a few years ago.

  8. Obviously, Jeff, you've done far more research into brewing history, but it occurs to me that there were/are areas across the country that were settled by european migrants who brought their regional tastes with them - my hometown has a distinct Czech, Polish and 'Bohemian' district, for instance. Not far afield there is a still-thriving Amish community, and a solid old-world German presence in yet another from original first-settler types. And that's just central-eastern Iowa...surely somewhere over the last 150-200 years a local farmhouse style existed in those communities. I have no idea where to start looking for that info myself, though. Maybe it'll be a chapter in your next book?