Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What Is Farmhouse Beer? - Plus, Hoppy (Equinox) Saison Recipe

These days, I get asked this question ("what is farmhouse beer?") a lot. And by "a lot," I mean, during the occasional month in which I interact with a human being, very often that other human being asks me this question.

"Farmhouse beer" and "saison" have been used by modern brewers as somewhat interchangeable terms in the last several years, so let's start there. The confusion begins immediately, because there is no real definition of the entire "farmhouse" umbrella, and "saison" itself can be hard enough to explain. I believe most of us have come to use "farmhouse" as a broader, more encompassing term for a type of rustic beer, of which saison is a slightly narrower subset. So "farmhouse beer" has come to mean any beer emulating beers that, historically, were brewed on farms for farm workers and locals (rather than for mass distribution to a city populace), though theoretically that could be a whole bunch of things, and also BTW most farmhouse ales are no longer brewed on actual farms, or for farm workers. Obviously, this is all rather broad and unhelpful as far as building expectations as to what you're about to actually drink might taste like. In order to make "saison" somehow meaningful, we moderns have little choice but to take a broad historic brewing approach and whittle it down to something more specific. After all, farmhouse is also used outside for beer, for all sorts of vaguely rustic items. How do you define 'farmhouse' in a way that you can actually succinctly explain to someone buying your food product at a farmer's market? To me, 'farmhouse' as a descriptor has always been a bit like defining porn: you know it when you see it.

What is "saison"? Historically, saisons were simply farmhouse beers. Broad. Brewed in certain seasons, adapted to each farm and its terroir and resources, given to farm workers. But we have taken this broad swath of beer and made it highly specific, almost entirely based off of one saison that survived industrialization and went on to inform modern palates: Saison Dupont. From the diverse array of historic saisons, which were rarely defined and rarely thought of as a "style", we have molded a category of beers around an archetypal (and delicious) example: extremely dry, extremely effervescent, fermented with particular French and Belgian yeast strains for a spicy / fruity / phenolic flavor profile, and quite a bit higher in alcohol content than most historic examples likely were.

I like to break down farmhouse beer / saison into three "takes" on the "style" that have been, at some point, common.

1. Neo Saison
What happened was this: by the later half of the 20th Century, very few farmhouse breweries remained in operation, and fewer still that the average brewer or drinker could ever hope to try without a country-hopping scavenger hunt. One saison, though, still did stand, and its relative accessibility meant that it was the first (and only) example of saison that many impressionable American brewers were encountering. What happened next was fairly obvious: Americans became obsessed with this intriguing style, and having a very limited sample size to go off of, basically copied the hell out of Saison Dupont lots and lots of times. So as the saison visible enough to capture our attention and become the quintessential saison, Saison Dupont sort of reinvented what saison was. But being just one example from a previously diverse category, it very likely differs from many of those older beers in pretty big ways. Still, I've never been a stickler for a rigid adherence to styles, so ultimately, who cares? This is how evolution works, and now we have a new style, what I like to call the Neo Saison. Dupont did it early, and arguably best, but Americans have created what you could even consider a distinct sub-genre. While Saison Dupont contains up to six different yeast strains, one major difference of the Neo American Saison from any historic saison are their reliance on only one single culture. Generally, we have isolated the strongest and most desirable yeast from these classic saison examples, creating a narrower microbial ecosystem and a tighter, more streamlined realm of flavor.

2. Sour Farmhouse Ale
Lots of beer got funky and sour historically. There were a measures against this, like aggressively hopping a beer to inhibit bacteria, or simply drinking it young. But farmhouse brewing was not beholden to the rigid market demands of industrial brewing, and terroir was part of the equation. Farmhouse beer was often kept through the winter, thus offering plenty of time for microbial colonization and terraforming — and anyway, those farmhouse yeast cultures were likely a mix of funky stuff in the first place. Farmhouse Ales notes that many European saisons closely resembled lambic, which makes sense. Blending was common. Tartness was an expected characteristic, and as the beers aged with the seasons, a bloom of funk would emerge. Rustic was the name of the game, and arguably this tradition evolved into some of the beautiful sour beers that have survived into today. Everything about these funky, terroirist farmhouse ales was bucolic was f***.

3. Hoppy Farmhouse Beer
Historic farmhouse brewers had a yeast culture — their yeast culture. Like a sourdough culture, these farmhouse brewing cultures were passed down through time, evolving and accumulating identity, and gave every farm's beer its uniqueness. As mentioned above, historic farmhouse ales often turned tart and funky over time. If you didn't want that to happen, one option was to create an aggressively hopped beer — the hops inhibiting the bacteria, and slowing down or preventing sourness from developing.

Hoppy saisons today are not particularly common (in my region, at least), which is interesting, considering how much we like our hops, and inserting them into any and all styles. To be honest, I find hoppy saisons (and their spiritual cousin, the Belgian IPA) can be a very difficult beer to properly balance, and I don't always love the results. An overly aggressive yeast character can become very cloying when paired with hops, highlighting bitterness in some unflattering way. Any sort of sweetness — more commonly found in a Belgian IPA than a hoppy saison, I would hope — and you have three of my least favorite qualities in a beer, and one where too many loud notes are fighting to be heard.

To work, I think a hoppy saison needs to go soft on most of those potentially-abrasive qualities. First, you need a quieter yeast strain, one that plays nice with other elements of the beer. If your saison yeast gets too phenolic, it'll clash. And whatever hops you're using, avoid bitterness as much as possible. The bittering addition, if any at all, should be a splash. Focus on the flavor and aromatics so that the hops can work their nuances in there without banging around, demanding attention. Finally, for the love of god: keep your saisons dry. Stick to a simple, clean malt bill. Take any caramel malt you might find laying around your brewery out back, douse it in gasoline, light it on fire, dig a ditch, shovel the remains into the ditch, and fill the ditch with concrete. Then move somewhere else, because your property might now be haunted by caramel malt.

Considering how hard it is to define farmhouse ales at all, there may only be one practical quality we can point to: they're beers brewed to be dry and refreshing, above all else. But if you can accomplish that, you can brew a great farmhouse ale.

Hoppy Equinox Saison Homebrew Recipe-

5.0 Gal., All Grain
Ambient free-rise fermentation, avg. 82 F
OG: 1.042
FG: 1.004
ABV: 5%

100% [#7.25] Pilsner malt

Hop Schedule-
2 oz Equinox @0 (whirlpool for 40 minutes)
3 oz Equinox @dry hop

Here are some saison cultures I like: French Saison, Saison II, Wallonian Farmhouse


  1. > "Farmhouse beer" and "saison" are somewhat interchangeable terms

    You must know that's not true. What about sahti? What about gotlandsdricka? What about the other Nordic and Baltic farmhouse types?

    In the minds of most drinkers and beer people today what you said is true, but that's simply because they are ignorant of a huge family of beers that has never been distributed outside their home countries.

    IMHO what you're talking about is "craft farmhouse", meaning "beers produced by craft breweries originally descended from Belgian farmhouse ale." That's *very* different from "farmhouse".

    1. Exactly, I guess that was poorly worded for its placement in the post, as I meant that most craft consumers (and brewers) today use the terms interchangeably. I think we're both trying to say the same thing. Today, I don't find much rhyme or reason to how breweries discern between farmhouse beers and saisons; they're viewed as largely overlapping. Part of what I'm trying to suss out is how we can start to make the semantic differences mean something again in a modern context, after they've been used overlappingly for the last several years.

  2. Great post Derek and glad you took the time from what must be an insane schedule to pull this together. Great information and always entertaining. Thanks!

  3. Derek, just had your Equinox on tap at Row 34 in Boston last night. Excellent!! I think you nailed what you talked about in this post. Just enough yeast character, while allowing the hops to shine as well. Nothing seemed out of place. They complimented each other very well!!

  4. Nice reading hearing others thoughts that are as obsessed with farmhouse ales as me. I like those 3 yeasts as well. One of my best saisons was using WY3711 and WLP566. I also made one blending Wallonian Farmhouse with Wyeast French Saison to hopefully combine their absurd attenuations. It actually managed to get a bit below 1.000 without using brett or bugs! I rambled about it and a number of other experiments here

    My favorite saison strain is White Labs Saison III (WLP585). Its a "platinum" seasonal release so it can be a bit hard to track down at times. But it is the most tart sacch yeast I've ever encountered. IME, this makes it a great base yeast for brett/sours. It also behaves very oddly in its flocculation. It forms tiny little clumps that make my starter look exactly like a snowglobe.


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