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Farmhouse Ales: What and why

January 2005

Farmhouse Ales - Buy it nowThe beers we refer to as farmhouse ales have received a pleasant burst of attention recently, with examples showing up in magazine stories related to dining and most particularly a tasting of a range of these beers in the New York Times.

Farmhouse styles resulted from years of evolution, refinement, interpretation and re-interpretation of the simple, rustic ales once brewed on farms in Flanders and Wallonia. Phil Markowski's new book, Farmhouse Ales, puts these saison and biere de garde brews in modern and historical terms while guiding today's brewers toward credible and enjoyable reproductions of these old world classics.

The brewmaster at Southamption Publick House, Markowski is one of America's most innovative brewers (he has an award to prove it). He recently put down his mash fork long enough to answer a few questions about the book and the beers.

1. You write "Ask ten Belgian brewer 'What is saison?' and you'll likely get ten different answers. Nearly all will give you a response that is tauntingly vague."

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PM: Typical answers I was given were "a brew for the season," "something that is dry, but not too dry" and "it should be special." I don't believe that these brewers are mum in the interest of national security (although the Belgians can be every bit as chauvinistic as the Germans about their native brews), I think it highlights a basic difference in how Belgians and Americans think about brewing. They tend to talk about it as an overall experience, we want cold, hard specifications; we want physical information.

2. Many readers probably aren't sure what specifically we are talking about. Can you suggest three saisons and three bieres de garde the consumer should be looking for?

PM: As far as benchmark Belgian versions of Saison, naturally Dupont comes to mind first, not only because of availability but also because it is so distinctive. Another is Saison Pipaix and then the range from Fantome shows the free spirited (and often variable) nature of this type of beer.

For French Biere de Garde, one of my favorites is La Bavaisienne from Brasserie Theillier, La Choulette makes a very good (if a little variable) version with their "ambree" and the grand-daddy of them all is Jenlain Biere de Garde. I think Jenlain has been "dumbed down" (i.e. sweetened) over the years but it is still to be tasted and respected.

There is evidence of growing interest in farmhouse ales, particularly saisons. Who do you think the customers are?

PM: Besides the beer geeks I think there are some adventurous types who are purchasing these beers in small but growing numbers. From personal experience I have seen people of all backgrounds, from carpenters, to cops, to stock brokers drinking our Saison at the Southampton Publick House. I'm sure a few of them have then gone and purchased another saison elsewhere. It's a matter of being exposed to and open to trying something different. Even after 16 years of doing this I still get surprised at times, the guy who cleans out our cesspools looks like a classic Bud drinker but he lives for our Saison and Belgian Grand Cru.

Slowly, more and more people are becoming aware of specialty beers. It wasn't long ago that the term "IPA" was totally foreign to most people and today it is almost a household word.

3. What was the biggest surprise you had in visiting Belgian breweries in general and specifically?

PM: Unfortunately, one of the biggest surprises was the number of poorly made Belgian ales on the market. I had a number of commercial Belgian ales that were (unintentionally) infected, sloppily made and over spiced. They have a loose system over there (as opposed to the Germans who require brewers to be licensed before they can brew commercially) similar to ours. As a result not all the commercially available beers are well made (just like here) but the variety is there (unlike Germany) so there is a give and take. In my opinion, the line "Belgium, Beer Paradise" is less deserved than it used to be. Of course there are still plenty of great beers made in Belgium and the good news is that you can get the vast majority of them here in the US.

Where would you say Belgian breweries stand on the modern/rustic scale?

PM: I think that Belgian breweries are typical of the European brewery, the very large ones tend to be very modern and the smaller ones tend to be a bit antiquated. In the case of the latter these breweries typically have been "paid off" for years, if not generations, unlike in the US where most small breweries are fairly new and technically owned by a bank. However, the best of the small breweries seem to have a good grasp on where it's worth investing money. In these breweries you might see a modern state-of-the-art bottling line housed in a 200 year-old building or they may use an old brew house but they've invested in a modern laboratory to maintain quality and consistency.

And farmhouse breweries compared with other Belgian breweries?

PM: Actually some of the funkiest farm breweries I have seen were in Franconia (northern Bavaria), not France or Belgium. These were small breweries on working farms that generally produced Helles-type golden lagers. Some of these breweries had attic coolships like you'd see in a lambic brewery and open fermentors (often with mold growing around them). I remember some places where there were buckets of meat and sauerkraut fermenting next to lagering tanks, yet these breweries produced credible lager beers. The moral of the story is that you can still create good beer under what might appear to be appalling circumstances.

4. What's the appeal to American professional brewers of brewing these styles?

PM: They may be considered more cutting edge, it's a way to stand out from a competitor. Or, maybe the brewer simply loves Belgian styles. I think there is undeniably a growing awareness (with the average consumer) of Belgian ales as being different and more special.

To amateurs?

PM: These styles are perhaps more challenging to brew and are considered a bit "wild" which I think makes them more appealing. These styles (particularly Saison) can be a bit risky for a professional brewer to make and market as they are brewing as part of a commercial venture, for home brewers they have relatively little at stake financially and therefore can "jump right in" and take more chances in their brewing.

Should pub brewers be concerned about introducing Belgian-esque yeast into their breweries?

PM: I think caution should be exercised in bring any "non-neutral" yeast into a brewery, but the common belief that a yeast will "overtake" a brewery is a bit overblown. I think that this sort of information trickles down from large breweries where it in fact might be a problem to use different yeasts. In large industrial breweries beer and wort are generally transferred throughout the brewery by a common pipe manifold, in such a system it may be very difficult, but not impossible, to safely use different yeast strains.

In a brewery where sound cleaning procedures are adhered to there should be no problem in using different yeasts strains. After all, there are all sorts of yeast and bacteria floating around us all the time and if good cleaning and sanitizing procedures can keep them at bay then a "Belgian-esque" yeasts strain shouldn't be anywhere you don't want it to be.

5. You write about the importance of learning to "brew outside the box." What does that mean?

PM: In the book I suggest that if one is to recreate authentic farmhouse ales then that may require shedding some deep-seated beliefs on what are "proper" brewing techniques. Obviously we all have different approaches to making beer, often they stem from the way we first learned. I know many experienced, intelligent brewers who are practically frozen by superstition or habit to the degree that it hinders their ability to more accurately produce particular styles of beer (namely farmhouse ales). By "brewing outside the box" I mean some brewers may need to readjust their thinking to a different way of brewing. Brewing is not as black-and-white as some of may believe, there is not only more than one way to brew beer, there is an infinite number of ways to make beer, and none is more or less correct than another.

Do you worry that American brewers, particularly homebrewers, could turn that into a free for all?

PM: What's to lose? Americans are the most creative brewers in the world and I believe that is a result of our having more freedom, freedom from having to uphold old established traditions. We can still respect established styles and traditions but that is no reason hold back from creating new ones.

6. What did you learn in researching and writing the book that might change the way you brew (not just farmhouse ales)?

PM: I think the most lasting lesson for me was insight into how French and Belgian brewers think about beer styles. I was as steeped in the standard "style guidelines" as anyone and it was valuable for me to gain better understanding of their approach, which is more toward individuality than it is to fall in line. We have some of that here but we seem to need to categorize things. If someone creates a unique beer we feel the need to create a category to legitimize it, in France and Belgium they simply embrace it as unique and let it be.


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