What is “Farmhouse Beer,” Anyway?

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If you see the word “farmhouse” on a beer can or tap list and don’t know quite what it means, you’re not alone. In terms of brewing, farmhouse can mean a couple of things—and one of those is changing as you read this.

The first meaning refers to origin. No matter what the style, any beer made in a farmhouse or on a farm could, technically, be called a farmhouse beer.

The second sense is more stylistic, connoting rough-hewn, slightly imperfect brewing techniques that share similarities to a couple of historic farmhouse styles that are generally light in color, often slightly tart and almost always a bit unpolished.

These vagaries can rub beer professionals the wrong way.

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“Some breweries make beer called ‘farmhouse beer’ that simply fits a flavor profile that’s similar to classic farmhouse styles,” says Marika Josephson, co-owner/brewer at Scratch Brewing Company in Ava, Illinois. She’s also the author of Keeping the “Farm” in “Farmhouse Beer,” an essay published by Good Beer Hunting on the meaning of farmhouse brewing.

Those classic styles include saison and bière de garde, both believed to have originated on farms in Belgium and Northern France over centuries.

“Other breweries have spent a lot of time, effort and money to invest in farming on their land or even in buying ingredients grown by farmers that are local to their brewery,” says Josephson. “I think the actual farming side is important.”

For years, saison and bière de garde were pretty much the only two styles recognized as farmhouse ales in the English-speaking beer world, possibly due to our focus on and love for Belgian beer. No matter where it was made, on a farm or in a city warehouse, something called a “farmhouse beer” or “farmhouse ale” was likely to be inspired by those classic styles.

“I keep having to fix the Wikipedia page on farmhouse ale… The other beers are nothing like saison.”—Lars Marius Garshol, author, Historical Brewing Techniques

But the concept has expanded immensely in recent years, thanks to Lars Marius Garshol, a Norwegian software developer who, in his spare time, writes about the mostly unknown farmhouse beer traditions in Northern and Eastern Europe. His new book, Historical Brewing Techniques: The Lost Art of Farmhouse Brewing, published this spring, details farmhouse brewing practices in his native Norway, as well as Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Lithuania. Thanks to Garshol’s book and long-running blog, North American beer lovers are starting to recognize that farmhouse brewing extends far beyond the Low Countries.

“I keep having to fix the Wikipedia page on farmhouse ale to take out the ‘originated in the Hainaut district of Belgium,’ ” says Garshol. “The other beers are nothing like saison.”

Those other farmhouse beers include the popular kveik beers of Norway, many of which possess unusual yeast strains that Garshol shared with brewers and yeast labs in the U.S., as well as gotlandsdricka from Sweden’s Gotland island, Lithuanian keptinis and Finland’s juniper-filtered sahti.

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For Garshol, such rustic ales are the true ancestors of contemporary brewing, even if they’re very distant in terms of taste.

“This is not the kind of beer that you already know,” he says. “This is the older and bigger branch of the family of beer. These beers are made in a tradition where things like garden hoses and metal kettles are recent, major technological innovations.”

Thanks to Garshol’s work, the terms “farmhouse beer” or “farmhouse ale” can now be used for brews that sound very little like traditional saison or bière de garde.

“[They can have] relatively strong, low carbonation, kind of like English cask ale, usually on the sweetish side, often brewed with juniper, and the flavors are kind of malt- and to some degree yeast- and process- based,” he says. “Hops, to the extent that they use hops, they are of course not American craft hops. They’re usually similar to Saaz and European noble hops, kind of grassy and peppery.”

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While such styles are fascinating, Garshol notes that many others are in danger of disappearing forever, like the traditional farmhouse brews of Hallingdal in eastern Norway.

“To take an extreme example, in all of Hallingdal, they have their own yeast, a good number of people still know how to make the malt themselves, but they’re down to three, four families that still brew,” says Garshol. “So, it’s got a foot in the grave, basically. Almost two feet.”

One big takeaway: farmhouse beer can mean many things, depending on where you look.

“So you read my book, and there’s just like insane variety,” he says. “When you close the last page, you need to remember that this is only Europe. If we include Bhutan and Africa and South America…” says Garshol with a sigh. “I just decided that I was going to focus on one continent or I was going to go insane, because I couldn’t handle it all.”