The American Brewers Redefining Farmhouse Ale

Farmhouse ales, long the domain of Belgium and France, have been co-opted and riffed on by American brewers. Aaron Goldfarb on the ten breweries—on and off the farm—who are redefining the style.

hill farmstead beer farmhouse ale

For the bulk of brewing history, from, let’s say, Mesopotamia all the way up to about a decade ago, defining farmhouse brewing was easy. A farmhouse brewery was a farm where beer was brewed using local ingredients, usually in the countrysides of northern France and southern Belgium. While farmhouse ales were always refreshing, unintentionally funky pale ales, the term “farmhouse ale” often acted as an alias for saisons or the occasional bière de garde.

Saison is French for “season” which is important because these were seasonal beers—brewed in the colder months when a farm had fewer chores and ready for these same workers (as well as the part-time “saisonniers”) during hotter months. Bière de garde means “beer for keeping,” and, in an era before refrigeration, these beers were also brewed when it was chillier so heat wouldn’t affect the delicate yeast during the months of fermentation. Likewise, in an era before hops production was so widespread—even today, European hops mainly come from Germany and the Czech Republic—spices were often used for preservation purposes.

Brasserie Dupont is probably the quintessential commercial farmhouse brewery—opened in 1950 and located on a farm that also produces breads and cheeses—and their Saison Dupont is still a classic example of Belgian farmhouse ale. Highly carbonated, with a cloudy, straw yellow hue, it beautifully shows how four simple ingredients—hops, malt, water and yeast—can manifest themselves into a highly complex beer. You could see a sweaty Wallonian field worker sipping it from a leather flagon, but just as easily imagine a fine dining restaurant presenting it with flair.

Today, however, Brasserie Dupont is something of a rarity. Since most saisons and bière de gardes were never intended to be sold, there aren’t exactly a lot of “true” farmhouse breweries still left in Europe. In fact, many Belgian breweries—like Brasserie St-Feuillien, who began making a canned offering in 2009—have started producing less-than-traditional saisons simply to satisfy the American market’s recent thirst for them. Even more to the point, it’s America that has picked up the mantle—this country’s aughties renaissance helping to revive the then-nearly-extinct style. In doing so, American brewers have also redefined what “farmhouse ale” actually means, making saisons that are often hoppier and boozier than tradition calls for, usually loaded with local fruits, obscure spices and sometimes even barrel-aged to add even more sourness and tartness to these once-simple beers.

Today it seems that there are now more “famous” farmhouse beermakers in America than there currently are in Europe, some of whom are trying to brew in the old tradition of the farmhouse breweries of Europe, and others who are brewing farmhouse-style beer in alternative spaces. Farmhouse ale-makers without the farm, one might say. Whatever the case, here are ten American breweries that have helped bring back the farmhouse funk.

On the Farm

Brewing beer in America has long been industrial work, but, of late, brewers are finding beauty in leaving the big city and heading to hard-to-access rural areas. The following are some of the best American breweries currently located on farms, mostly using local ingredients—often those growing on their own properties—to create beers both traditional and wholly unique to this country.

Hill Farmstead Brewery (Greensboro, VT)
Set on owner Shaun Hill’s 220-year-old family dairy farm—he still lives there—this tiny rural operation has become one of the most esteemed breweries in the world. Hill doesn’t actually grow ingredients on his farm, but everything he sources still passes through his hands, and he believes adamantly that his output should be consumed as fresh and close to the brewery as possible. He rarely puts his beer in bottles, and kegs only escape Vermont when Hill is feeling generous, occasionally landing in a few lucky New York and Philadelphia bars. Beers are named after Hill’s farming ancestors like Ann, Flora and my favorite, Aaron, a barrel-aged barleywine. While availability remains limited (Hill caps production at 150,000 gallons per year), the brewery just underwent an expansion, adding larger fermenters and a tasting room.

Jester King Brewery (Austin, TX)
Jester King might be America’s most traditional farmhouse brewery. They use water from a well on their sprawling property, mill and malt locally-grown grains and utilize the wild yeast lingering in the hot Austin air. All their beers are unfiltered, unpasteurized and 100-percent naturally carbonated, leading to not just complex, but also visually interesting offerings that are hazy and turbid. That, though, is where tradition ends and things get avant-garde. Beer geeks have gone crazy for beers like Atrial Rubicite, an ale refermented in oak barrels with native yeast, souring bacteria and fresh-picked raspberries. These more limited beers—one per customer—are so coveted people have resorted to disguises for making multiple purchases.

Logsdon Farmhouse Ales (Hood River, OR)
While the Rocky Mountains on a Coors Light can are pure artifice, the farmhouse painted on the label of all Logsdon bottles is anything but. That’s the actual red barn on founder Dave Logsdon’s 10-acre family estate in Hood River County—a small valley in the shadow of Oregon’s Mount Hood. Logsdon proudly claims he’s “putting the ‘farm’ back in farmhouse ales,” and indeed his property has cows and horses, hop fields, Schaarbeekse sour cherry trees—even a hillside cave for aging beers. As the former founder of the famed Wyeast Labs, Logsdon also knows a thing or two about manipulating microflora, which are combined artfully with locally-grown macroflora (like peaches) in the best of Logsdon’s beers. Still, even life on a bucolic farm isn’t always bucolic—this summer, founding brewmaster Charles Porter left the operation after Logsdon sold a portion of the brewery to Uptown Market, LLC.

Oxbow Brewery (Newcastle, ME)
Set on wooded farm just two miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, Oxbow has managed to add a true New England twist to the saison scene. Brewing out of a renovated barn, the brewery attempts to use strictly local ingredients, including fruit from an orchard on their 18-acre property that grows cherries, raspberries and strawberries. And while they aren’t exactly farming seafood there, what Maine brewer worth their sea salt wouldn’t want to incorporate that most locally-identified foodstuff into their rustic beers? Indeed, Oxbow did that just last summer when they released Saison Dell’Aragosta, a farmhouse ale brewed with locally-caught lobster.

Plan Bee Farm Brewery (Fishkill, NY)
While the most urban parts of Brooklyn and Queens are currently undergoing a massive brewing boom, one of the area’s hottest breweries is a 10-station Metro-North ride up the Hudson River. Opened in 2013 by a former Captain Lawrence brewer and an environmental non-profit worker, Evan and Emily Watson are working to create a 100-percent sustainable brewery. Their farm came with two beehives on the premises, and their honey now carbonates each and every beer. And since this honey is unpasteurized, the outcome of each beer is often unknown, with offerings only assured to achieve some levels of funkiness, tartness and sourness. Beers are made with 100-percent New York State ingredients, including everything from rose hips to grape must.

 

Off the Farm

You don’t exactly need a farm to make farmhouse ale these days. There are also terrific American “farmhouse” breweries brewing out of warehouses, industrial parks, urban and suburban neighborhoods and even right off a major highway.

Allagash Brewing Co. (Portland, ME)
Long set on the iconic “IndustriALE” Way—an incubator for Portland-area craft beer-makers—Allagash was the first brewery to really introduce Belgian styles to the American masses. By now, Allagash White is one of the most ubiquitous tap handles in all of America. But while that beer is a bit of a farmhouse ale for beginners, Allagash has plenty more “advanced” offerings. Many are produced via coolship—an old-fashioned open fermentation tank that allows those so-called “bugs and critters” in the air to inoculate their beers into something tart, funky and usually wonderful. My favorite is Resurgam, a spontaneously-fermented gueuze as good as anything from Pajottenland.

de Garde Brewing (Tillamook, OR)
About an hour-and-a-half west of Portland, in the cheese-loving town of Tillamook, you’ll find one of America’s most unique farmhouse breweries. Only two years old, de Garde relies exclusively on local microflora to ferment and flavor their beers. Like Allagash, they utilize a coolship, but being on the opposite coast means an opposite microclimate with different yeasts and bacteria. Their best offerings are in the “Bu” series, fruited Berlinerweisses called Berry Bu, Peach Bu, Cherry Raz Bu and so on. These necessitate aging in barrels—sometimes up to three years, with a good five percent of beer going bad and having to be trashed—before they are ready to drink. Not exactly a sound business strategy, but an incredibly flavorful one.

Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales (Dexter, MI)
When Ron Jeffries opened his iconic brewery just over a decade ago, America’s beer landscape was vastly different. Did the average drinker know about barrel-aging? Did he or she realize bacteria in beer could be a good thing? Had he ever heard the word “Brettanomyces”? Jeffries made these things a little more mainstream, releasing numerous farmhouse classics that still stand the test of time. Beers like the light and cloudy Bam Biére, their autumnal saison Fuego del Otoño and my favorite, the sour red ale La Roja. Best of all, Jolly Pumpkin’s farmhouse offerings are much easier to find than most beers mentioned here. (And if you’re wondering whether they make a pumpkin farmhouse beer… of course they do.)

Prairie Artisan Ales (Tulsa, OK)
It’d make sense that a state full of farms would play host to one of America’s best farmhouse breweries. But the thing is, Prairie doesn’t brew on the prairie. In fact, in the early years when brewmaster Chase Healey was first garnering acclaim for his farmhouse offerings, he didn’t even have his own brewery. Today Prairie brews out of a metal warehouse on a dead-end near the Arkansas River, where Healey cranks out truly Americanized farmhouse beer, like Prairie Hop and his “Midwest farmhouse ale,” Eliza5beth, all packaged in playfully labeled bottles (Healey’s brother Colin does the artwork.)

Sante Adairius Rustic Ales (Capitola, CA)
I’d heard brilliant things about a brewery right off the Pacific Coast Highway just south of Santa Cruz. As I neared Capitola in a rental car, I expected to see a cute farmhouse atop a cliff hugging the California coast, where I’d sip saisons overlooking Monterey Bay. Instead, I found a typical microbrewery, set in a soulless industrial park near an Italian motor scooter dealer and a mobile home retailer. Somehow, though, even without the farmhouse, SARA, as they’re known, is able to use their “house microbes” to add a unique funk to their beers. Opened in 2012 by Adair Paterno and Tim Clifford, these yeast geeks have already produced neo-farmhouse classics like West Ashley, a saison aged in pinot noir barrels with apricots.

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FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • Tegan Biun

    I am familiar with most of these breweries, and they are wonderful. But how can you have an article on farmhouse/saison beers in the US that includes 10 breweries and none of them are Funkwerks?! Please Aaron, if you are somehow unfamiliar with them, look them up. I have spent time living and drinking in NY, VT, FL, CO, and OR, and I adore saisons, and Funkwerks makes some of the best.

  • Lars Marius Garshol

    It’s absurd to claim that farmhouse brewing took place “usually in the countrysides of northern France and southern Belgium.” Farmhouse ale was brewed all over northern Europe, and it’s still being brewed in the Nordic and Baltic countries, and also in parts of Russia.

    What defines farmhouse brewing is not that it’s people brewing on a farm with their own ingredients, but that the brewing happens within the farmhouse tradition. Farmhouse brewing practices and equipment are totally different from modern brewing, whether it’s industrial, craft, or home brewing.