Between farm-to-table, farm-to-bottle, farm brewing and farmhouse ales, the idea of the serene, pastoral farm as the source of all that is natural and good in food and drink seems to be ever-present these days, splashed as it is all over menus, blogs and grocery shelves.
When it comes to beer specifically, the lines of delineation regarding what role the farm plays in the creation of a beer aren’t as clear-cut as one might believe. In fact, there is a big difference between the two typical references to farming one might find on a bottle or brewery website. In a nutshell: “Farmhouse breweries” make beers that have roots in Belgian and French history, while “farm breweries” don’t adhere to a specific style but rather adopt the label because they source ingredients from local farms.
Confused? Here’s a more specific breakdown so you’ll know exactly what you’re drinking.
Farmhouse ale is a style of beer that cropped up in rural areas spanning France and Belgium in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The beers were brewed on farms, using natural, untreated water, yeasts cultivated naturally from the surrounding area and other ingredients typically grown on site. Compared with brewing techniques used today, farmhouse brewing was a fundamentally different way of making beer because instead of sourcing ingredients from an assortment of locales, farmhouse beers really captured a sense of local flavor before “terroir” ever became a hot topic.
Fast-forward to today’s American craft-beer landscape. While many brewers adopt certain traditional production methods to re-create the flavors of historic farmhouse ales, there isn’t a formal set of guidelines or strict definition of what a brewery needs to do to adopt the term. Today’s farmhouse breweries don’t have to be located on a farm or use local ingredients. And a brewery doesn’t have to specialize in farmhouse-style ales in order to make one or two. They simply need to make a beer that tastes like old-school ales, like Saisons and Bière de Garde. Boulevard Brewing, Brewery Ommegang, Terrapin Beer Co. and even the macro beer makers are jumping on the wagon; Blue Moon recently announced the release of its Farmhouse Red, inspired by the brewer’s travels across Belgium.
For some brewers, like Jeffrey Stuffings at Jester King, this lack of formal definition is troubling because there’s no distinction between breweries that take a strict approach to tradition and those that don’t. “We’re sensitive to this topic because we find that most commercially available farmhouse ales use manipulated water, the same grain and hops as everyone else from the same few suppliers, pure culture fermentation with yeast from a laboratory, force carbonation, and a picture of a barn, tractor, or person in a straw hat on the label.” To him, that’s not what farmhouse brewing is all about. “To us, farmhouse brewing is a fundamentally different way of making beer that harnesses the surrounding land to make unique beer with a sense of place,” he says.
Why is the distinction important? Traditionally, farmhouse beers should express where they come from. A Saison from Oregon should taste different than a Saison from Texas, and because there are no regulations on the use of the term, that’s not always the case.
Below are a few breweries that illustrate the spectrum of breweries currently making beer (and one that will be soon) within the American farmhouse category.
Jester King Brewery
Located in rural Dripping Springs, just outside of Austin, TX, the brewers at Jester King are making some of the most progressive farmhouse ales in the country, with a focus on capturing the local Texas Hill Country terroir. To that end, wild yeasts, mostly local grains and untreated limestone-based well water create the foundation for the brews, which are enhanced with a rainbow of ingredients like oyster mushrooms, lavender and epazote. All of the brewery’s beers are packaged unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally conditioned, meaning they taste as fresh and funky as possible (in the best of ways).
Focused on making Belgian-style farmhouse ales with an extensive focus on barrel-aged, wild and sour beers, Oxbow Beer operates on a renovated farm in coastal Newcastle, ME. They grow some fruit used in their beers (and also raise pigs fed on spent grains) but deviate from the “all local” mentality as they source hops and malts from all over the world to achieve the traditional Belgian flavors they want to create. For them, it’s about re-creating the flavors of beers made in Belgium as they were in the past, but through the lens of an American brewer.
Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery
A short 30-minute hike from Portland, OR, this upcoming brewery from Oregon writer Christian DeBenedetti and former Jester King brewer Jordan Keeper has generated all kinds of buzz since launching a crowdsourcing campaign to help with funding last fall. DeBenedetti says he is restoring his family’s 100-year-old craftsman-style barn for the brewery, and they’ll use homegrown fruit, hazelnuts (the brewery is located on a working hazelnut farm) and wild yeasts propagated from old fruit trees on site. They also plan on growing hops in the future to produce their crop of seasonally driven farmhouse beers. Look for fresh first rounds of production to start this summer.
The notion of terroir and beers that capture local flavor also sprouts in the “farm brewery” discussion, but the category differs from farmhouse category on several points. Instead of being rooted in European tradition, farm breweries have emerged out of the growing locavore movement because the main crux is the use of locally sourced ingredients. There aren’t restrictions on the yeasts or kinds of water that can be used, nor are there strict guidelines about style. Farm breweries can make everything from Belgian ales to English porters and American IPAs, as long as they are made with regional hops and malts.
Like farmhouse, the definition of “farm brewery” is generally fluid in most states. However, one unique case can be found in the state of New York, where a law was passed in 2012 that set forth specific parameters for the designation. Until the end of 2018, at least 20 percent of the ingredients used to make a beer at a New York Farm Brewery must be grown or produced in New York. That number will increase in increments as the farming industry also expands to meet this new demand for hops, malts and other ingredients. Upwards of 70 breweries now carry the official designation of New York Farm Brewery, according to the New York State Brewers Association.
But these guidelines are only in the great state of New York (though whispers of similar legislation have also circulated through Vermont, one of the brewers told us). So other breweries around the country that call themselves farm-to-bottle or farm breweries don’t necessarily follow the same stringent guidelines. Some, like Rogue Ales & Spirits in Oregon, grow their own ingredients on site, while others employ varying percentages of ingredients sourced from local farms, like Almanac Brewing in San Francisco. Is one approach more legit than the other? Of course not. The point is that there is a spectrum of interpretations on what is required to call oneself “farm” or “farm-to-glass.” Here are a few that illustrate the shifting parameters:
Good Nature Farm Brewery & Tap Room
New York’s first licensed farm brewery opened in 2012, and is actually located in an urban mixed-use area in Hamilton, NY. While Good Nature doesn’t grow its own hops or malts, the ales are made from ingredients grown by local farmers. Four year-round ales span a variety of styles and include a blonde made with 40 to 50 percent local New York ingredients, as well as an American brown, an oatmeal stout made with local hand-rolled oats, and Annie, an anniversary imperial IPA. Good Nature also makes a variety of seasonal and experimental releases.
Saint James Brewery
Another licensed New York Farm Brewery, Saint James Brewery in Long Island is owned by husband-and-wife duo Rachel and Jamie Adams, who use some fruits they grow on their farm (which is in a separate location thanks to zoning laws) and a higher percentage of ingredients from local hop and barley farmers to help support the state’s farmers while making their Belgian-style beers.
Rogue Ales & Spirits
They don’t brew their beer on the farms, but the self-dubbed “agri-fermenters” at Rogue Ales & Spirits grow everything they need to make beer — including seven varieties of hops, barley, rye, corn and a wide assortment of fruits, veggies and herbs—on two farms and an orchard. The results include Rogue Farms 7 Hop IPA, Chipotle Ale, Marioberry Braggot, as well as the 19 Original Colonies Mead made with Rogue honey and Pumpkin Patch Ale made with Rogue pumpkins, cinnamon, cardamom and other seasonal spices.
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