What Is A Farmhouse Beer?

Perhaps you recall a long time ago when I wrote an article about saisons and used an image of a farmhouse. In that article (which you should read if you didn’t already) I assume that you, the reader, brought up a logical point:

“But wait, I thought they [saisons] were farmhouse ales.”

Boy, you beer-drinking readers sure are smart.

But you also brought up an excellent point. What is a farmhouse ale? What’s the difference between farmhouse beers and saisons? What’s the meaning behind naming these beers? What’s the point of anything?

Before we tread down that existential path, let’s start with basics: creating an arbitrary definition for farmhouses. And no, not that the big red kind — though we should sit down and do that some time.

What Makes A Beer A Farmhouse?

Three farmhouse beers from Fair Isle Brewing in Seattle

Curious about the history of farmhouses, eh? Well, let’s start with the basics. Farmhouses are ales, as opposed to lagers (since we arbitrarily define everything, remember?). Back in the day, some hundreds of years ago in Europe, farmers would have tons of grains. 

But hey, why make bread when you can make liquid bread?

Farmhouse ales came about as the beers that farmers would make in their farmhouses. Why would farmers make beer? Well, aside from the obvious reason (to enjoy alcohol), check out this spicy nugget from Wikipedia:

“This was in a time when it was safer to drink beer than water.”

Woof.

So, farmers from countries like France and Belgium would brew farmhouse beers to stay alive. And now us beer nerds meticulously judge the quality of their farmhouse descendants!

Ok, back on track. We know what made beers farmhouses, but what currently makes beer farmhouses? Like most things in life, the answer is open-ended and largely unsatisfying: the brewer calls it one.

Sure, brewers can adhere to traditional farmhouse brewing methods like using wild, tamed, and even feral yeasts, and they can even brew their beers in beautiful red barns. But at the end of the day, farmhouse ales generally just have a common profile with each other. 

It’s sort of like when you drink an IPA and say, “oh ya, that’s an IPA.” Then your girlfriend says, “how do you know it’s an IPA?” and you reply, “because the menu says this is an IPA and I read that and now I drank the beer assuming it’s an IPA.” But also because it has strong hoppy notes and flavors and appeals to people all over, as an IPA does.

Tl;dr: Farmouhouses are farmhouses if they taste and smell like farmhouses.

Farmhouse Ale Profile

How can you tell that farmhouse ale is a farmhouse ale?

Ask the brewer.

All jokes aside, farmhouse ales tend to be more bitter and tart than a traditional ale. The flavor comes from the hops, but  malt flavor in farmhouse ales is pretty common. The yeasts in farmhouses tend to eat lots of sugar, so these beers don’t have many sweet flavors. They can also be real fizzy thanks to increased carbonation.

More often than not, a farmhouse has a crisp, blonde-looking color to it. Some darker farmhouses exist but expect a lighter looking beer.

The farmhouse style essentially owes much of its style to the yeasts. Again, farmhouses come in many shapes and sizes, but these traits are more common than not.

What’s The Difference Between A Farmhouse And Saison?

So you want to get technical, huh? Well well well, let’s get into it.

A saison is a traditionally French or Belgian farmhouse ale. It’s sort of the square-rectangle thing in that all saisons are farmhouse ales but not all farmhouse ales are saisons.

Answer not satisfying, you say? Well, what if I told you that the terms “farmhouse” and “saison” are largely American terms and don’t mean the same thing in other areas of the world?! Yes, the terminology is that arbitrary.

What makes a beer a farmhouse: It follows farmhouse brewing methods. It also tastes and smells and looks like it a farmhouse ale would. Farmhouse envelops various types of beer, including saisons, biere de gardes, and grisettes.

What makes a beer a saison: A farmhouse ale brewed to match the profiles of traditional Belgian and French styled farmhouse beers.

Saisons, Biere de Gardes, Grisettes, And So On

Here’s the bottom line: beer isn’t something you create and slap a box label on. What’s the difference between a saison and other farmhouse ales? What’s the difference between a pale ale, IPA, DIPA, and the curse triple IPA? What’s the difference between a porter and a stout?

To regurgitate perhaps one of the best legal quotes of all time, “I know it when I see it.

Good brewers have a handle on what they’re trying to make. If their goal is a farmhouse ale with wonderful lemongrass notes, that’s probably what they’ll end up with. Could we call it a light and lemongrassy pale ale? Sure, if we really want. Hell, we could call it boozy lemongrass water. 

But the more beer you try, the more you notice the differences between, say, an IPA and a farmhouse ale. Yes, the yeasts are different and the hop profiles vary, but there’s no “perfect” way to differentiate the two.

The same goes for different farmhouses. I have no doubt that saisons and biere de gardes are different. How can I tell they’re different? Because when I order a saison I expect different flavors and notes than when I order a biere de garde. 

Thomas Short

Thomas Short is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. His work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Huffington Post, CraftBeer.com, and more. You can reach Thomas at tshort0702@gmail.com.

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