More Roads: Rethinking Farmhouse Ales

Phil Markowski, cofounder and brewmaster of Two Roads Brewing in Stratford, Connecticut, wrote the book on farmhouse ales. Here he looks back on that influential work, pondering the expanding universe of knowledge about farmhouse brewing.

Phil Markowski May 26, 2020 - 9 min read

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Probably no book has guided the brewing world’s exploration of Belgian saison and French bière de garde as much as Phil Markowski’s Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition, published in 2004. It came before the explosion of popularity in farmhouse-inspired beers in the United States, and it has informed the trend along the way. In particular, the book takes a nondogmatic approach to the beers as they existed historically in Belgium and France. It describes styles that were not locked in place, but instead were wide open to interpretation and possibility. American brewers have taken that perspective and run in often unexpected directions.

As new research on farmhouse brewing in Northern and Eastern Europe enters the English-speaking world—namely, the upcoming book Historical Brewing, by Lars Marius Garshol—Markowski considers his subject in a shifting context. —Jamie Bogner

Farmhouse brewing, writ larger

“Lars expands the definition of what was known at the time that I did my research, and what was laid out by importers really. The products that were available were from Belgium, southern Belgium and northern France, and therefore that sort of defined the geographical barriers of what I researched and presented. But Lars has uncovered a really very different history of farmhouse brewing and certainly expanded the definition. So what has been available as the definitive scope of farmhouse has certainly been expanded.

“If I were to just do a revision on my book, I would focus on the United States as really kind of the new standard that has taken the European definition and run with it and redefined it, just as with IPAs and any number of styles. But again, Lars has expanded it into breweries that do some kind of alien and really mysterious steps—no-boil method, handing yeast down from one generation to the next…

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“Lars has done, in my mind, a great service, just to make the rest of us aware that there is definitely a broader geographic area. Predominantly Northern Europe, that’s what he’s focused on, but he’s also presented what’s happening in the Baltic states as well as Georgia and Eastern Europe. It’s something I wasn’t aware of, but this tradition is every bit as much farmhouse brewing as the Belgian and the French, in my opinion. It’s just not what I reported on. So I’m glad that someone has come along and expanded the definition.

“For me, you can’t ignore the U.S. interpretations that have come forward since I wrote the book 15 years ago. As is now typical, U.S. brewers have stretched the definition of these styles as well. So there are many interpretations, and no doubt with Lars’s book coming out, and with the relative availability of the kveik yeasts, you’re definitely going to see a lot more interpretations—with the United States leading the charge as usual.”

On mixed fermentation

“Certainly the use of Brettanomyces is something that I didn’t include, because commercial examples available at the time I was doing research did not typically include Brett. We can’t go back, but I think we can safely assume that any beer stored for X amount of time typically developed a Brett character back in the day. I think it’s fair to say that unintentionally, most if not all brewers were using mixed cultures back then. So I think that is valid—and again it is a change from what I presented—that Brett characteristics would be a part of it.

“It’s no longer single-strain yeasts that are used. It’s an open book. You really can’t neatly categorize these beers or classify them. By nature, the producers produced varying versions. I can imagine back in a farmhouse, they were not necessarily producing for commercial sale but predominantly for their own consumption and, maybe, for barter within their community. You know, you might trade the blacksmith a keg of your beer for shoeing your horses.

“So they weren’t necessarily looking for the same flavor every time. Consistency probably wasn’t part of their vocabulary. They probably made beer with whatever grains were available at a given time.”

On old-fashioned grains & Yeast.

“So another thing that’s kind of helping to stretch the definition, in terms of giving brewers more tools to work with, is the advent of craft malting.

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“Craft maltsters have begun to grow a number of heritage grains that were previously unavailable to American breweries. Examples are emmer, an ancient form of wheat, and triticale, which is a hybrid of wheat and rye. Buckwheat and einkorn wheat are other ancient grains that I can get in my neck of the woods. And I know other craft maltsters are growing these heirloom grains that they’re malting.

“So that to me has a perfect place in farmhouse brewing. One has to imagine that on a working farm, they were growing different grains, and they knew they had to rotate crops, and so they probably weren’t growing the same crops year after year. There’s so much conjecture on this subject, but I have to believe that the result of American brewers’ thirst for new ingredients and experimentation has driven a lot of this development and availability of new grains, new yeast strains—maybe not new, but new to us.

“Kveik strains are not new in general to those who have used them for centuries or generations, but they’re new to us. So all of this is just this endless thirst for new and different ingredients that can be combined. And to me, farmhouse is the loosest definition and, therefore, the place where you can apply these different ingredients at your will.”

Unifying traits

“I think the grisette approach is getting closer to the what the true intention of farmhouse beer was—to have a lower alcohol content and be refreshing. One beer that I can think of—a commercial beer that’s not widely available but really is probably the best example of what an original farmhouse was intending—is Le Petit Prince from Jester King [at 2.9 percent ABV].

“From an American perspective, and a craft-brewing perspective, it’s pretty gutsy to do a beer at 2½ percent alcohol and put it up for sale—and ask the same amount of money for it that you would a 6 or 7 percent beer. Specifically, speaking to the farmhouse intent and the historical purpose of these beers, that to me is inching closer to the original, and therefore more authentic, than using Brett, than using barrels, and all of that. But it’s all valid. What Brett gives you is this refreshing aspect by leaning out the body of the beer. That to me really was part of the farmhouse mission way back when. A dry, refreshing beer.

“Categories are about communication, about creating expectation, so they’re necessary to a degree. But there’s something about a category like this that’s so broad and so free, that it’s almost anything-goes—but with a couple of unifying traits: low alcohol and a dry, refreshing palate profile. To me those are two overriding, unifying traits of farmhouse beers.

“And throw in ‘rustic’ as a hard-to-pin-down quality. That handmade, sort of rough-hewn profile is something else that kind of narrows down the definition a bit.”

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