I was considering doing my first Beer Styles 101 essay on the classic and oft misunderstood Pilsner, but my love for Belgium and my thirst for a Belgian Saison tipped the scales.
The more commonly known country of origin for the Farmhouse Ale is Belgium, but in reality, there are two countries where the Farmhouse Ale was born and raised from past until present: France and Belgium. The Belgian Farmhouse Ale is known as Saison, while the French Farmhouse Ale is known as Biere de Garde.
It may not seem so at first glance, but both names mean the same thing in idea and in reality. Saison and Biere de Garde came about hundreds of years ago as a beer to be brewed during the season which would then be laid down to keep, or to store, for months on end, and then drank when needed. The still-new modern convenience of electricity and refrigeration was certainly not applicable hundreds of years ago. In fact, brewing was largely a seasonal activity. Brewers, professional and local, may not have understood the scientific technicalities of why, but they did know that the warm summer months were not kind to brewing and beer in general. On the other hand, fall, winter and spring were a different story entirely.
Extreme uncontrollable heat is a brewer’s worst enemy. But if a farmer and a brewer couldn’t brew for months on end, what was he or she to do to slake both their thirsts and the thirsts of their workers who labored for long hours in the fields? Water was hardly an option as safe, clean water was still scarce and a rarity to be found. It was out of this simple and basic need, along with having rich agricultural, cultural and societal purpose that the Farmhouse Ales were born.
What is brewed today may be close to how the Farmhouse Ales of France and Belgium would have tasted, but there is no doubt that they are also very different.
Each farming community and family had their own recipe and consistency was a whim often not bothered with. While it is known that stronger batches were brewed that would survive the summer months to be enjoyed during the next harvest, usually in fall, there was still hard work to be done during the warm months of ploughing and planting. I can only imagine the hard, back-breaking work it involved and the extreme thirsts it would spawn. A lighter, brisker, more refreshing ale would be needed, and in large quantities. You didn’t want yourself or your workers to pass out from dehydration and exhaustion, nor would they would be of any help if their productivity was stunted by inebriation. A low ABV Farmhouse Ale would fill both needs, and so it wasn’t at all uncommon for a farm to brew a minimum of two strengths of Farmhouse Ale.
As a farming commune first and brewer second, whatever ingredients were available at any given time would be the ingredients used to brew that particular batch of beer. This resulted in large variations in both quality and ingredients, though the more we come to understand both Saisons and Biere de Garde, the more we come to realize that there were also some common characteristic tendencies: Dryness of palate. The use of grains and spices to either cover up bad or stale batches or to add tasteful refreshing and revitalizing properties to the ale itself. Being wood aged for a varying number of months with sanitation also being a spotty concern, a certain level of Bretty (Brettanomyces) funk, earthiness, and sourness would also be expected from many of your Farmhouse Ales. What many may consider unusually funky, sour, spiced, and/or dry was the taste of the time. Thankfully this quality still survives to some degree today; Farmhouse Ales are in the middle of a revivalist movement.
Staying alive and producing crops were of the utmost importance, but it would be a mistaken assumption if one assumed that the ales these farms brewed weren’t of some personal and private pride, not to mention a potential source of additional revenue. Many of the family Farmhouse Ale recipes were private and not recorded on paper, surviving generation to generation through oral heritage. That wasn’t always the instance though, and some recipes that were written down have been discovered over more recent years. Another recent realization is that it wasn’t uncommon for neighboring farms to share batches, barrels, yeast strains and more. Beer was a very significant part of life, the community, and the farm. When harvest season arrived, it was as much a time of celebration as it was back-breaking labor which, of course, meant it was time to bring out their best Saison or Biere de Garde.
The two main regions of Farmhouse Ales I mentioned earlier are the French speaking region of Belgium, Wallonia, and the neighboring region of Pas de Calais, France. If you look at a map, the two are literally neighbors so it should come as no surprise that they brew two different and yet similar Farmhouse Ales. The Farmhouse Ale almost completely disappeared under the ruthless propagation of the mass-produced fizzy lager, and also partly because it is a product of farming families. Spotty records, if any, and whether or not the native country has pride in their brewing heritage and culture were as much factors in their own near demise. Thankfully, a few upstart Farmhouse breweries had just that, pride. Their revivalist mission and passion have brought the Farmhouse Ale back from the brink of extinction and, at the same time; have created a thriving interest in traditional Saison and Biere de Garde.
Two breweries in particular have taken the lead in quality, taste, and authenticity, keeping Saison and Biere de Garde alive. They are are, respectively, Saison Dupont and Jenlain. While they aren’t the only brewers of Saison and Biere de Garde, it is pretty much accepted fact that if they hadn’t stepped in to save their brewing culture, heritage, and history from imminent extinction when they did, there is little doubt the Farmhouse Ale would be but a wistful memory of yore, lost upon the winds of time. Instead of a living testament glistening with beauty and pride in my chalice, it would be an empty will of remembrance for a lost loved one.
There are many more Saisons and Biere de Garde available than I can list here, and more appear every year to my thirsty delight. The ones I have listed are available in the US which means that at any given moment, you and I can be savoring a living work of art rich with taste, flavor, aroma, history, and culture. The Farmhouse Ale is one of my personally favorite intriguing and fascinating styles of beer, not to mention highly tasty. I hope this offers a bit of insight and understanding into these two wonderful beers.
Amber blonde or brown in color, more subdued hops with a malty profile, peppery spiciness, softer palate, bready, caramelized sugars, an apparent ABV ranging between 6-8%, fruity, earthy, cork character, and open to much brewer interpretation. Just like her cousin across the border, the French Biere de Garde is open to her brewer’s interpretation as the style in general is even more loosely defined, but all French verities will proudly carry these characteristics to varying degrees.
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