Life on a farm a few centuries ago probably possessed few luxuries outside of a warm fire and a tankard of house-brewed ale. It was likely a simple brew made with no thought to dazzle, be pondered or least of all, taste consistent from batch-to-batch. It was brewed for a basic purpose—to refresh, sustain and comfort a hard-working body and mind.
It is possible that a self-sufficient farmer/brewer thought of his beer as just another provision to stockpile—no more special than the root vegetables that stocked the cellar, the wheels of cheese aging in a cave or the sides of meat hanging in the larder. A fraction of the season’s bounty that pleased not from its ability to excite the taste buds but rather from its role as basic sustenance. Not a chance! It is unlikely that vats of farmhouse brew would be given the same matter-of-fact attention as a hunk of pork! Not with its ability to soothe aching muscles and coax the spirit to go back out in the field again the next day.
Pretend you are a 19th-century farmer/brewer getting ready to make one of several batches of ale you produce each year. What will you brew with? You had a bumper crop of wheat so you trade a neighbor for some barley to blend with your wheat and rye. Your hop crop wasn’t great so you might substitute some evergreen boughs, juniper berries and seeds from your recently bolted coriander plants. The point is that you improvise; you brew with what is at hand.
A no-two-are-alike legacy lives on in many contemporary “farmhouse” ales. Emphasis on individuality, rather than uniformity, is evident in modern Belgian, French and American versions. Though this lack of conformity may be vexing to those who like their stylistic ducks in a row, attempting to narrowly define the beverage misses the point. A true farmhouse ale conveys a sense of origin; a great one, transcendence. You feel the rusticity, imagine the field and sense the unpredictability of the season—the liquid summation of “terrior.”
Today, outstanding versions of farmhouse ale are not and need not be brewed on a farm. The requirements for authenticity are a healthy respect for their origins, the brewer’s art and its many variations, and an open mind. A fitting tribute is when a modern brewer, looking to capture the essence of farmhouse ales past, creates something new and different. A modern farmhouse ale, like those of old, serves to refresh, sustain and dazzle. And we should expect nothing less from the salt of the earth.