Farmhouse Ales: A History and Profile

Originally, it is believed that farmers stocked beer like any other provision. And way way back, the beer was made with whatever was available on the farm or for trade with neighboring farms. Today’s farmhouse ales aren’t done this way, however, they harken back to idea of the originals, using seasonal and regional ingredients.

Farmhouse ales that do hold to some of the old traditions and that are historically noted seem to have originated in the Nordic and Baltic regions. Belgian and French saisons came later. Originally farmhouse ales were made with home brewing techniques and were/are not made for long storage or transport. They are very specific to the place they came from. Nordic refers to the countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway. Baltic countries are formed by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

“The ancient ales that have survived to the present day: sahti in Finland, koduõlu in Estonia, gotlandsdricke in Sweden, maltøl in Norway and kaimiškas in Lithuania.”

It is believed that they came about sometime around the Iron Age (before the Middle Ages), though it has been hard to pin point. No doubt it existed in other parts of Europe, but mass production of beer took off there, and these methods were largely lost, where they stayed alive in the Nordic region and the Baltics.

While farmhouse ales are generally believed to be what are called “small beers”, or low ABV so that they are refreshing, maybe take the edge off, but don’t slow you down or cloud your head. However, the Nordic traditions had small beers (easy brewing, light, refreshing) and “feast ales” that were stronger, made of better ingredients and more complex to brew and to the taste buds.

“There are also medium strength ales of 5–6 % ABV which put smile on lips, but do not stop the work. In Finland and Estonia traditional ales seem to be mostly either small beers or feast ales, but medium strength ales exist in Norway, Sweden and Lithuania.”

According to this article, small beers are nearly extinct, though a couple still exist. It is really interesting and worthwhile, if this subject interests you, to read through this article and follow all the links to other articles. The Finnish tradition of brewing the Kalja beer is really worth reading about. It’s a very culturally specific and fascinating look at home brewing as part of culture. Here’s the link to that article

Traditional ingredients for these beers include “Malted and unmalted grains, juniper branches, hops and yeast are the basic ingredients of these ales. Malted barley is the most common base, but also rye, oats and wheat are used in both malted and unmalted forms.”

“Juniper is the most important brewing herb in the Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales. Traditionally the juniper flavor comes from the branches laid on the bottom of the lauter tun filter (see image below) or from juniper infusion (branches infused in hot water).  The taste of branches is needle-like and woody, somewhat different than flavor of berries. Hops are used fairly often, but usually in minor quantities. Sahti is often unhopped.”

Lithuania is the exception to this. There is no juniper in their beer. They are more heavily hopped and can sometimes be on the bitter side. All of these are still being brewed largely with their original heirloom yeasts.

I wasn’t going to get into the brewing techniques, except that I thought they were really cool. They brewed in wooden barrels that couldn’t be heated externally like modern stainless steel lauder tuns.

So instead they were boiled with hot stones dropped into the water “However, with hot stones long boils would be awkward, and hence the ancient farmhouse brewers skipped the wort boiling step altogether.

This lack of wort boil has a tremendous effect on the beer, and is one of the major traits of Nordic-Baltic farmhouse ales. A beer from a non-boiled wort has a short shelf life, but when fresh, has an exquisite taste of malt and cereals. Due to retained proteins, it also feels nutritious, smooth, and full bodied. An ale completely devoid of boiling steps is called raw ale.”

They are fermented warm for a couple days, then, essentially lagered. And I don’t mean using lager yeasts. I just mean stored in cool cellars so the yeast keeps doing its job, but the beer doesn’t sour. These are meant to be drunk fresh within a few weeks.

So this is the really fun part for me, and the reason I love this style of beer so much. The TASTING PROFILE. What tasting profile?? There is none. The “style” isn’t a traditional beer style like an IPA or a pilsner or a german lager. The style is really the brewing style. And each brewer, each farm, each iteration of the SAME beer can be wildly different from the other. That’s why it’s so fun! It’s a crap shoot as a drinker. But odds are, you will get full on flavor, a bit of sweetness, a bit of malt, a smoothness and maybe a bit of weight without if weighing you down.

“The appearance is often turbid, but haziness is more related to high protein content, rather than yeastiness. Some yeast are may be suspended, but obvious sensation of yeastiness is a flaw. Due to proteins, the mouthfeel is typically smooth, and sometimes highly viscous and milkshake-like. In the Nordics these ales are typically served still or with slight carbonation, while in the Baltics farmhouse ales are more often served clearly carbonated. Color ranges from yellow to dark brown. In the Baltics paler examples are more typical, but in many parts of the Nordics reddish brown color is sought-after.

Most examples taste sweet with rich fresh maltiness and graininess. The paler ones are more honeyish and grassy, while the darker ales express dark bread and toffee. Many Lithuanian ales have an unique hay-like taste from local malts. Taste of juniper vary from none to pronounced, more inclined to needle-like taste of branches than berries.

Usually these ales have expressive fruitiness and spiciness from the fermentation. Quite often sahti has a prominent banana aroma, somewhat similar to weizenbocks. However, some brewers prefer their sahti malt-forward with no signs of banana. Some Lithuanian examples may have notes of butter. The overall impression is extremely fresh, nourishing, smooth and drinkable.

In the past these ales would have picked some smokiness from the malting process, but today smoke aroma is rare, except in parts of Norway and Gotland where brewers malt themselves.”

I highly recommend reading History of Farmhouse Ales by Mika (?). His blog is well researched. The resources list is RICH, and the farmhouse history is really worth ready for a much more indepth timeline going back to the Romans and the Vikings. Well worth the 20 mins or so. But more depth than I’m looking to cover here.

There were some contradictory ideas in other articles about what a farmhouse ale should taste like, and honestly, I think they were being too broad and looking only at more modern ones when they talk about hop forwardness and a lack of malt. Farmhouse ales are honestly the opposite. The saison brought these newer, more bitter notes to the forefront much later in history. But who am I to disagree with a brewer. I’m just looking at the few resources I pulled up on google.

Other resources:

Episode 6 – Farmhouse Ales
Additional Resources used in this episode:
Craft Beer Tasting Sheet
History of Farmhouse Ales
The Real Belgian ‘Farmhouse Ales’

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