Beer returns to the farm
Younger than the mountains
Hop to it: Farmhouse ale is becoming a thing as brewer-farmers grow their own ingredients.
“In wisdom gathered over time, I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.” –Ansel Adams
We used to make beer with the seasons. We used to farm our own grains, tend to our hops, and forage additives to best the farmer next door. Beer quickly became a commodity, but some breweries are trying to bring beer back to its roots. As a result, with a sprinkling of capitalism, the term farmhouse ale is creeping its way into our lexicon. What does it mean? Well, that’s a bit complicated. Do local breweries make it? Depends on your definition.
Beer used to be sustenance. Farmhouse beers were once brewed in winter then consumed throughout the growing season by farmers and field hands. The idea of a farmhouse ale can sometimes be limited to producers who grow the barley and hops, and culture their own yeast, if desired. Some allow ambient yeast to do the work, but today that can be a tall order for breweries to follow. It’s not realistic for every brewery to also be a barley farm. But we can expect a certain set of rules to be followed, right? With farmhouse ales the answer is a firm no. Farmhouse can include styles like saison, biere de garde, raw ales, sahti, guezes, and wild ales. They can have fruit added. They can be filtered through juniper. They can be unboiled wort fermented just after mash. Farmhouse is almost akin to natural wine in that it is a philosophy of brewing as opposed to a legality of brewing. Farmhouse ales tend to lean toward a simplified malt bill. They are typically fermented wild, or with cultured yeast from batches years gone by, and they usually spend some amount of time in wood. The barrel tends to strike more of a stylistic choice, but the rusticity of wood lends itself to the complex, often sour palate of farmhouse ales.
While it’s unfair to expect brewers to grow their brewing ingredients, it is a concept not unrealistic in New York’s future. Many well-known farmhouse ales are already on the shelves here in Buffalo, and with New York State’s farm-brewing license laws adapting toward sourcing New York-grown ingredients, the door for a farm-to-pint brewery is open. The issue, though, is that horizontal integration will raise prices. If a brewery is charged with growing the barley, malting the barley, kilning the barley, and raising the hops—along with operating a brewery—consumers must expect additional costs.
The beauty of brewing is that you can satisfy anyone’s palate under one roof. A light lager, roasty porter, candied stout, hazy IPA, spicy saison, and a sour wild ale can all be made in the same building. Buffalo brewers are certainly talented, but the unfortunate reality of running a business is that if the consumers won’t buy, then the brewers can’t play. If we want the new beer trends to hit Buffalo and find their footing, then we need to show Buffalo brewers that we are willing to support exploration.