What is a farmhouse ale?
I was shopping a few liquor stores last weekend, building six-packs of different rye beers for an upcoming tasting I’m hoping to host. I was unable to fill up an entire six pack at the package store I was at and so finished up the carrier with “farmhouse ales.” The three beers were Flying Dog’s Garde Dog (a bière de garde); Two Brothers Domaine DuPage, and Lazy Mutt (Minhas Brewery). One can hardly imagine three more different beers if I had chosen three different “styles.
But didn’t I?
According to the BJCP, a bière de garde’s flavor should have the following characteristics:
Medium to high malt flavor often with a toasty, toffeelike or caramel sweetness. Malt flavors and complexity tend to increase as beer color darkens. Low to moderate esters and alcohol flavors. Medium-low hop bitterness provides some support, but the balance is always tilted toward the malt. The malt flavor lasts into the finish but the finish is medium-dry to dry, never cloying. Alcohol can provide some additional dryness in the 23 finish. Low to no hop flavor, although paler versions can have slightly higher levels of herbal or spicy hop flavor (which can also come from the yeast). Smooth, well-lagered character. No diacetyl.
And according to Rate Beer’s more succinct description of the style:
Medium bodied with hints of caramel or toffee. Cellared smell and flavor are characteristics. Color can vary from full gold to copper colored. Good head retention. The name means “beer for keeping” and is best when aged.
The emphasis in both is the malty character, and by implication a certain level of sweet-forwardness.
How does the Flying Dog interpretation match up? Not well.
Garde Dog’s (average BA score B-; average RB score 2.9) nose is sweet and tart with toffee and banana notes and this is not at all misleading. The flavor is reminiscent of a Berlinerweisse or some Belgian beers. It’s a very estery beer with a buttery mouthfeel (diacetyl?!). The malt, like the profile suggests, is definitely the central flavor. Given the tartness of the beer I would have expected a drier leave, but it was very long and very sweet. What is most amazing to me is the tart quality which, in my mind, was intentional in order to replicate the use of wild yeasts, a sort of faux-rusticity. I’m OK with that and it was my second favorite beer of the three. But it is a somewhat questionable move on the part of the brewery to deliberately aim for tartness in a style that doesn’t seem to want it. I’m not a style-fascist and I encourage challenging style parameters. But it is risky to defy them outright and still claim on the label that it stylistically consistent.
From there I moved on to Two Brothers Domaine DuPage (average BA score B+; average RB score 3.3). Two Brothers, my favorite beer of the evening is toasty and sweet. It is significantly darker than Flying Dog’s beer and far more in line with the style guidelines, which is reflected in Rate Beer’s style score (Domain DuPage-85, Garde Dog-35). It smelled a little musty and had hints of raisins (or currants). It has a slight hardness under the sweetness, and the toast flavor almost develop a corniness before developing into sweet toffee in the after taste. Although I found this beer the better of the two, and more in keeping with the style guide, if it came down to sitting outside on a hot day, I would prefer the Flying Dog, which is more in keeping with the intention of a beer brewed in the early Spring for drinking in the summer.
I finished the evening with Lazy Mutt from Minhas (average BA score D+; average RB score 2.22) To my mind the BA judgment is far too harsh and I’m not quite sure I understand why (the Brothers gave it a slightly higher, but still too low C-). This is no less than a C+ beer. Rate Beer does not call this a “farmhouse ale” despite what Minhas says. Instead they compare the beer to golden ales, which might be a little more fair…might. However, unlike a lot of Golden Ales which range from IPA hoppiness to yeast-dominant biscuity beers, Lazy Mutt was still very malty with a long sweet aftertaste which I found the most enjoyable of the three.
The decision to give the Minhas offering a different category than the one they claim and for which this beer certainly qualifies as much as the Flying Dog beer, which they do not challenge, is what led me to question if we really have a “style” here, or a “type” or any of the various levels of categorization.
The history of the “farmhouse ale” and the inspiration for how one is brewed is generally something like:
A farmhouse ale is generally made with whatever was lying around the farmhouse when the farmer (or his wife) decided to brew. As a result, different fruits often show up—or none. And fermentation was natural and wild as the farmhouse “style” developed before the discovery and hybridization of yeast strains.
OK, but how does that make it any different that “beer”? That description, if it describes anything, is what some beer was like at some point after cleaner malting habits were developed but when open fermentation was still easier for homebrewers. It actually defines a distinct lack of style.
Without going into a long rant about what styles are or are not, nothing like what is going on with “farmhouse” ales would qualify. That doesn’t mean you can’t get good beers. But if the purpose of agreeing on styles is to help judges compare like with like and to help consumers know what they are buying in a marketplace of imperfect and incomplete knowledge, then “farmhouse ales” as a style designation may be one of the worst descriptive failures we have.
I watched three movies yesterday: The Rite, The Hole, and All Good Things. Now, I could decide to group these films as one style, the style of “undeserved death films” as in each of the three, mutliple people were murdered or died (depending on your definition of “murder”) for reasons that did not directly involve their own actions. Without giving anything away, I’ll go ahead and tell you that, were I to do this, it would represent a failure of categorization. The Rite is a horror movie (sub-genre: possession/exorcism and has more in common with other movies of this time (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Exorcist, The Last Exorcism and to a lesser extent Paranormal Activity and Insidious—movies which blur the line between possession and haunting genres). The Hole attempts, but ultimately fails, to blend cabin-fever films like Lifeboat with teen class murder/conspiracy films like Cruel Intentions. And All Good Things is a fairly simple and fairly mediocre true crime tale where the subject, played by Ryan Gosling, is basically a sociopath wrestling with insecurity issues and abandonment issues (to wax pop-psychological). Basically these films are not at all alike!
They also share other features. Both are just under 2 hours long, (mostly) in English, filmed in color, star primarily actors from Anglo-Saxon-dominant cultures. And yet no matter how many things I list that they share, those things ultimately convey less information than a few sentences about how they differ. No one would ever say, “If you like movies with dark-haired protagonists in their late 20s/early 30s you should check out either The Rite or All Good Things.”
That seems to me to be similar to the mistake of “farmhouse ales” as a descriptor. It’s like saying, “Hey if you like beers with no consistency in ingredients then you should try beer!”
What is a farmhouse ale? Beer. Hope you enjoy it.