In Central New York’s Oneida County sits Utica, a Rust Belt city long in economic decline. There, on Edward Street, just off the highway, in an area of cheap Chinese restaurants and Family Dollar stores, sits a giant factory—smokestacks an all—surrounded by wrought-iron gates and cracked sidewalks. This is the 130-year-old F.X. Matt Brewing Company, producers of Saranac and contract brewers of numerous other big-name beers like Brooklyn Lager. It’s the utter opposite of “rustic,” hardly what you’d call a farmhouse brewery. Yet, in the summer of 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo stood in front of a wall of beer cases, and signed legislation to bolster the state’s craft beer industry by offering more farm brewery licenses.
It’s almost amusing New York state needed some muckety muck in a suit to sign a bill in order to promote farmhouse brewing. Farmhouse brewing has always been something that kinda just existed, rules and regulations and corporate tax breaks be damned. In fact, from the beginning of time, all beer was in a way, “farmhouse ale.” You took the ingredients you grew, you created the beer where you could. Whether that was civilization’s earliest “barley beer” brewed, perhaps inadvertently, in the Fertile Crescent, or the grain-heavy beers from ancient Egyptian farmers.
Eventually, even as the Industrial Revolution was happening, farmhouse brewing had spread to Europe, most famously the countrysides of southern Belgium (known as Wallonia) and northern France, though it was still no more formalized. If any farmhouse style is best known today, that would be saison, often used as an alias for the farmhouse umbrella term. Saison is French for “season,” because these funky pale ales were, in fact, seasonal beers that were brewed in the winter when the full-time farm workers had fewer chores.
At the same time in France, their farm workers brewed what would eventually be known as bière de garde—“beer for keeping”—meaning, in this time before walk-in coolers, these beers were crafted when it was cooler outside and heat wouldn’t disrupt the fermentation process. There was Sahti in Finland and Gotlandsdricka in Sweden—today, more obscure farmhouse styles flavored and preserved with juniper instead of hops. In the era before your could order German and Czech hops via overnight shipping, local spices were used for preservation purposes.
However all of these light, refreshing beers were designed for one key reason: To be ready to drink in the hot months of summer, when these same farmhands (as well as the part-time “saisonniers”) might lug a leather flagon around so as to quench their thirsts out in the fields. It eventually came to be that “farmhouse ale” was more a “know it when you see it” type of beer. Always light, usually funky due to the wild yeast in the air—the rare beer style that actually exhibited terroir. The style didn’t even really become commercialized until Brasserie Dupont opened in 1950 on a farm that also produced cheese and bread. Their cloudy, highly carbonated, estery and just a tad spicy beer would set a template for the modern farmhouse ale that would soon be in every grocery store.
Oddly, it was the American craft beer movement that truly revived the farmhouse ale. By the end of last century, there really weren’t a lot of commercial examples available in Europe. Early American attempts at the style—like, say, Ommegang Hennepin and Boulevard Tank 7—were quite similar to Saison Dupont, if not a tad more polished. By the aughts, however, American brewers began to redefine what farmhouse might actually mean.
These breweries would add local fruits and utilize barrel-aging to catapult them from merely funky toward straight tartness. Soon, you would see hoppy saisons and boozy bière de gardes, the latter way too high in ABV for any respectable farm worker to drink while operating heavy machinery. It’s perhaps no surprise then to hear that many of today’s preeminent farmhouse ale breweries are nowhere close to being on a farm.
There’s Allagash Brewing, set on IdustriALE Way just outside of urban Portland, Maine. You have American Solera, brewing in a Tulsa warehouse district next to a sandblasting company and an oil drilling tools dealer. Sante Adairius Rustic Ales is in a Capitola, California industrial park near a pavement contractor.
Of course, you do also have a few American farmhouse makers actually on the farm. Like lovely Blackberry Farm Brewery, set on a luxury farming resort in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains. Or, Jester King in the Hill Country outside Austin, Texas, where Jeffrey Stuffings is trying to create his own, uniquely Texas farmhouse tradition. Way north of Allagash, hugging the Atlantic coastline is Oxbow Brewery, producing world-class saisons using uniquely local ingredients, including lobster, in a renovated barn.
Then there’s New York state. By the time Cuomo’s regulations went into effect in January of 2013, there were a mere 14 breweries that had a farm brewery license. Today, there are nearly 200. These include spots such as Plan Bee Farm Brewery in the Hudson Valley, whose Evan Watson mostly uses ingredients straight from his 25-acre farm, including a wild yeast culture which comes from his apiary’s raw honey and honeycomb. While, about an hour away across the Hudson River, Arrowood Farm is set in the hamlet of Accord.
As their website notes, “From our biggest pig to our littlest bee, everything on our farm works together to create a mini ecosystem that supports our beer.”
They grow six hop varietals and their own Danko Rye, use pigs to eat their spent grain, and even have an herb garden and vegetable patch used for certain beers. Still, while Plan Bee and Arrowood may be as farmhouse as a farmhouse brewery can possibly be, other New York breweries are using the license a little differently. You see, if the modern world had taken farmhouse breweries off the farm, Cuomo figured out a good way to still keep the farmer involved.
“Agriculture is a major economic force in the state of New York,” he noted at that 2012 press conference. “How do we get a benefit for the agricultural community to produce the hops that are then used in brewing?”
Thus, he set laws that stipulate, whether on a farm or not, “farm” breweries must use at least 20% of their hops and 20% of the other ingredients from in-state farms. By 2019 those numbers will jump to 60%. And by 2024, 90% of both hops and other ingredients must be New York state grown.
In a way, New York is proving that beer is a uniquely agricultural beverage and, thus, all beer is, in a way, farmhouse beer.