Part I - What farmhouse means to us
When we began sharing our vision with people one of the challenging parts (that frankly we didn’t anticipate to this degree) was addressing the first question that pops into their head. What is Farmhouse? We soon figured out that until we addressed this question, there was a wall built and no matter what competitive advantage we spoke of or financial projection we gave, they were still trying to mentally uncover that question. What is Farmhouse?
If we were meeting you, dear reader, in person right now, we’d begin by pouring you a few samples so we recommend going to your local beer bar and picking up a few samples while you read this.
A little historical background - before the industrial revolution, most (possibly all) beer was “rustic” and probably sour to some degree. This is because beer at the time was not produced with laboratory-isolated and tightly controlled commercial yeasts, nor in the hyper-sanitized environments and modernized processes that are commonly used today. Instead, wort (unfermented beer) was left exposed to the ambient environment to cool and become inoculated with whatever local wild yeasts and bacteria were blowing in the wind. Because of this, the yeast and bacteria culture that fermented those beers was unique to each specific brewery’s location, creating unique flavors representing a specific place and time.
Here in the U.S. we really like putting things into categories. Whether it’s sports, music or choosing what college to go to, we look at stats, styles and categories. Beer is no different and in 2016 the Brewer’s Association updated their Beer Style Guidelines by adding seven more styles to create a total of 152 and Farmhouse is not one of them (which we think is great). To us, the very core of Farmhouse beer, reflects a certain indifference to style or category. Instead, these beers have deep historic roots and come from the farming communities of 18th century Belgium. Farmers of the time needed to provide nourishment and payment to seasonal workers and beer was part of that.
Though some may disagree, we try not to refer to farmhouse beers as a style or category when describing our beers, but rather speak to their flavor notes like you would a whiskey or coffee. Some of these beers may be light, amber or dark. They may be hoppy or contain only aged hops, they might have subtle notes of spice, earthiness or tartness while others might have a strong sourness to them. They could contain fruit, adjuncts such as rye or spelt, or even locally foraged and seasonal ingredients. One of the things that draws us to these beers is the lack of a style - although we admit that we often wrestle with exactly what to put on the label.
By utilizing local and seasonal ingredients we return to the local agricultural nature of brewing and create community with those who make our beer possible. We are restoring some of what has been lost in the large scale industrial pursuit of uniformity, the prioritization of quick production and the obsessive quest for repeatability that modern brewing practices perfected. We are returning to processes that allow for more complexity, a sense of terroir, and serendipity. We understand the science of making beer in a way that was not possible before the industrial revolution and we leverage this understanding with modern technology to produce the finest farmhouse beers available.
Today, farmhouse beer doesn't have to be brewed on a farm; it’s more about a mindset and respect for it’s origins. It’s about embracing variation rather than opposing it. We are shepherding rather than controlling our yeast cultures and giving those cultures the time they need to make great beer.
Andrew Pogue | Co-Founder of Fair Isle Brewing