If you close your eyes and imagine where a "farmhouse ale" comes from, do you envision a beautiful countryside, with animals grazing along winding roads? Do you picture a rustic wooden table where you can drink your beer with a hearty stew and a crusty piece of bread? It may sound like a romantic vision, but that's pretty much where these beers got their start (and where many remain).
Farmhouse ales have their roots in the farmland once known as Flanders—a region that currently stretches right along the Belgian/French border. Before the Industrial Revolution, agriculture in the area attracted a ton of seasonal workers, better known as saisonniers. Although the crops being harvested were intended for sale, the ales brewed at the farmhouse were not. Farmer-brewers made these beers to be consumed by the workers—not unlike the 'family meal' modern day restaurant owners serve to their staff. In fact, a certain allotment of daily beer was often part of the saisonniers' entitled pay.
Nowadays, seasonal beers can feel like a marketing ploy, but back before refrigeration, they were a necessity: brewing conditions and temperatures were only optimal for a short period of time when temperatures were cool enough to prevent spoilage. Beers brewed in cooler months were stored for drinking the rest of the year, and needed to be robust enough to last through months of storage (even in hot weather)—yet still bright and refreshing enough to quench the thirst of tired farm workers.
There were many versions of this sturdy brew, depending on the ingredients (grains, spices, etc.) available. But as unique as each beer was, the region's brewers found that for the beer to last through months of storage, there were basically two essential recipe adjustments: increase the hops, which act as a natural preservative, or up the alcohol content of the brew. Over the decades, as Flanders suffered wars, cultural splits, and new country divisions, two notable styles of farmhouse ales emerged: Belgian saisons and their lesser-known cousin, French bières de garde.
Saison means "season" in French, and bière de garde translates to "beer to keep" or "to store." Although they're brewed in a similar fashion (and for the same purpose), saisons tend to have a more distinct hop flavor, with bright, fruity aromas, a smack of tartness and a crisp, dry finish. Bières de garde were generally aged in cellars at cooler temperatures, and trade the tang for a deeper malt richness and earthier flavors.
"Farmhouse ales are some of the best food partners in the world of beer."
Both beer styles manage to be complex and full-flavored yet delicate and refreshing—which means farmhouse ales are some of the best food partners in the world of beer. The herbal hop flavors, the bready malt, and the fruity, tart qualities created during fermentation each latch into food and make your meal taste better.
Some traditional farmhouse ales are still brewed in remote settings, but many American craft brewers have also taken up the style (and experimented with riffs that include funky Brett fermentation and new flavor additions). When you head to the bottle shop, seek out these delicious examples: some old world and some new, some truly small batch and some more widely available, all perfect beers for your table.
Saison Dupont Forêt (Tourpes, Belgium)
Most beer lovers will agree that Saison Dupont is pretty much the saison gold standard. I can't get enough of Forêt, the Wallonian brewery's organic, slightly stronger version. Aromas of blood orange and spicy cinnamon are just a preview of what's to come. Each sip offers a dizzying array of vanilla malt sweetness, black plums, and lemon tang that are reeled in by a super dry, peppery finish. This brewery is credited for saving the saison style when it was near extinction, and this beer makes me extremely thankful for that.
Pairing tips: This beer can take on a whole range of foods, so I recommend you try it with a Meze platter. The beer's pepperiness complements the salt of feta and olives, the earthy clove notes pick up the spice of lamb meatballs and roasted eggplant, and the herbal flavors play off dips made with fresh herbs, yogurt, and rich hummus.
Castelain St. Amand (Bénifontaine, France)
Plenty of people who claim to not like beer have fallen head over heels for this one from the Pas-de-Calais region of France. If you've ever smelled a light-roast caramel latte you may notice a similarity or two. Each sip seems to present new flavors that blend surprisingly beautifully together: figs, dark toffee, multigrain toast, damp forest... Still, with all those layers, this beer is refreshing and easy to drink.
Pairing tips: This beer is perfect for heftier meals. Next time you're cooking steak, forget the expensive bottle of Barolo. The dark fruit flavors and full texture of this classic amber bière de garde will hit the spot.
Ommegang Hennepin (Cooperstown, New York)
Upstate New York's original farmstead brewery Ommegang was one of the first in the US to produce Belgian-style ales. Their quintessential Hennepin is a must-try. Even though this beer is 7.7% ABV, full flavored and complex, it's remarkably thirst-quenching and seemingly light. Orange peel imparts sweet citrus flavors, and grains of paradise and coriander add a distinct freshness. A kick of added ginger amplifies the spice flavors and makes each sip more exciting than the last.
Pairing tips: Bring the ginger flavor out even more by enjoying this beer with a vegetarian stir fry. Not only will the ginger complement the sauce but the veggies will bring out the herbal qualities of the hops.
Upright Brewing Four (Portland, Oregon)
Upright is a small brewery specializing in farmhouse ales made with grain that's malted in the Pacific Northwest and hops grown in Oregon. Four is their take on a 'table beer': a low ABV beer meant for all day drinking that's often seen on the breakfast table in Belgium. If you sniff this beer blindfolded, you may think you're smelling a mead, all sweet aromas of honey and lightly toasted grain. While the soft biscuity flavors and grassy German-style hops lead, delicate hints of pear and grape make this beer stand out.
Pairing tips: Go simple with this one. Try pierogies, maybe filled with fried onions, mashed potatoes, and white farmers cheese. Throw in a side of applesauce and you play up not just the malty notes of the beer, but the fruit flavors as well.
Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (Brooklyn, New York)
Pour this electric golden saison in your glass and you can't help hearing "good day, sunshine." Everything about this beer is fresh and tropical: it smells like basil, lemon zest, and peach. The fizz gives way to intense punches of lemongrass, cracked black pepper, and mint. This elegant caged bottle is a perfect stand-in for Champagne.
Pairing tips: The Sorachi Ace hop that gives this beer its name comes to us by way of Japan. Thank 'em for it by pairing the beer with sashimi—it's a divine combination. The delicate flavors of the beer won't overpower the fish but the Champagne-like carbonation and general brightness will refresh your tongue after every bite.
St. Feuillien Saison (Le Roeulx, Belgium)
Belgian beer in a can? Oh yeah. The fruity herbal aromas from dry-hopping (adding more hops post-boil for aroma rather than bitterness) are reminiscent of passion fruit and Earl Grey tea. Flavors of freshly cut grass and rich earth help build a saison that's more round and less tart than most. All that green freshness paired with easy packaging make this a perfect beer for picnics or a day at the beach.
Pairing tips: Serve this one with a simple dish of pasta with tuna, fresh tomato, and basil. The earthy flavors of the beer will tame the oily tuna while the herbal qualities really make that basil pop.
Surly CynicAle (Brooklyn Center, Minnesota)
This is a distinctly American version of a farmhouse ale that takes the traditional elements of the style and turns them up a notch. Bready yeast is noticeable right away in the aroma. Toasty French malt provides a firm backbone and English oats add a silky texture, but spicy Belgian yeast is the star of the show. Rose, sandalwood, and hints of clove from the yeast round out the beer's flavors and a pop of tart lime brightens it right up.
Pairing tips: Grab this beer and a lobster roll. The citrus and pepper notes enhance the sweetness of the lobster, and the bready flavors go hand in hand with the bun.
Two Brothers Domaine DuPage (Warrenville, Ilinois)
Bières de garde aren't that common these days, even in their native country. Luckily, these Midwestern brewers discovered the style while living in France and decided to brew a year-round version for us stateside. The aroma evokes crème brûlée and Granny Smith apples. As you sip, the earthy core is softened by a delicate sweetness, like honey on biscuits. It wraps with just the right amount of hop bitterness to snap up the finish.
Pairing tips: Think about the rustic sorts of dishes that were served on Flanders farms. Try this brew with French onion soup and a loaf of fresh bread. The cookie-like malt flavors are a heavenly match with caramelized onions and toasty bread, and the beer's crisp bitterness livens up the hearty soup.
Crooked Stave Surette (Denver, Colorado)
When Parliament sang "We want the funk," they were probably talking about a beer like this one. Farmhouse ales can occasionally pick up sour or earthy flavors during fermentation thanks to wild yeast and assorted other airborne critters. The folks at Crooked Stave have upped the ante by allowing even more of those flavors to develop, thanks to extensive aging in oak barrels. The barnyard character from Brettanomyces and the sour tang from Lactobacillus found in the barrels yield a complex beer that might bring to mind your favorite sherry or funky natural wine. Additional notes of butterscotch and stone fruit make each sip a complex explosion of flavor.
Pairing tips: Let this beer shine with a cheese plate or make a grilled cheese sandwich with creamy Taleggio. Washed rind cheeses will play off the earthy funk of the beer, the buttery oak flavors are basically just an extension of the toasted bread, and the high acidity is a great way to cut through grease.
Jolly Pumpkin iO Saison (Dexter, MI)
If you think you need to forgo beer to find the kind of refreshment you'd get from a crisp rosé or even a pink lemonade, think again. Jolly Pumpkin in Michigan brews most of their beers using a technique called open fermentation, allowing the yeast and bacteria naturally present in the air to contribute funky, fruity, and occasionally tart flavors. This bright, juicy version of a saison is brewed with rose hips, rose petals, and hibiscus. A floral punch hits your nose as soon as it's poured and tangy red fruit flavors (like not-quite-ripe strawberries and cherries) stick around through each thirst quenching sip.
Pairing tips: The acidity of this beer makes it a perfect match for hearty fish—think of it as the squeeze of lemon on your halibut. It'll tango with the sweetness of the fish while simultaneously slicing right through the oiliness.
The Bruery Saison Rue (Placentia, California)
Saison Rue will wake up your senses. Aromas of tropical fruit and nuts make way for distinct flavors of yeasty sourdough bread, cocoa powder, and pineapple. What you're left with is an incredibly rich tasting, full bodied beer that gets an extra kick of peppery funk from Brettanomyces and rye malt. A quick tip: pour this beer slowly. The high carbonation has been known to make the beer escape quickly from your glass and onto the table.
Pairing tips: If you can get your hands on this beer, order (or make) a Thai curry, pronto. The tropical and nutty flavors of the beer are amazing with coconut milk, crunchy veggies, and a little chili heat.
Smuttynose Farmhouse Ale (Hampton, New Hampshire)
Beers on the farm were brewed to a few different strengths for different purposes. While low-alcohol table beers were refreshing throughout the day and mid-strength beers were a little more rich and nourishing, there we also higher-octane regional specialties saved for important occasions. This last group inspired Smuttynose to create this farmhouse ale: the strongest beer on the list. It's brewed with sage for an aroma that's a lovely mix of pepper and tea. The sage also helps to dry out and balance the sweetness of this robust, malty, fruity beer.
Pairing tips: This beer is just perfect for serving with your favorite autumnal meals. The earthy spices and malty core will complement simple herbed dishes like chicken with garlic and rosemary and roasted root vegetables.