What do you think of when you think of “farmhouse” beer? More than likely these days, you imagine a mixed-culture fermentation, which may be tart or funky. Or perhaps you’re a purist, and you imagine a single yeast strain that comes directly from one brewery in Wallonia. Maybe you imagine a green Belgian bottle or a pint from the tap of an industrial park in the middle of urban America. It may be dry, it may be barrel-aged. You imagine a picture of a farm on a label.
You probably do not imagine the farm itself.
This is a call to all brewers, and especially to anyone who calls themselves a “farmhouse brewery,” or who aspires to make “farmhouse beer.” We must not use these terms loosely. We brewers, intent as we are to use terms that evoke the romanticism of rural life, often have little understanding of the struggle of contemporary small farmers—a struggle that’s more difficult and biased against them than our struggle against industrialized beer-making. Just as the word “craft” has lost much of its meaning, “farmhouse beer” should be more than a marketing ploy slapped on the label of a beverage.
[A quick note: Today, Scratch Brewing Company is taking a radical position on what it means to make farmhouse beer and publishing a short printed work with Good Beer Hunting that explains the underpinnings of this argument.
After some deliberation with GBH, we felt that the argument was best suited to an online excerpt that would allow the reader to reflect and expand their mind on the principles of this idea, rather than slogging through a long online treatise. We encourage you to get your feet wet in the following abstract and then drop some pocket change on the beautifully designed, longer printed version to immerse yourself in the details.]
In a nutshell: As we watch the beer industry undergoing rapid changes, we see the temptation for many brewers to cut corners on their use of local agriculture, all the while claiming this is at the heart of their business. Some brewers legitimately do grow ingredients on-site, or have long-term intentions to do so, and otherwise support local farmers. Others set up breweries on picturesque plots of land, with no intention of growing their own—perhaps adding a small garden as an afterthought—or don’t otherwise support local growers. The problem is that all of these business models have been wrapped up into the idea of “farmhouse” beer, and the word itself is beginning to lose its meaning. If farmhouse beer is just a picture on a label with nothing behind it, we are slowly destroying the notion of the small farm, and are undoing the work of small brewers who have invested significant time, money, and infrastructure into growing their own or supporting their local farms—an investment that often goes unrewarded.
In order to keep the “farm” in farmhouse beer, I propose the following five touchstones to serve as a guide for labeling it:
A farmhouse brewery grows a significant amount of plants for its beer on-site or on land that’s managed by farmers who work for the brewery.
A farmhouse brewery strives to make beer with plants that are grown and processed within the bounds of the brewery’s ecological growing region.
A farmhouse brewery utilizes its unique microflora for fermentation and relies minimally on special lab processing to store, grow up, or otherwise control strains of yeast or bacteria.
A farmhouse brewery embraces the natural water profile it finds on site and minimally changes it to suit its brewing needs.
A farmhouse brewery operates entirely within the bounds of its materials and means.
In the print journal version of this argument, I discuss each of these points in detail. Each allows for some flexibility in interpretation while sticking to core principles that define historical farmhouse brewing and allows for growth in certain areas where agriculture for beer is being grown after a century-long hiatus or entirely for the first time. The thrust is that we support a small, non-industrialized economy of the form that Wendell Berry has written about for decades with respect to food and agriculture. Breweries would be as self-sufficient as possible while also being partners with other producers in their regional economy. The scale of a farmhouse brewery is intentional and follows demand in a particular region, rather than exploding into growth and attempting to build demand based on output.
At Scratch, this means that today we are taking a principled stand about where all of our ingredients come from and how we create our beer. We already have a large garden and several other plots of land managed by farmers that supply most of our adjunct ingredients. As of 2019, we will no longer buy any malt from outside of our immediate growing region. We buy our grain from Sugar Creek Malt, our closest maltster (who sources as much grain locally as possible), and we will no longer buy specialty grain from other parts of the country or world. We have also been lucky to see two small, intrepid hop farmers in central Illinois make significant investments in hop farming and equipment—in the last month, we purchased our entire year’s worth of hops from them for 2019. All of our beer next year will be brewed with regionally sourced grain and Illinois-grown hops.
We will also be entirely phasing out yeast sourced from commercial yeast labs, opting to only use what we are able to culture and cultivate on-site. We already ferment about 75% of our beer with a sourdough culture we created in our kitchen. We aim to make it our primary house culture and will continue to harvest other native cultures to supplement it and help create other flavors and fermentations in our beer.
In the interest of full transparency, we outline the details of all of our brewing methods in the journal published today so that you can see exactly how we operate our business with respect to local agriculture, and how we plan on implementing the above-mentioned changes into our brewing practice. Through this exercise I hope all farmhouse breweries will examine their own practices and consider how they might make changes—even if one of those changes is simply how they describe themselves to the public.
We at Scratch think this is the best course forward for beer that purports to come from a farm or displays farmhouse labeling of any kind. We encourage transparency from other brewers who seek to make similar beer. As innovators in such beer here in the United States, we feel that it’s incumbent upon us to take the lead in defining and committing to these principles and supporting other breweries who seek to do the same. This is the beer that supports small farmers, genetic and agricultural diversity in our crops, strong communities, and robust local economies. We take the first step and salute those who follow.
The farmhouse brewery is dead. Long live farmhouse beer.