So-called "farmhouse ale" is everywhere, put on the shelves by breweries both big and small. The style has its lineage in rustic saisons dating back to the Middle Ages, and more modern bières de garde brewed in Flanders, a region encompassing a stretch of border between Belgium and northern France. It's currently exploding in Canada: Since 2015, two entirely new categories were created in the Canadian Brewing Awards to accommodate entries in the funkier branches of the farmhouse-ale family tree.
But what I've noticed is that the beer is much likelier to have been made in an urban industrial park than on an actual farm. Very few Canadian farmhouse beers were brewed anywhere near a barn or hay bales: The real common denominator is a spicy, fruity, often wild yeast character "that's a little outside the normal," says Iain McOustra, brewmaster at Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto, which makes a farmhouse-ale series of beers.
Drinkers dig it because "it just sounds grassroots, like maybe this beer is a little more crafted and not so precise," says Brent Mills, brewmaster and co-founder at Four Winds Brewing in Delta, B.C. And brewers love making them because the family of beers is open to interpretation, which lets creative brewers put their own signature on the style. "They can be anything you want them to be," McOustra says.
The anything-goes approach is in keeping with the beer's history, as brewing these beers was busy work for saissoneurs or farmhands during the winter. Each farm employed its own mix of local hops, barley and other grains, perhaps some spices or fruit, plus its own farmhouse yeast culture (often containing wild yeasts and bacteria).
Once bottled, the beer kept fermenting until summer, making for a dry, bubbly and tangy ale. Farmhands used to down five litres of the low-alcohol homebrew each day – in those days, it was a safer choice than water.
Belgium's few remaining farmhouse breweries are steadfast guardians of the revered beer style, setting the mark for everyone else. Brasserie Dupont, for example, puts out the benchmark of the farmhouse saison, in which lively pepper and sweet pineapple notes mingle with the rustic tang of a barn in the fall.
The open definition of farmhouse ales means some are more true to style than others, and there are plenty of mediocre examples being made. For me, the ones that truly stand out have a brewery thumbprint, most often a unique house yeast culture or a yeast strain isolated in the wild. Here are five of the best to try now, although getting your hands on a bottle can be tricky: Visit the breweries if you can, and like their Facebook pages to find out about releases, which often sell out in hours.
Reserve Saison, Amsterdam Brewing; Toronto; $11.95/650 ml
Toronto-based Amsterdam has been cultivating its saison yeast for five years: It has a ripe mango signature that dominates the nose of this hazy orange brew, alongside stone fruit and wild strawberries. On the sip, mango and passion fruit shine along with pops of pepper, a tart limey acidity and a hint of must. Made from a blend of three-month to three-year-old barrel-aged saisons (amsterdambeer.com).
White Dwarf, Half Hours on Earth Brewery; Seaforth, Ont.; $6.50/500 ml
Brewing outside the norm is what put this tiny brewery in Seaforth, Ont., on beer geeks' radar across the country. The farmhouse and wild ales brewed by husband-and-wife team Kristen Harburn and Kyle Teichert are so popular that, last May, they implemented a weekly mail-order service so that Torontonians no longer had to drive three hours to the brewery only to find all of the bottles sold out. This Belgian-style wheat beer exemplifies the brewery's approach of using a mixed yeast culture to kick up the funk and acidity in traditional beer styles. Made with orange peel and chamomile, it smells good enough to dab behind your ears. On the sip, its orange blossom, Fuzzy Peach candy and tea-like notes are enhanced by a tangy acidity (halfhoursonearth.com).
Best Case Ontario, Four Winds Brewing; Delta, B.C.; $15/750 ml
B.C.'s Four Winds brews this in collaboration with three Ontario breweries (Great Lakes, Nickel Brook and Sawdust City). The ale – to be released shortly – was made using wild Ontario hops and a wild yeast captured and cultured by Escarpment Labs in Guelph, Ont., then aged for over six months in oak foudres, or vats. Aromas of ripe pear and applesauce with an earthy barnyard whiff give way to a tart, bubbly sip with notes of cherry and traces of oaky tannin(fourwindsbrewing.ca).
No Tahoma, Brasserie Dunham; Dunham, Que.; $11/750 ml
One of Canada's most prestigious farmhouse-style breweries, Brasserie Dunham, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, is run by Éloi Deit, who likes to hop up his rustic ales. The saison yeast culture has steadily evolved since it opened in 2011. Deit has a "yeast guy" collecting interesting wild yeasts from the Dunham region. That, and interesting souring bacterias, are regularly introduced to the house culture to add complexity. No Tahoma is a farmhouse pale ale hopped with seven citrusy and floral varietals. The result is a spritzy, 5.9-per-cent-alcohol ale with notes of lime, starfruit, sage and white pepper and a dry, lightly bitter finish. Try one fresh, then cellar a few to see how the wild yeast characters develop over six months to a year (brasseriedunham.com).
Aronia, Auval; Val-d'Espoir, Que.; $8.99/500 ml
Ben Couillard, 39-year-old brewmaster and owner of Auval, left his brewing gig at Pit Caribou to start a true farmhouse brewery in the Gaspé in 2015. His mission is to brew rustic ales that have a sense of place, and Couillard uses as many local ingredients as his beekeeper business partner (the farmer half of the equation) can grow. This is a farmhouse ale that's made within spitting distance of a farmhouse: Wild-fermented fruit beers are brewed with a mixed yeast culture that he's isolated from wildflowers and fermented on raspberries, aronia, black currants or cherries grown on the farm's orchards (you can't do that in an industrial park). Aronia pours hazy pink and bursts with wild and funky aromatics and light berries. Tart, very dry, highly effervescent (auval.ca).