Ask ten different brewers to define a farmhouse ale and you’ll likely get ten different answers. Some will say a farmhouse ale must be brewed on a farm or else it’s a fraud, while others will wax poetic about the crisp dryness, acidity, and effervescence often present in many farmhouse ales. That’s not to say that the style is undefinable, it just tends to be more difficult to delineate than, say, pilsner or stout.
In general, farmhouse ales originate in the Wallonia region of southern Belgium, which borders northern France. Saisons are the most common Belgian form of the category, while Bière de Gardes are their French equivalents.
Saison simply means “season” in French and are so-called because, in the past, they were beers brewed on farms throughout the winter and spring for consumption in the summer, when temperatures would become too hot for carefully controlled fermentation. Nearly every farmhouse had its own recipe, which is why the style can vary so greatly. And since these ales were made by farmers rather than professionally-trained brewers, early saisons were probably idiosyncratic ales that reflected the whims and resources of the farm. Today, the experimental nature of farmhouse ales and saisons continues—some are dark, rich, and sweet, but most are straw-colored, fruity, dry, and exceptionally effervescent. (Because of this, they make delicious, interesting substitutes for sparkling wine on celebratory occasions or alongside spicy food.) Practically none are made on a farm today, but that doesn’t stop the freewheeling style from continuing to evolve and please palates around the world.
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