This is the bucolic scene in Pieter Bruegel’s “The Harvesters,” painted in Antwerp in 1565. Or, more accurately, a post card of it from the Met, sent to me by my dad. I’d recognize his crisp, architect’s handwriting anywhere. On the back he asked, simply, “beer?”
Had to be. As my winemaking friends joke, it takes a lot of beer to make good wine. The same must have been true for whatever those peasants were up to. After a long day crushing grapes, or a hot, late-summer’s grain harvest, you don’t want to kick back with a meaty Cotes du Rhone; you want something light and easy. You want rustic refreshment. To those peasants, as my dad put it, the solution was simple: farmhouse beer.
Farmhouse beer, or saison, is a catch-all category, traditionally made on farms from grain scraps – post-harvest leftovers, last year’s unsold stores, anything would do. That dissonant amalgam of flavors and ingredients was knit together by long aging in wooden barrels and a unique fermentation process with a zesty and powerful yeast strain brewers slowly honed and trained over many seasons. Common today, though hardly the cheap, laborer’s day ration they once were, saisons are one of the latest craft-beer trends, tarted-up darlings of the hippest new brewers, some of whom, like Logsdon Ales in Washington or Stillwater Artisanal Ales in Maryland, specialize in nothing but. I’ve had dry-hopped saisons, black saisons, saisons flavored with hibiscus, sage, and even one (less successfully) with pennyroyal. And yet, saisons have humble origins. These are beers born not in churches or in labs, neither factories nor corporate corner offices, but down on the farm.
Saisons come from Wallonia, Belgium’s Jekyll-and-Hyde-like southern half, a region split between farm and industry, fields and mines, the granaries of Condroz and the coal pits of Charleroi. Brewed for the working masses, these were beers made out of necessity and drank for sustenance. Saisons varied around the region, their flavors altered to suit local tastes. Miners and smelters liked them rich and strong; farmhands, or “saisonniers,” preferred something light and dry. Those preferences split Wallonia’s beer, like its economic activity, in two: the malty Biere de Garde (literally, “beer to store,” so called for its longevity) and its crisper cousin, known simply as saison, for the seasonal farmworkers who most enjoyed it. Flavors changed too, based on local ingredients. Bieres de Garde, made with thick-husked French barley and dark, licorice-tinged hops, came out richer than their rural equivalents, which used a peppery, nitrogen-rich winter barley called “escourgeon” and lighter, more delicate hops, augmented sometimes with spices like ginger and anise. You’ll occasionally find Bieres de Garde labeled as such, but these days both subclasses are usually lumped together as “saison” or simply “farmhouse,” regardless of their grains or hops. What matters is yeast: Brewers fermented that jumble of ingredients with a powerful strain they would harvest from the actively fermenting foam of one batch and transfer to another in special metal tanks called “guilloires.” This top-skimming technique, which captured only the healthiest, most vigorous cells, combined with the yeast’s scavenged diet of grain scraps, over time raised super-strains capable of eating up every last sugar from whatever brewers threw at them, making beers crisp, light, and peppery dry. Perhaps the most famous saison brewery, Brasserie Dupont, uses a house strain often compared, in its strength, to wine yeast.
Saison brewers didn’t use codified recipes or church-ordained ingredients. They weren’t even really brewers; they were farmers. But that made me wonder, then, what made saison saison? What story does that mishmash of flavors – not one taste, but innumerable ones; not specific, but infinite – tell? I was living in a small apartment on the fourth floor of an old, battle-scarred building, cracked walls and chipped ceiling paint, perched on a hill over San Francisco’s bustling Mission District. As far from quiet Belgian grain fields as it seemed possible to get. I couldn’t find saison’s secret here, I thought. First things first: I needed to find a farmhouse. So I went to Rogue.
Rogue’s production brewery is in Newport, Oregon. The Rogue Nation World Headquarters, as they call it, makes dozens of beers that ship all over the globe. Ninety thousand barrels a year in forty-some varieties, from boozy Dead Guy to spicy Chipotle Ale to a bacon-and-maple-syrup beer based on Portland’s most popular donut. But I wasn’t interested in one-off whimsy or factory-scale production. Rogue has another story to tell. A story set 70 miles east from the World Headquarters, on a 42-acre farm outside of sleepy Independence, Oregon. And that’s where I headed.
I hitched onto a guided tour for a dozen other west-coast beer journalists – a proper PR junket, from the passenger van to the branded tote bags. On the typical press trip these bags come stuffed with laser-jet-printed pamphlets of press releases, USB drives (containing, for good measure, digital files of said press releases), and XL t-shirts. Ours were filled with beer. The van rolled south out of Portland on a spring morning, and it wasn’t long before I heard the first phsssst and was handed a Solo cup of Single Malt Ale, a small-batch brew made with Rogue’s own, farm-grown barley. Bready, fluffy, and English-muffin-sweet, it was not a bad way to start the day.
We reached Independence by noon, the day just starting to heat up. The former hops-growing capital of the world was quiet, with that desolate, exhausted air you find in midwest factory towns or former Borscht-Belt resorts. The road stretched taut through the center of town, then scrunched into right-angled kinks as it entered the fields in the farm country beyond. Produce signs dotted the view: peaches, plums. One was painted “berries,” and modified for the latest crop with a tacked-on piece of paper reading “rasp.” Green hills hunched into farther distant mountains. The fields, painted in the dew-wet green of fur-topped cornstalks or the worn-out khaki of sun-baked hay stubble, gave way to fluffy, Seussian towers of hops waving in the breeze. And then, a line of faded green metal barns stamped with the brewery’s trademark red star. We had reached Rogue Farms.
All breweries are a little disheveled, even the big ones. The wear and tear tells a story. At places like the Miller factory in Milwaukee, ticket stubs and hot dog wrappers heap the parking lot like a public beach, speaking to the crowds of tourists they draw. At San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, a factory floor strewn with caps belies the growing pains of a newly installed, finicky bottling line. At Rogue, the dirt is dirtier.
We pulled in and sent scurrying a flock of multi-colored chickens with fluffy, pantaloon legs. Two guys kicked a couple empty barrels down the gravel drive; they bounced, crunching the stones. An ATV puttered up to a stack of dinged mailboxes. Hopping out of the van, buzzed and blinking in the sun, I wandered through the yard, plucked an apple from a tree, and sat on an old barrel to take it all in. The barrel smelled like warm vinegar and grape juice, pine and lemon blew through on the breeze, the big trees whispered overhead. No bottling lines here, no need for ear plugs.
Rogue grows barley and rye – scraps of this year’s slug-ravaged rye crop lay drying in the sun. They grow roses that they use in a flowery wheat beer called Mom’s Hef. They have raspberries, marionberries, and a tangled pumpkin patch. Nineteen beehives at last count, and a couple jalapeño plants in a little plot next to the chicken coops. But mostly, Rogue grows hops. Most of what Rogue harvests gets pelletized and goes into beers like their 7-Hop IPA, which uses every strain they grow, plus their own barley, proprietary yeast and, the label jokes, “free-range” water. The leftovers go to Josh Cronin, the farm’s resident beekeeper and brewer, or, in Rogue’s own lexicon, “Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture, Department Bee.”
Josh gets his own barn. It’s low and dark and cool inside, and clouds move past the spaces in the pale green siding like a tongue behind gap teeth. Books – “Beekeeping for Dummies,” “How to Brew” – are piled next to beehive boxes, a cider press, and a hand-cranked machine, still dripping with goo, for spinning hive frames to empty their combs of honey. Bee suits hang on pegs with spare pipes, a copper coil used to chill freshly boiled wort, some empty grain sacks, and a shovel, caked with (surely) manure. Broken barrel staves, which Josh turns into furniture, heap in a corner. Somewhere in this tumult is a 25-gallon home-brew system. “This is a working brewery,” Josh said with a shrug. “It is what it is.”
Farmhouse beer doesn’t need a farmhouse after all. It doesn’t need a special recipe, or a cultivated provenance.
Josh poured us one of his creations. A brown ale, grainy, but a little thin, like cheap diner toast. Not quite carbonated enough, he admitted, and in truth, not that great. “I wish I had more kinds for you to taste,” Josh said, “but we had a heat wave and my fermentations got all screwed up. The only thing working is this brown.” It’s not quite a saison. Not by the book, at least. But is it farmhouse? You bet. “When I started brewing here,” Josh said, “Jack Joyce [Rogue’s owner] told me, ‘Brew whatever you want, but it’s gotta be farmhouse.’ He didn’t tell me what that meant. I made a dark, German-style doppelbock – that’s not farmhouse, Jack said. Scottish ale – that’s not farmhouse. After a while, I realized that farmhouse wasn’t a style. Farmhouse means not brewing on the hottest day of the year. Brewing when you have time. Things get busy on the farm,” he sighed, pointing to the sticky bee suits. “I’m harvesting honey now. Farmhouse brewing means being lazy. Using what’s in season, using what you have. I don’t really use recipes. Some work, some don’t. I learn as I go.” He calls his beers the “Chatoe” Series, and that tongue-in-cheek hillbilly-ese carries over into names like Dirtoir and Good Chit (a “chit” is the first growth of a barley sprout). Josh brews when he has time, with what he can scrounge: spare hops, rye the slugs didn’t get, leftovers, scraps. He brews mutts. He doesn’t call them saisons, but then again, neither did Breugel’s peasants. It’s just beer.
Farmhouse beer doesn’t need a farmhouse after all. It doesn’t need a special recipe, or a cultivated provenance. All it needs is the right attitude – a farmhouse of the mind. And that, though still barnless, I had. Whenever I scrap together a brew from previous batches’ leftovers, poking around the freezer for the dusty dregs of half-used hops packets, or, running low on pilsner malt, make up the difference with a handful of rye, or, why not? some flaked spelt, I’m making saison. I’ve made a rye saison, a smoked saison, a wheat saison. One, dark as Guinness but brightened by the saison yeast’s trademark snap, and smoothed by six months of aging forgotten in the back of my fridge, was sweet and fizzy like chocolate soda. Another, brewed with chipotle peppers, had mellowed into the slow-building burn of a perfectly simmered chili. All different, and all delicious. Brewed to no target style, with no recipe, no label, no name, these beers were made and enjoyed under no pressure to be anything other than their nature: beers trying only to be what they are, a refreshing mess of what’s at hand.
Another postcard: A hay field, a babbling stream, a dirt driveway, a lazing hammock, and a tiny, pale blue cabin, like a robin’s egg dropped in forest duff. This was summer in the Hudson Valley, a little house on Store Road I shared with my girlfriend, my books, and my brewing equipment. There wasn’t much space in its two small rooms for anything else. The street’s namesake, a short walk away, stocked country-life staples: cans of Skoal and Folgers, cases of Bud Lite, unlabeled tubs of jerky. I stopped shaving. We perfumed ourselves in woodsmoke. We ate farm-stand strawberries and doughy pizza from the strip mall off the country highway. We read, wrote, hiked, brewed, and when the sun swung low and the deer came out to graze, we drank home brew.
A month into our stay, the car was shellacked in dust, my beard a mane – we had gone feral. The beer-labeling system we had been using, promising ourselves we’d spend the summer meticulously honing our craft, had dissolved as well. It was a mess. What had started as screen-prints and stencils, custom-made stickers and punning names, had become vaguely color-coded bottle caps and Sharpie-marker scribbles. We’d note the style – actual or attempted – perhaps a brewed-on date, maybe a Post-It Note of the hops we’d used. We had other things to do than spend a summer keeping books. The hammock beckoned. Our lackadaisical approach made brewing an adventure, and drinking one too. On a fateful afternoon, while setting the table out back for a picnic lunch of farm-stand salad, grilled corn, and crusty bread, I reached deep into the back of the fridge and grabbed the coldest bottle. “SSN” was all it said.
The mystery brew poured cloudy into our jelly jar glasses. But a sip dispelled all doubt: Bitter and refreshing, fizzy and cold, grainy but dry, like a crunchy rye cracker, it was perfect for lunch on a hot afternoon in the country. Perfect for what it was. Perfect for that moment, perfect for the season.