Session #136: Farmhouse Brewing — Cheap, Fast, Fresh

Still from a film: a farmworker drinks homebrew.

This month’s host is Dave S of Brewing in a Bedsitter and he has asked us to tackle, in any way we like, the subject of farmhouse brewing.

We’ll begin this bit of pondering with an extract from an article in the Brewing Trade Review for June 1955 reporting on the collection of the Museum of English Rural Life of ‘absolute unit’ social media fame.

In the home brewing section a particularly interesting exhibit is the equipment from a Suffolk farmhouse where this once domestic art was practised as recently as 1934. Included is a mash tub, vat, stillions and a heavy old copper, the removal of which almost necessitated dismantling that part of the building in which it was houses. Other items allied to home brewing include examples of malt scoops from Suffolk and Berkshire, a Suffolk mash stirrer, a Berkshire horn mug and kegs of various size from Somerset, Essex and Worcestershire once used by farm labourers to carry their beer and cider into the fields, particularly at harvest time.

Insofar as we’ve given British farmhouse beer — or let’s say rural beer — a great deal of thought there’s a point hinted at here that rings true for us: we reckon it ought to be quickly, cheaply, easily made, and probably drunk very fresh, if not, indeed, while still fermenting.

That is, like ‘Cornish swanky’ which we wrote about for Beer Advocate a couple of years ago:

One particular set of instructions is repeated in various corners of the internet, usually verbatim, without any original source. The earliest version, posted on RootsWeb by someone called Jan Gluyas in May 1997, calls for boiling four pounds of brown sugar in five gallons of water for 45 minutes with hops, ground ginger, raisins and salt. It is to be fermented for around two days and then bottled with a single raisin in each bottle for priming.

Or, if you prefer pictures to words, along the lines of this ginger beer recipe from a strangely compelling YouTube channel which is part exploration of 18th century American cooking techniques, part advertising for a firm that sells historic kitchen equipment:

The Brewing Trade Review article gives details of the slightly larger scale, more elaborate communal brewing method of one Suffolk village via the testimony of an 81-year-old woman interviewed in 1950. Even that, though, was fermented for a maximum of a week before being drunk, although…

those who liked “young beer”, it seems — or who perhaps found seven days too long a wait to quench their impatient thirsts — often tapped the casks before the lapse of this period.

But it’s hard to imagine anyone making this kind of beer commercially viable in 2018 so these days farmhouse, as a label, must mean something else. Lars Marius Garshol may have it when he suggests that most commercial beers commonly labelled as ‘farmhouse’ are actually “farmhouse ales that have been imported into the world of commercial brewing, undergoing some changes on the way”.

3 thoughts on “Session #136: Farmhouse Brewing — Cheap, Fast, Fresh”

  1. Cornish swanky sounds like what farmhouse ale degenerates to when the malt is no longer available, typically because people have either stopped growing grain in favour of cash crops, or because they can’t be bothered to make malts any more. The Norwegian version is a mix of sugar and juniper branches.

    The real farmhouse ale, including the British, was definitely cheap. Because usually no money changed hands to make it. The farm produced all the ingredients by itself. The cost is that part of the harvest has to be set aside for beer, which can be anything from cheap to very dear indeed in poor grain districts.

    As for quickly and easily made. Making the malts takes one and a half weeks. Preparing the wooden vessels for brewing takes a lot of time, too. Then you had to carry the water. The actual brewing typically took an entire day. The racking took a few hours as well. Modern homebrewing is almost absurdly easy and simple by comparison. (The local school in Blaxhall, Suffolk used to close on days when most of the farms brewed, because the children were needed at home to help with the brewing.)

    But it’s true that fermentation times were short. A week is actually a very long fermentation for farmhouse ale. Less than 48 hours was the normal. But these people were using farmhouse yeast, not the type of yeast that the breweries use, and those ferment crazily fast, and need very little maturing. So the beer would be perfectly fine to drink within a week. (The description from Blaxhall says the yeast was pitched when the wort was “milkwarm”, which is 35C. They weren’t using modern British ale yeast.)

  2. Perhaps not commercially viable as a long term beer, but is there any reason an innovative brewpub couldn’t try a small batch run as part of a specific event like a beer festival?
    And doesn’t this sound very similar to the stuff that gets sold out of farms on the Andes to this day?

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