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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