Here’s another example of great beer writing emerging from singular obsession: Lars Marius Garshol’s Historical Brewing Techniques: the lost art of farmhouse brewing, published earlier this year by Brewers’ Publications.
It sets out to explain everything currently known about arcane, hyper-local brewing practices lingering in rural communities from Norway to Russia, based primarily on Lars’s own fieldwork and archive research.
On the surface, it’s a 400-page technical manual and the cover design certainly suggests a dry textbook rather than, as it should, a new philosophy of brewing wrapped in a tale of adventure. The sweet spot where painstaking obsession with detail translates into magic.
This book is insanely detailed and single-minded and hundreds of pages on yeast genetics or malting techniques with diagrams might not float your boat.
And if you’re affronted at the idea of sour, hazy, gritty, grainy beer sometimes brewed with peas or carrots, this might not be for you. Lars’s tasting notes on specific farmhouse beers include phrases such as ashy, smoky vanilla fudge, male sweat, dung and barnyard – not everyone’s idea of a good time, perhaps.
Who will enjoy it, then? Hardcore geeks, and brewers eager to leave the safe path, will find this a tonic. It puts beer into broader, deeper context, as if the view has suddenly expanded into widescreen and 4D, and gives us permission to break the rules.
Lars’ subject matter was, until recently, the kind of stuff of which footnotes are made. Here, commercial brewing of the type that dominates globally is the footnote, or at least the over-familiar postscript to a much longer story that is rarely told.
For thousands of years, people all over the world have been making beer using methods they learned from their ancestors and the ingredients at hand. They don’t always know why they do things the way they do, only that those methods seem to work. Lars introduces us to brewers still working like this today, producing small batches of beer for community consumption or as barely commercial local enterprises.
From the off, certain sacred ideas are challenged. These brewers rarely measure or test anything, except with their own eyes, hands and palates. They don’t brew to style or strive for absolute consistency. A recurring theme in the book is the author’s own astonishment or disbelief at what he is being told, or surprise and delight at how delicious something tastes when logic says it shouldn’t.
Though Lars sets out to demonstrate to the world that these practices and folk products live on, the shadow narrative is of their endangerment. He frequently hears of a practice in some rural community that has died out within recent memory, or is told that jars of some obscure yeast strain have just been thrown out.
The farmhouse brewers themselves are under constant pressure to modernise and standardise. Why use that dirty old yeast your grandfather passed on when I can sell you a nice lab-grown dried variety designed for brewing? Making your own malt is a waste of time – just buy some.
In that context, this book – and the half-decade of research that led up to it – feels like a just-in-time intervention. Stick to your traditions, Lars seems to be saying; you’re right, the modernisers are wrong; don’t let this die.
So, if you want to brew, say, Stjørdalsøl, what do you need to do? Well, first get hold of some of some of Sigmund Gjerne’s family yeast from Voss in Norway and some local juniper branches. Then, build yourself a small kiln… Oh, by the way, you’ve never tasted this beer and have a frame of reference for it, so you’ll have no idea if what you’ve produced is technically correct.
Home-brewers used to other books from this publisher, such as Stan Hieronymus’s excellent Brew Like a Monk, might expect clear instructions: to recreate this commercial product, follow these steps, with these ingredients. Lars has tried to do that as far as possible but, really, the point is not to think of this as a step-by-step how-to guide so much as a challenge.
Ultimately, what this book presents is an antidote to “millimetre brewing” – a phrase used by one of Lars’s interviewees to describe the pernickety tendencies of home-brewing nerds. Here, you’ll find an entirely new philosophy and language of brewing.
What it says is that there is no right way or one true method. And if you’re doing something because someone told you it was ‘the done thing’ you might be missing out on a chance to brew something truly unique.
Give yourself permission to try new (old) methods. Mash hot. Don’t boil your wort. Use bread yeast.Throw some potatoes in the mash. Use juniper branches – but take care, because picking the wrong plant might kill you.
Do things that don’t make sense.
Scream at your beer.
Find a little farmhouse in your soul.