Phil Markowski’s Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftmanship in the Belgian Tradition is a well-written and fascinating book focusing on two basic beer styles: Wallonian saisons and French bière de gardes. As Markowski notes, “this book’s core objective is to better define two styles of ale that are often misunderstood. The many interpretations of these styles do not fit into predefined style categories. As a result, many observers brush them off as insignificant or unimportant” (6). In part, this is because “French and Belgian farmhouse brewing evolved as a ‘third way’ apart from German and English brewing, the sources of so much of our brewing philosophy” (8). In this sense, I think Markowski hits it on the nose—while this book was written in 2004, his words still hold true today, even in the über-experimental American craftbrewing scene: the lack of knowledge of what actually distinguishes these two styles, coupled with a traditional focus on English and German brewing, has led to a lot of pedestrian American attempts to recreate these beers. Think sweet, think sticky, think over-spiced. Which is really only another way of saying that doing whatever the hell you want does not make something a saison, even if it is an interesting beer.
Tracing the historical development of these two beers offers numerous insights into the way these two beers are a product of similar and yet different social, political, and cultural forces. Markowski points out that there are “two primary ways to formulate a brew to help keep it stable over months of storage—increasing the hopping rate or elevate the alcohol content” (11). And as he continues, each of these beers follows one of these paths: higher hopping rates for the saison, and increased alcohol content for the bière de garde. Thus, as Markowski notes, “The higher alcohol content of today’s bière de garde evolved as a result of brewers’ efforts to make them more ‘special’” (34). More special indeed. Sounds like Belgium beat America to the punch on this one. As well, local legislation had its own influence: “for several decades of the nineteenth century, unmalted brewing grains were taxed at a lower rate than malt, providing an extra incentive” for the use of non-traditional grains like wheat, spelt, and buckwheat in saisons (155). Coupled with the shared historical background both within regions—“The use of old hops was frequent, bringing saisons close to traditional lambic” (104)—and across regions—“Modern bière de garde may have evolved from the tradition of making bière de Mars, a seasonal ale with origins similar to German Oktoberfst Maerzen” (36)—Markowski’s text provides a thought-provoking read for those equally interested in style, method, and tradition.
Practical brewing advice is also prevalent, relevant to those interested in fine-tuning their brewing ability. For example, in saisons, “bitterness is obtained by the use of a massive amount of hops low in alpha acids” (121). While two ounces of American Magnum can do the trick, understanding the total landscape and not just the shortcut is important. Then there is this gem: “The addition of spices can be thought of in much the same way as adding hops to a brew” (166). In other words, not only in regards to bittering, flavor, aroma, and dry-spicing additions, but with forethought and intentionality that takes the entire beer into consideration. Markowski also discusses yeast history: “the Dupont strain may have originally been a red wine yeast that over time adapted itself to a brewery environment” (172). My personal experience with Wyeast French Saison 3711 (which is not the Dupont strain) would tend to confirm this; not only is 3711 an extremely aggressive yeast that readily outcompetes (or even kills off) other yeasts, it exudes a good amount of fruit (specifically cherry) esters, especially when placed under stress. But it does make a damn good beer. Sorry, Phil, but I like it better than the Dupont strain.
Finally, Markowski offers historical asides designed to cohere the different threads of the text; he notes that “As saison was considered the drink of farm workers, grisette was the brew of the miners” (131). Before reading the book, I knew that the two names existed (Sly Fox does a Grisette), but not the reciprocal distinctions existing between the two. I did know more about grisettes prior to reading this, but in another context; not surprisingly, the two share historical roots (see the Sly Fox description and you’ll figure it out). As well, another gem: “Based on the works of sociologist and historian Léo Moulin, it can estimated that consumption levels of low gravity beer for a manual laborer in the Middle Ages was around 5 liters per day!” (99). Holy les saisonniers! And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out my newest vocabulary word: chaptalization, which is boosting fermentable sugar content through additions of sucrose. Basically, it means adding table sugar to create a leaner, drier beer. But using chaptalization should make you sound like a rock star. Or an academic, which is pretty much the same thing. Oh, and if you’d like to see some other reviews of the book, go find them yourselves, you lazy bum. Just kidding! Check out All About Beer and the Mad Fermentationist (so angry!). Word.