By Aaron Brussat
For the Oregon Beer Growler
If you think of Portland’s beer scene as the sun, Portland’s beer festivals would be its solar flares, sunspots and cosmic wind. It’s always burning — exothermic blasts of molten malt, hops, yeast and beards swirling and bubbling with every new beer release party. A tower of foamy fire appears on the horizon; we shield our eyes and say, “Oh look, a beer festival!”
Every beer festival fills a niche, and many open beer drinkers’ eyes to what lies just beyond their experience, that errant bottle in the back of the fridge. Portland Farmhouse Weekend provides a city-wide opportunity for beer lovers to go deep into a largely misunderstood sect of beers. The “Weekend,” set for Friday March, 31 through Sunday, April 2, is an extension of the Portland Farmhouse & Wild Ale Festival, now in its fifth year, held at Saraveza Bottle Shop.
To say that founder Ezra Johnson-Greenough has a few beer festivals under his belt is an understatement. He’s been conceiving and organizing events in Portland for years. Johnson-Greenough started the Portland Fruit Beer Fest, and his fingerprints are all over Portland Beer Week and many other tap-related happenings. Some are annual; others spring up and are gone, not unlike styles of beer on a taplist suited for today’s fickle consumer.
Johnson-Greenough’s goal for the Farmhouse & Wild Ale Festival is to “make it the best fest of its kind. We’re increasing the size of tents, hours and beer. The last couple years have been more stagnant. There was no marketing budget for the fest.”
This says a lot about the popularity of the event; Saturday’s general session last year was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people vying for tastes of rare beers from big names like The Ale Apothecary and Jester King Brewery.
In expanding the festival, Johnson-Greenough has also expanded the concept. On top of Upright Brewing’s eighth anniversary party, beer releases and educational seminars around town, Wander Brewing, from Bellingham, Wash., will bring its 25-barrel coolship to town for a collaboration brew with Breakside Brewery. The project will generate beer for the event in coming years.
The festival includes a beer release specifically for attendees. Last year, The Commons Brewery produced The Croze, a pale beer fermented in open-topped barrels (croze is a cooperage term referring to the groove at either end of the barrel that holds the head in place). This year’s very limited release is a lambic-style beer from Logsdon Farmhouse Ales. Brewer Shilpi Halemane, who’s been at the Hood River brewery a year-and-a-half, started a program of beers brewed in the “Methode van Lembeek” with veteran wild ale brewer Curtis Bain. For the festival, “We thought it might be nice to showcase and sneak preview a single barrel that tasted really good.”
The beer, Saraveza Sour, is brewed with Pilsner malt, raw wheat and aged hops. The brewing process uses a multi-step mash (raising the temperature several times to activate different enzymes) and a two-hour boil. The beer is transferred from the kettle to a coolship — a wide, shallow metal vat open to the country air. There it picks up a bevy of microscopic hitchhikers that will eat their way through the complex sugars in the wort. The inoculated wort is transferred to conical fermentors for two weeks before it is racked into used American oak barrels.
The final product is “in the 5.5% alcohol range. It is tart and Brett-forward with a funky aroma, very clear and bright. It has a classic lambic profile; that’s kind of the goal.”
More and more breweries in the country are experimenting with spontaneous fermentation. They pay homage to the classic Belgian appellation while showcasing the “terroir” of local yeast and bacteria. The wort can be produced in the same way anywhere, but it is the surrounding air that ultimately gives the beer its personality.
What Is Farmhouse Beer?
In our modern era of opaque, flesh-colored IPAs that taste like the Tropicana test kitchen, it’s easy to lose sight of the creative work being done with Oregon’s state microbe Saccharomyces cerevisiae (ale yeast) and its cousins Brettanomyces (a “wild” yeast), Lactobacillus (a common fermenting bacteria), and others — the fermenting family tree is more like a forest.
Most brewers will credit Saison Dupont as the godfather of farmhouse-style beers. It was first imported to the United States in the 1980s, and helped to usher in the idea of beer as a flavorful beverage. It defies accurate reproduction by way of its yeast, which some speculate to be a blend of strains. With a simple malt and hop regimen, the beer gets its particular spicy-fruity profile from unusually high fermentation temperatures.
The new, Americanized genre of “farmhouse” beers encompass a range of styles, flavors and colors, as their origins are multifarious and knotted in untold agrarian histories.
“I like how broad a term it is for the range of things you can use,” says Halemane. “I dislike it for the same reason. If I read a description and it says ‘farmhouse ale with cherries,’ that could mean anything.” At Logsdon, “By virtue of brewing it in a barn, we could make anything and call it a farmhouse ale.” Very tricky. Overall, the farmhouse flavor relies on the characteristics of fermentation and is augmented with the brewer’s choice of malt, hops, wood, fruit and/or spices.
The Farmhouse & Wild Ale Festival has one rule: only U.S. farmhouse-style beers.
“There’s no reason to discriminate if it was made on a farm or not,” says Johnson-Greenough. “It matters how good it is. I’m looking for yeast-forward, Belgian-inspired beers from breweries known for their farmhouse beer — mostly. It’s a very exciting year because there’s more and more options.” Some of the breweries making their debut this year include Alesong Brewing & Blending, Astoria’s new Reach Break Brewing, Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery and Yachats Brewing.
Learn more about Portland Farmhouse Weekend at portlandfarmhousefest.com.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.