Rustic Revelry: Farmhouse Ales in Faraway Lands

Drink in the tradition of Old World brews and the modified equipment used to make them.

Photo by Mika Laitinen

If you’re an all-grain homebrewer, your brewing inventory likely consists of stainless steel pots, maybe a modified cooler as a mash tun, various bits of plumbing equipment, and other pieces of modern technical gadgetry. People have been brewing for thousands of years, though, so what did they use before contemporary materials were available?

Fortunately, there are pockets of the world where brewers still use equipment and processes that have changed very little from the time of their ancestors. In Finland, Norway, and the Baltics, “farmhouse” brewing is a tradition that goes back to before Viking times. While plenty of brewers today use modern equipment and practices, some still create farmhouse ales using rustic methods. To understand how the traditional equipment and techniques work, a quick rundown of the all-grain brewing process is necessary.

Brewing the All-Grain Way

The process of brewing beer “from scratch” starts with mashing malted grains. (The more ambitious may even try their hand at malting their own grains.) Mashing is the process by which fermentable sugars and proteins are drawn from crushed malted grains soaked in hot water. In modern brewing, this is typically done by keeping the mash within a specific temperature range — usually between 145 and 155 degrees Fahrenheit — for a set period of time. This is known as a “single-step” mash. Some brews call for water to be added over multiple steps at increasing temperatures, which is known as a “multi-step” mash. The multi-step technique was developed to coax out additional sugars and soluble proteins from undermodified grains, which were commonly used during the early days of beer-brewing. In brewing and malting terms, “modification” refers to how much soluble protein is available in each grain kernel’s endosperm following the malting process. In the past, undermodified malts needed a protein rest to ensure proteins and amino acids were fully broken down and that the majority of the starch was released from the endosperm of the grain. Undermodified malts were required in the past because the malting process wasn't as efficient, mainly due to the equipment and techniques used.

In some cases, a decoction mash was performed, which involved removing a portion of the mash, boiling it briefly, and then returning it to the mash vessel, slowly raising the temperature of the mash to the optimal starch-conversion temperature, which is about 150 degrees. Some brewers today do this painstaking process because it can draw out additional rich, malty flavors not attainable through single-step mashing.

Today, stainless steel, copper, insulated plastic, and other modern materials help simplify and streamline this process. For most of human history, however, the mashing process was done in equipment made from wood and other natural materials. Fortunately, we don’t need to go back in time to see these ancient processes and this equipment in person, or to experience a traditional farmhouse brew.



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