Though it may seem like cities are the hub of microbreweries, brewing beer in urban settings is relatively new. For centuries, farmers would produce only enough beer to sustain themselves or a small community, working together to grow and harvest whatever they needed.
The ales that they brewed varied based on what types of ingredients were available, but in the 1700s, the saison or farmhouse ale was created in small farms across France and Belgium. Meaning season, saison was a style of beer brewed in the fall to put away to mature over the winter, then enjoy in early spring.
Some craft breweries have taken this farming lifestyle to heart, and have been producing excellent beers far from the din and bright lights of a city. In rural communities across Maine, brewers have found out-of-the-way locations to create their concoctions.
Take, for example, Newcastle, a town of fewer than 1,800 residents that sits beside the Damariscotta River. For Oxbow Brewing Co., it was the ideal setting to create farmhouse-inspired beers. Oxbow Brewing’s flagship Farmhouse Pale Ale can transport you to the countryside with its flavors. Oxbow’s aim is to create American farmhouse ales, in general, but it does brew a variety of beer, including some hoppy and some Belgian-styles – all with creativity and commitment to quality.
If you’ve only had Oxbow’s beer in bottles or at the Portland-based satellite tasting room, it is worth the time to make the drive up to the midcoast to see the brewery. The farmhouse, tasting room and grounds are serene, and the abundance of trees and woods nearby make it a great trip to take in fall colors. On cool nights, the brewers make beer using a coolship, an open vessel designed to take in the natural yeasts and organisms present in the air, and use that to inoculate some special beers. If you find yourself having trouble leaving the farming lifestyle behind, you can event rent out the farmhouse itself through Airbnb.
Not terribly far from Newcastle, in Waldoboro, is Odd Alewives Farm Brewery, which opened its bright blue barn doors to the public in early May. The stunning barn where the tasting room and brewery resides was originally built in the 1850s. An outside tasting area is only part of the over 20 acres of forests and gardens on the property. The beer, whose names all begin with the word “odd,” have a little of something for everyone. Odd Patch is a Belgian-style blonde ale brewed with strawberry and rhubarb grown on the property. Odd Night uses the brewery’s own horehound, lavender and anise hyssop to flavor the black ale. Not every beer is fruited or has herbs added, but all of them reflect creativity in creating beer from the freshest ingredients possible.
But saison and farmhouse styles aren’t the only beers that can be made in rural settings. In Limerick, Gneiss Brewing Co. (pronounced “nice”) has been using its farm brewery to create German-style wheat beers and stand out in the use of wheat and rye in many beers. Gness Weiss is a year-round beer but seems perfect for late summer and fall, with the bright flavors of wheat shining through. This summer, Gneiss finished a large expansion of its brewing operations and tasting room, while beginning to can many of its flagship beers. An outside “biergarten” is a great place to sip those beers and sometimes (when it’s hot) a shandy, which is beer with lemonade added. If you come at the right time of the year, you can also check out the small hop-growing efforts happening right on the property.
A bit further north, in Lyman, Funky Bow Beer Co. is a little less pastoral and more of a perpetual jam session. Come up the dirt driveway, and you’ll begin to hear music, laughter and dog barks filtering through the trees. What used to be a small operation out of a spare room in one of the barns has grown to include a canning line, more tanks and a semi-permanent covered pavilion and stage for live music. A cash-based token system is used for flights and samples, and you can hang out on the grounds while live bluegrass, reggae or fiddle music plays around you. The beers include some great hop-heavy brews like So Folking Hoppy and Jam Session IPA, but also dark beers like Midnight Porter, a roasty treat perfect for a late summer night. Kid- and dog-friendly, this feels like its own community built around the beer.
Tucked away, these farms are not a destination for novelty’s sake, but for the chance to get a feeling of what rural communities may have been like, when neighbors and friends gathered together in the making and drinking of beer.