Farmer-Brewers Growing Local Beer

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This story originally appeared in Issue 55, May/June 2015.

One bone-chilling Sunday in January, with snow frosting New York City, I boarded a train bound for gluttony. Some 30 miles north, I de-trained and took a cab that wound through rural roads to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, America’s preeminent farm-to-table restaurant. On the farmstead, fruits and vegetables are grown, and chickens, cows and pigs roam. Tonight, the swine would headline Blue Hill’s tenth, and final, Sausage and Beer dinner.

Over the evening pig appeared in every permutation, from paper-thin charcuterie to lardons anointed with oyster foam. Beer-wise, there were free-flowing glasses of KelSo’s bone char–infused winter lager, Captain Lawrence’s salty-sour blueberry gose and Good Nature’s smoky Scotch ale, a curiously delicious lot of beers that shared one commonality: they were each brewed with regionally grown grains from Massachusetts’ Valley Malt. By plate and pint, the feast was fiercely local, paying dividends in flavor. “Valley Malt has more structure, nuance and integrity than grains I get from anywhere else,” says KelSo brewmaster Kelly Taylor.

For restaurants, cooking local means visiting a farmers’ market. Breweries face a tougher task. From global conglomerates to garage nanobreweries, everyone sources hops, grains and yeast strains from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles afield. “Local” beer often comes with a Bigfoot-size carbon footprint.

Crop by crop, though, the ground is shifting. To create brews with clear terroir, brewers have begun growing barley, hops and fruit, as well as harvesting yeast strains and building farmstead breweries. For brewers lacking green thumbs or extra acreage, hop farms have fanned out from coast to coast, and malthouses are seeking out origin-specific heritage grains. “We take something you’re calling a local product and make it truly local,” says Brian Simpson, cofounder of Asheville, North Carolina’s Riverbend Malt House.

The notion is catching on nationwide. In Oregon, Agrarian Ales exclusively uses estate-grown hops, while Washington’s Bale Breaker is housed in a hop field. New York’s Plan Bee makes sour ales from state-grown ingredients, and Maine’s Oxbow makes farmhouse-style saisons on a real farm. Moreover, start-ups such as Michigan’s Hop Head Farms and North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Hops are loosening Washington’s and Oregon’s bitter dominance.

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Seeds of Change
The Pacific Northwest is synonymous with the fragrant, flavorful hops that fuel modern pale ales and IPAs, with Washington’s Yakima Valley accounting for some 75 percent of domestic production. During the late 19th century, though, New York State was America’s hoppy epicenter, with a thriving Wisconsin industry as well.

What about Michigan? That question concerned Jeff and Bonnie Steinman, self-professed “lifelong plant fanatics, career horticulturists and craft-beer geeks.” Around 2008, Bonnie’s cousin was planning a Lansing brewery. “They were looking for sources for hops and wondering if they would grow well in Michigan,” Jeff recalls.

Back then, fire and natural disasters caused hop prices to skyrocket, thrusting the brewing industry into panic mode. The couple decided to experiment. A friend loaned them land, and the twosome tested 13 different hops, finding that American hybrids and, to some extent, German cultivars fared well. (English hops? Not so much.)

Emboldened, in the summer of 2011 they partnered with Nunzino Pizza—an investor in Chicago’s Revolution Brewing—and founded Hop Head Farms, situated in southwestern Michigan’s Hickory Corners. In 2012, they planted 15 acres of hops and built the first phase of their processing facility. This was no small investment: infrastructure costs for irrigation and trellises ran $15,000—per acre. “If you’re not already a farmer and don’t have equipment, you’re getting in deep real quick,” Jeff says. In 2013, they planted another 15 acres of hops and built the facility’s second phase.

From the get-go, Michigan brewpubs and big breweries supported Hop Head. Founders features the flowers in its Harvest Ale, and Bell’s adds them to its Midwestern Pale Ale and Kalamazoo IPA. These native hops are not the same old stuff. Chinooks “seem to have a Michigan terroir,” Jeff says. “It’s less piney, with more pineapple and tropical fruit.”

Hop farms are taking root countrywide. In New York, Dutchess Hops grows everything from earthy Fuggles to floral Centennials. Minnesota’s Hippity Hops Farms cultivates organic Cascade hops, while Colorado’s Rising Sun Farms and Misty Mountain Hop Farm supply the likes of Left Hand and AC Golden—Colorado Native Lager is truth in advertising.

On the flipside, some breweries dig farming. Sierra Nevada raises hops and barley, which go into its Estate Ale, and Bell’s produces barley on its 80-acre Michigan farm. Oregon’s Rogue operates several farms filled with hops, rye, barley, jalapeños and pumpkins. As with Hop Head, Rogue’s agricultural pursuits were spurred by the hop market’s collapse. “We couldn’t tell [brewmaster] John ‘More Hops’ Maier that he couldn’t put as many hops in his beer,” recalls Rogue president Brett Joyce. Today’s harvest totally fuels Rogue Farms–brand beers, including 7 Hop IPA, Chipotle Ale and Good Chit Pilsner, while every Rogue brew contains some homegrown hops and barley. “Beer has just as powerful of a terroir story as wine,” Joyce says. Rogue does not brew on the farm—more on breweries that do in a bit—but it does operate a malthouse, transforming its grains into brew-ready malt. “If we can figure out how to do it ourselves, we’ll do it ourselves,” Joyce says.

Malt is mainly produced by several agricultural behemoths with little connection to brewers. In contrast, small malthouses (the Craft Maltsters Guild counts 20 North American members) are bespoke, aligning with farmers and tailoring malts to brewers’ needs. “Our relationship with the brewers is so personal,” says Riverbend’s Simpson, who counts little guys (Fonta Flora, Fullsteam) and giants (Sierra Nevada, New Belgium) as clients. “We meet with every brewer to talk about their beers and see what we can do to impact a flavor profile.”

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Simpson’s malts are made with North Carolina–grown barley, wheat and rye, including the Wrens Abruzzi variety that’s been grown in the South since the Civil War. “We want our region to be recognized for a flavor profile,” says Simpson, whose business was inspired by an observation: Why were brewers not using North Carolina grain? With consumers’ heightened emphasis on locality, “having the malt come from close by the brewery helps brewers tell a story,” he says.

Narratives abound, from Maine’s Blue Ox Malthouse to Pennsylvania’s Deer Creek Malthouse and to Texas’ Blacklands Malt, which will custom-smoke its malts with your preferred wood. Since small-batch malts can’t compete on cost, there’s a focus on quality and flavor. “Everything that goes into a bag looks, smells and tastes spectacular,” he says. “I’ll put my pilsner malt against anyone’s pilsner malt on the planet.”

Old Macdonald Had a Brewery
For much of the last 150 years, brewing has been an urban pursuit. As the industrial revolution led to teeming metropolises, folks settled in cities, where breweries stitched into the urban fabric. Now, a reverse migration is leading brewers back to the land.

Maryland’s Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farms grows wheat and hops, while Austin’s Jester King farmhouse brewery inoculates beers with wild Hill Country yeast. In Oregon, Wolves & People’s farmhouse ales contain yeast cultivated from the estate’s oldest plum tree, and Logsdon Farmhouse Ales makes Belgian-style saisons in a red barn. Colorado’s Oskar Blues runs the Hops and Heifers farm (it also recently bought a western North Carolina farm), and this summer Flying Dog will unveil Virginia’s Farmworks Brewery.

For Evan Watson, opening a farm brewery was a backup plan. After graduating college in 2007, a recording contract took the musician to NYC. Between concerts he took up homebrewing. When the hop shortage hit—sound familiar?—Watson started researching hop cultivation. By growing every brewing ingredient, he hypothesized, “I thought I could make a quality beer for a lesser price and compete with larger conglomerates,” he says, laughing.

In 2009, Watson moved north of New York City to Westchester County, where he nabbed a part-time job at Captain Lawrence. While learning the brewing ropes he continued touring, even opening for Def Leppard. The experience disheartened him. “I was chewed up and spit out by the music business,” he says. “I wanted daily gratification.”

By fall 2013, Watson and his wife Emily launched Fishkill’s Plan Bee Farm Brewery with a mission of making beer with 100 percent New York ingredients. (For good reason: New York State’s recently created Farm Brewer License permits breweries to sell beer by the glass, provided they use a percentage of New York–grown ingredients. This has led to an upswing in hop farms, maltsters and farm-based brewers.) “It’s a test plot, a petri dish of this concept to source everything as local as possible,” Watson says of his single-acre brewery.

His idiosyncratic, rigorously seasonal beers—mainly fermented with yeast cultured from his apiaries’ raw honey—include the dandelion-driven Dandeliaison, barrel-aged sours flavored with indigenous fruit, and the evocative Leaf SmOak, a fall specialty crammed with malt smoked over burning oak leaves. “As a farm brewery, you’re literally attached to the land,” says Watson, who is relocating Plan Bee to a 25-acre spread with the goal of growing hops and grain.Rogue-Farms-JohnMaier-Rye-crdt-Rogue

For the longest time, peppers were favored at Oregon’s family-run Crossroads Farm, north of Eugene. Then, in 2002, brothers Nate and Ben Tilley planted hop bines on their folks’ land. Over the years, weekend-based agronomic trials “transformed into us asking if we could turn the barn our parents weren’t using into a brewery,” Nate says of what became Agrarian Ales, which opened in 2013. The brewery’s beers, which contain farm-reared hops, transcend the farmhouse-brewery stereotype of funky and rustic saisons. “For us, the farmhouse style is more about the connection of the ingredients to the beer,” says Tilley of Agrarian’s revolving seasonal brews.

Golden ales are infused with just-pressed apple juice, cream ales contain handpicked Asian pears and porters are spiced with chipotles. The pepper bounty provides Agrarian with a unique opportunity. “We’re redefining the stigma that chile beers are liquid hot sauce,” Tilley says of beers like the poblano-flavored ¡Poblamo! amber ale.

In Washington, hops have long defined life at B.T. Loftus Ranches. Back in 1932, Kevin Smith and Meghann Quinn’s great-grandparents founded the family hop farm that’s now run by their older brother, Patrick. Meghann and her husband, Kevin Quinn, and younger brother were keen homebrewers. Wouldn’t it be natural to start a brewery on the farm? “There was always something pulling us back,” Meghann says. “The farm is part of who we are.”

The trio took down three acres of the farm’s Field 41 and built Bale Breaker Brewing, which is surrounded by fields of Cascade hops. “We’re the only commercial brewery located on a commercial hop farm,” says Kevin Quinn, who oversees sales. Meghann handles marketing, while brother Kevin brews hop-forward beers such as the grassy, citrusy Field 41 Pale Ale, fruity and floral Topcutter IPA and, come harvest, America’s freshest wet-hop beers. “It takes about five minutes to get the hops from the picking machine to the brew kettle,” Meghann says. “It’s as fresh as you can get.”

Growing Pains
As American breweries reproduce like rabbits, with 3,200-plus operational facilities and 1.5 new ones debuting daily, there’s a tightening competition for raw material. Growing your own, or starting a farm or malthouse, may seem like the right path to self-reliance. Fact is, farming is risky business. “We’ve definitely gotten to know Mother Nature well,” says Rogue’s Joyce. The farms flood nearly every year, complicating matters for workers feeding livestock. “It’s stuff like that you never think about when you enter this project,” he says.

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Beyond logistics, there’s the issue of variable yields. Underlining that, last year’s hot summer led to a lower-than-expected hop harvest. While the farms supply Rogue with around 15 percent of its annual grain needs, and nearly 40 percent of its required hops, Joyce doesn’t foresee the brewery going all in on agriculture. “It’s a risk we’re not ready to make,” he says.

At Valley Malt, cofounder Andrea Stanley has no trouble transforming, say, purple corn, pumpkin seeds or rare Polish Danko rye into fermentables for brewers. The trouble is sourcing enough high-quality ingredients. “You have to find a farmer who knows what they’re doing, and have them integrate the crops into the farm,” she says, noting that the Northeast needs additional infrastructure: combines, silos, seed cleaners.

Upending the status quo takes time. After all, America didn’t become a nation of IPA aficionados overnight. From farming to end product, creating agricultural supply chains is complex. The undertaking requires hard labor, blind faith and money, money, money. “Our hops and barley are definitely the most expensive that we will ever use,” says Rogue’s Joyce. But brewing’s farm movement is about more than dollars and cents.

Recent years have witnessed a flattening affect in beer. As regional ingredients become an international commodity, brewers from Oregon to England and Australia have started making pale ales and IPAs that taste awfully similar. Homegrown hops, heritage grains and indigenous yeast strains give brewers the building blocks to create truly distinct beers that speak of the soil, of a specific place. And by visiting a farm brewery, a beer drinker can see beer’s journey from ground to glass vividly illustrated. With his new farmhouse brewery, says Plan Bee’s Watson, “we’re going to teach people where beer comes from.”