Craft brewers are turning to local farmers, foragers and fauna to source their ingredients — from persimmons and pumpkins to hops and wild yeast. The “plow-to-pint” movement is giving beers an identity more tied to an area’s soil, climate and terrain, or terroir — much like wine.
“It’s really having a beer that’s unique to the location. To me that’s the most significant thing,” says Jeff Stuffings, founder of Jester King Brewery, about 18 miles southwest of downtown Austin, Texas.
For his beers, Stuffings turns to local farmers and growers for ingredients like figs, melons, grapes, strawberries and peaches. He also gathers his own yeast, harvesting microbes on lemon bee balm, prickly pear cactus flowers and other plants growing wild on the brewery property.
The wild yeast is mixed with commercial brewer’s yeast to create a unique yeast strain. Stuffings says the wild yeast adds variable flavors and “interesting mouth feels.”
“The mouth feel is very, very dry. It has a richness and fullness to it,” he adds. “From a sensory perspective, you’re able to tie a beer to the location.”
Supporting farmers, others
The local-ingredient movement reflects different factors. Brewers are responding to the demand for local foods. They want to help the local farm economy. And new laws in a number of states — including New York, Maryland and Virginia — support the use of local ingredients and make it easier for farm-based breweries to expand and serve locally sourced beer.
“A lot of it has to do with the larger ‘buy local’ movement,” says Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland.
For Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, North Carolina, the use of local ingredients is tied to creating a “Southern Beer Economy” that supports local farmers, foragers and agricultural entrepreneurs. The brewery, for example, has used foragers for persimmons, figs and spicebush berries, also called Appalachian allspice.
Sometimes ingredients appear at the front door. Fullsteam founder Sean Wilson recalls a friend showing up with 100 pounds of Candy Roaster winter squash. “We made a beautiful, malty brown ale using the grilled squash, spicebush berries and local sugarcane molasses,” Wilson says.
Changes in laws
The local sourcing trend has accompanied a changing legal landscape. In 2012, Maryland passed a law creating a farm brewery license. Among other things, the license holder can brew up to 15,000 barrels of beer a year — provided it’s made with an ingredient from a Maryland farm, like hops, barley or fruit. Twelve farm breweries have since emerged, with the total number of craft brewers now 55. More farm breweries are in the works.
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Bruce Zurschmeide and his wife capitalized on a 2014 change in Virginia law that made it easier for farm breweries to open on land zoned for agriculture. The couple’s Dirt Farm Brewing, opened in 2015, is an “extension” of their 400-acre farm in Loudon County, Virginia, about 1 1/4 hours northwest of Washington.
“We were looking for a way to have the land pay for itself,” Zurschmeide says. “We’ve got quite a few recipes that we source from the farm.”
The Peter Peter Pumpkin Ale is popular. A sweet potato stout arrived for Thanksgiving. Zurschmeide has used cherries, peaches, apricots and plums, too. He grows hops and is testing grain varieties.
The local trend is expected to continue. It has attracted different names: “farm-to-keg,” “farm-to-barrel,” “plow-to-pint,” “ground-to-glass.”
“For sure, you’re going to see more people doing it,” Brett Joyce, president of Rogue Ales & Spirits, says. “Brewers are seeing what the consumer wants. People are looking for farmers markets and local. If you can get that through in your beer, there is a story to tell.”
The Newport, Oregon, brewery is a pioneer in local ingredients. Responding to a worldwide hop shortage, Rogue opened a 42-acre “hopyard” in 2008 on the Willamette River, about 1 1/2 hours northeast of Newport.
Today, Rogue Farm grows 42 acres of hops and 20 to 30 acres of other crops including pumpkins, marionberries, hazelnuts and jalapeño peppers. Rogue operates a 200-acre barley farm about two hours east of Portland, in the Tygh Valley.
At the start of 2016, Rogue unveiled its Hop Family Series of IPAs. The four India Pale Ales showcase the eight varieties of hops grown at Rogue Farms.
To make its Pumpkin Patch Ale, Rogue harvests its pumpkins each fall, chops them up and roasts them in a mobile oven at its Newport brewery. “It’s the freshest pumpkin beer you can have,” Joyce says.
Main photo: Fullsteam Brewery, in Durham, North Carolina, teams with local foragers to gather ingredients such as persimmons for its First Frost Winter Persimmon Ale. Credit: Courtesy of Fullsteam Brewery