Community supported agriculture has become a boon to many small farmers. They get guaranteed income and a direct line to consumers. Members, on the other hand, get fresh produce, meat and cheese.
That's right. Besides stocking up on Red Russian kale, Aunt Ruby's German Green tomatoes, or even a monthly share of grass-fed beef, one can sign up for an allotment of stouts, porters, ales, pilsners, and IPAs.
Justin Korby, owner and operator of Stoneman Brewery in Colrain, Massachusetts, a small rural hill town with a population of fewer than 1,70, has offered a beer CSA—often called a CSB for community supported brewery—for the last two years. Under such a program, consumers buy shares of the beer a brewer will make over some period of time, like a calendar season. Customers get fresh bottles of beer as soon as they're ready to serve, usually picked up on a monthly basis.
A former stonemason, Korby has been an avid homebrewer since around 2010. "It was something I was passionate about," he says, "I really enjoyed making beer and I always want to do what I love."
And so, Justin launched a CSB to secure, up front, much of the money he'd need to go pro. His plan worked and two years ago he debuted a 360-square-foot brewery. "That's your storage area, brewing—it's the entire operation," he states. "It might be the smallest brewery in New England." Regardless, it's enough to produce just less than 100 barrels of beer a year. That translated to 46 different types in 2014, with customers giving him feedback on what they liked to help direct future planning.
Korby isn't the only one trying to sell directly to the public. Not only do brewers get paid up front, which can fund operations or buying equipment, but they aren’t stuck making the same two or three or four mainstay beers day after week after month after year. CSB customers want variety and so do creative brewers.
Last year, Mad Science Brewing Company at Thanksgiving Farms in Adamstown, Maryland launched their own CSB. Soul Squared Brewing Company of Fort Collins, Colorado debuted one this year, leasing space for the one-barrel operation from a farm. Becker Farms & Vizcarra Vineyards in Gasport, New York has a farm CSA and sometimes adds its own wines and hard ciders made on premises, in addition to beers whose production is contracted out. Wine Operations Manager Andres Vizcarra adds, "We are hoping to be producing our own brews this winter."
But the concept isn’t as common yet as one might think. First, imbibers have to get used to the idea of buying now and drinking later. Signing up for a summer's worth of produce is a bit different from agreeing to belly up to the bar on a regular basis. And then there are the dynamics.
Page Buchanan, owner of Madison, Wisconsin-based craft brewer House of Brews, started a CSA in 2012 through a Kickstarter project, and while the business has continued on, he's suspended the CSA. "When I was brewing more of my own beer, it wasn't too hard to provide enough variety," Buchanan said, "but with time, more of my business moved to contract brewing to the point where that is now 90 percent of my production." With brewing what other people want taking up the day, he can't generate the breadth of variety that a beer CSA needs. Who wants to sign up and pay in advance for the same two or three beers that you could pick up at a store?
However, even with the challenges, there are brewers who are making it work. Begyle Brewing in Chicago has run its CSB since 2013, proving that there are legs in kegs and money in malt.
Meanwhile, Korby is slugging through the difficulties that building any new business brings. "I made a few mistakes, worked out some kinks," he said. "I'm hoping that in year three to make a profit." He's had to compromise a bit, selling to seven stores rather than just the CSA customers and taking on some part-time work to keep the money coming in while his wife works part-time at a cooperative producer of pickled products, keeping fermentation in the family.