In restaurants, the farm-to-table tagline is so overused that even Alice Waters, the slogan's biggest champion, believes it has begun to lose meaning. But brewers in the small-batch beer world are just starting to tap into the philosophy. Like chefs, beer makers are now more conscious than ever about the quality of ingredients that flavor their creative brews. In fact, some forward-thinking brewers are going so far as to build breweries on farmland, sourcing raw materials directly from their property, like farm-harvested yeast and shade-grown barley.
And it's all possible thanks to new laws in several states that have given farm-based microbreweries, such as Big Foot Brewing in New York and Dirt Farm Brewing in Virginia, the freedom to grow, produce, and serve beer on agricultural land, much like wineries—sparking a rural beer boom. According to industry experts, this rustic, hyper-local farm-to-keg style is on track to become one of 2016's biggest craft beer trends.
"Call it farm-to-keg, or farm-to-barrel—it’s absolutely a trend. As our culture becomes more local-minded, we're going to see this more and more in the world of beer, " says Julia Herz, the Brewers Association's program director.
For suds lovers, it’s a chance to enjoy the terroir of beer by region, much like wine.
For suds lovers, it’s a chance to enjoy the terroir of beer by region, much like wine. For farm-based breweries—including Jester King in Texas, Lickinghole Creek in Virginia and 43 new farm breweries in New York—farmstead brewing is a way to stand out in an increasingly crowded industry.
Lickinghole Creek founder Sean-Thomas Pumphrey says his goal in opening a farm-based brewery was to break away from the pack: "It’s getting harder to distinguish yourself as a brewer. Gone are the days when you can be a city’s only local brewery. But the farm aspect sets us apart from 99 percent of other breweries. Customers visiting our tasting room can see our hops, touch it and taste it."
His Goochland, Virginia-based brewery produces roughly 3,000 barrels of beer annually on 290-acres of land, with help from 10 staff members. He sources everything from well water to pumpkins, and watermelon to sweet potatoes for seasonal brews. The farm functions "like three businesses," he says, with crop fields, beer-making facilities and a taproom all in one. At the farm, beer buffs sip ales next to sprawling hops fields.
For Pumphrey, who opened the brewery ahead of the curve in 2012, it’s a labor of love. Buying hops from a bigger farm would cost less, considering it takes big bucks to set up a waste water treatment plant and power sources. Opening the business felt, at times, like, "putting a brewery on the moon," he confesses. But the model is better for the planet—and for the flavor of his prized beers.
"There’s a terroir factor—a local flavor of the land. Our hops have a gentle, unique characteristic and our pale ale doesn’t taste like anything else I’ve ever had," explains Pumphrey. The terroir factor also shines through in dozens of his other beers, including Citra Fresh IPA and Goochland Quad Belgium.
In Virginia, where legislation passed in 2014 giving new freedom to farm-based brewers, the movement is bubbling up around him. The bill, SB 430, created a special license for brewers to legally grow, brew, and live on agricultural land (that latter of which had been illegal up until that point). It also authorized beer makers to obtain permanent rural zoning permits, instead of ones that expire after five to 10 years.
"We wanted the same rights as our wine colleagues," states Pumphrey, who drafted a Change.org petition in support of the bill. "Now that it has passed, you’re going to see a lot more breweries opening farms in Virginia."
And they’re already popping up in record numbers. Per Pumphrey and Brewers Association data, at least five Virginia breweries—including Dirt Farm Brewing in Bluemont, 2 Silos Brewery in Clifton, and Quattro Goomba's in Aldie—have appeared since the law went into effect.
"We could buy crops in the open market for less—but then our beer wouldn’t be as unique."
The numbers are even more staggering in New York, where a similar law passed in 2013. In the last year alone, at least 43 new farm breweries have launched according to Gov. Mario Cuomo. Meanwhile, Maryland has experience less aggressive growth. A similar farm-friendly brewing law passed in 2012, and since then nine farm breweries have debuted.
While farmstead brewing is just catching on, a handful of older, pioneering craft beer companies—such as Rogue Ales & Spirits in Newport, Oregon and Stone Brewing in Escondido, California—saw value in growing one's own ingredients far earlier, each company having bought land near their brewery in the last decade to cultivate vitals.
"It gives us a lot of inspiration, creatively. There’s a fun, deep, almost emotional, connection to the crop when you plant it, live with it and grow it yourself," said Brett Joyce, president of Rouge, a leader in the local beer movement. Rogue Farms, located 77 miles from the brewery, is home to 42 acres of hops.
Rogue introduced its farm in 2008, the same year a "hops crisis" plagued small brewers across the nation. A combination of bad weather and a shortage of hops production struck fear into the hearts of microbrewers, who, unlike big beer firms, didn’t have longstanding contracts with farms. While larger companies got first pick of the limited crop, microbrewers were forced to use second-tier hops or nothing at all. But by growing its own hops, Rogue ensures that it always has first pick of the best ingredients, explains Joyce.
"We didn’t want to have to tell our hops master, 'We don’t have any hops for you.' We stumbled onto the idea but it worked out well. So we thought, 'Why can't we grow barley, too?'" he continues. Rogue soon opened a second farm in the shadow of Mount Hood, Oregon where it grows 200 acres of barley, along with jalapeño, cucumbers, and marionberries for specialty beers.
According to Joyce, opening a farm takes courage, and it's likewise a pricey endeavor: "You have to have a tolerance for risk," since harvests can be unpredictable. He adds, "We could buy crops in the open market for less—but then our beer wouldn’t be as unique."