Is Farm-to-Pint Beer Doomed?

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Barley at Rogue Farms in Independence, Oregon.Courtesy Rogue

Call it farm-to-table, field-to-pint, or ground-to-glass, the craft beer community is embracing the culinary world’s locavore movement. Through initiatives at some of the country’s largest craft breweries, like Sierra Nevada’s Estate Ale and Rogue Brewing’s Rogue Farms, to local legislature like New York’s Farm Brewery license, “local beer” no longer simply means beer that is brewed locally. Instead, the term is beginning it ignite expectations of beer that is crafted with ingredients that are grown nearby, if not at the brewery. But here’s the trouble: While locavore beers are certainly trendy and sustainability-minded, cost, availability, and quality are all working against brewers.

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The hardest part of growing your ingredients is the risk, says Brett Joyce, president of Rogue Ales, whose brewpub in Newport, Oregon, sits about 75 miles from Rogue Farms in Independence, Oregon. “It costs about $5,000 an acre to plant hops. That’s a lot of money and there’s no guarantee.”

As many farmers can attest to, Rogue learned that yield can change year to year, and unexpected problems can occur. One year, an entire field of rye was wiped out by slugs. “We didn’t know slugs could move that fast,” Joyce jokes. But, he says, “you have to have the tolerance to go through trials, tribulations, and failures.”

Though Rogue has celebrated many delicious, farm-brewed successes, such as their Pumpkin Patch Ale, Good Chit Pilsner, and Hop Family series of IPAs, few of its field-to-fist batches make it far from the brewpub. “We brew one batch of the [Wet Hop Ale] every year, for the brewpub only. It’s the most inefficient beer we have,” Joyce says. And despite Rogue’s sizable investment, they still don’t have the acreage for readily available releases.

Similarly for Sierra Nevada, plucking ingredients from its roughly nine acres of hops and 30 acres of barley to brew the excellent Estate Ale “is incredibly expensive and incredibly labor heavy,” says Sierra Nevada beer ambassador, Bill Manley. Though to their credit, Sierra Nevada, Rogue, and most brewers using local ingredients keep their beer prices relatively close to your average craft beer. 

Beginning with the Chico Estate Ale in 2008, the brewery set out to create an annual beer solely from ingredients grown on the California property. However, in 2013, the beer was not released — nor brewed — because of a failed barley crop resulting from early rains, says Manley. “We lost 80,000 pounds of barley,” he says. “It was an awfully expensive effort that went to waste that year, sadly.”

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Even in successful years, crop yields may cause the beer’s recipe to vary, he says. “Hops and barley are agricultural products. Year over year, they don’t taste the same,” Manley says. “Yields have gone down and been brittle over the past couple of dryer years,” he continues, referring to California’s drought. “This beer is the product of mother nature.”

Roscoe Brewing in upstate New York is just one of a long list of breweries that opened with the state’s Farm Brewery license. The designation comes with several advantages over the state’s traditional brewery license, such as a lower license cost and increased options for how and where to sell its beer. The catch is that until 2018, at least 20 percent of Roscoe’s ingredients must be grown in the Empire State. By 2024, that share increases to 90 percent. 

Regardless of its license, Roscoe brewmaster Josh Hughes says the operation is dedicated to using local ingredients, but sees cost as the highest hurdle. “One of the biggest downsides of local ingredients is the high price point,” says Hughes, who has been using a majority of New York hops and some local malt in his brews. “New York hops are sometimes two to three times more than that of larger producers.”

The same is true of barley. According to Hughes, even base malts from smaller producers can cost between 85 cents and a dollar per pound in New York — half that of larger producers on the West Coast or in Europe. “It adds up to a sizable chunk of change,” Hughes says, estimating Roscoe’s annual production require between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds of grain. “That’s another employee or a new fermenter.”

Brewing with local grains sold at premium prices may be a luxury for some, but for many, it’s hardly a possibility. At ThirstyBear Brewing in San Francisco, a FDA-certified organic brewpub celebrating its 20th anniversary in September, founder and head brewer Ron Silberstein has found local malt hard to get a hold of from day one. “When we opened in 1996, no one around here was growing barley at all, or if they were, it was being shipped to major malting companies,” he says. Today, that severe lack of small-scale production is still a major issue.

“Basically, the same network of huge farms that treat barley as a commodity are still malting and growing barley that’s geared toward the biggest producers of beer,” he says, referring to Budweiser and MillerCoors. “These huge malt houses have started to make more unique malt for the craft and all-malt brewers, but they’re still controlled by multinational corporations.”

In 2010, Silberstein brewed an experimental 100-percent local beer, the Locavore Ale, collaborating with nearby Eatwell Farm in Dixon, California, for barley, and Hops-Meister just outside Clearlake, California, for hops. With no malting facility in the region, the barley had to be shipped and malted in Colorado, and cost eclipsed ThirstyBear’s ability to continue the initiative.

“Small-batch malting is just starting in the U.S.,” says Silberstein. ”I’ve been interested in sourcing ingredients locally, but that infrastructure hasn’t been a possibility. To grow [grain] locally, then ship it to get it specialty malted, is a ridiculous expense.”

Silberstein is still set on brewing his locavore beer, however. Currently, he’s working to create his own malting facility, which he plans to open later in 2016. The facility will supply malt for all of ThirstyBear’s beers, as well as nearby small and independent breweries, he says. “I hope to be the first in California.”

Ironically, while the West Coast lacks local, independent producers, the region has the ideal climates for growing grain and hops, while the independent East Coast farmers suffer through poor weather, soil, and lack of experience — Washington’s Yakima Valley has generations-old hop farms to rely on.

“We’re not going to beat them in quality,” says Phil Leinhart, brewmaster at Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York, a farmstead brewery that has played a significant role in bringing hops back to New York State. “Some people think that because it’s local, it’s going to be higher quality. It’s not.” On the bright side, Leinhart counters, what small-scale, local ingredients will be is unique. “Cascade hops here versus in Yakima will be different, which is cool,” he says.

Scratch Brewing, a farm and microbrewery in Ava, Illinois, takes hyperlocal to a whole new level, producing an eclectic portfolio of beers made with an always-changing array of foraged ingredients found right on the brewery’s property.

According to Aaron Kleidon, one of Scratch’s co-owners and the brewery’s forager, almost all of the brewery’s beers are one-offs sold out of their on-site taproom. One saison was brewed with 105 different ingredients, ranging from garlic scapes to oregano and acorns. And an amber ale used local honey, toasted oak bark, and lavender from Scratch’s garden. However, hops and grains are a different story, Kleidon says.

“We’re in corn and soybean country here in southern Illinois. Our barley and rye comes from all over,” he says, meaning Northern California, Canada, and even Europe. “It seems ironic that we brew with local herbs and botanicals, yet the best grain comes from Europe.” The closest malting facility, he says, is still an eight-hour drive.

Even in New York, where several malting companies have opened over the past few years — Roscoe buys malt from North Country Malt Group in Champlain, New York, and East Coast Malt in the Finger Lakes Region — Hughes faces the same issue.

“While local malt is increasingly available with new malting companies — and these guys are making good stuff,” he says, “the price point is high, and quality is not as consistent as what we see with the big producers.”

Silberstien summed up the trouble with farm-to-pint quite simply: Though awareness is spreading, a truly local-centric economy of breweries cannot thrive until the entire infrastructure is rebuilt. “Back in the day, every area grew barley, malted it, and used it in their local beer. We’re just rediscovering what was done before [by] going back to a more sustainable, local economy,” he says. “That’s why I’m doing it. I love the fact that the farmers are getting into it again. I think it’s exciting and good for the environment.”

The farm-to-pint trend will take time to fully develop, as more family-owned farming businesses devote their time and land to beer ingredients, and more barley growers and hop yards further develop their crops. However, breweries like Roscoe, Scratch, and ThirstyBear anxiously await their heyday. And leaders like Sierra Nevada and Rogue will never be immune to a bad crop, yet they’re still learning, growing, and frequently bottling fantastic results. True farm-to-pint beers may not consistently stack up against the best beers you’ll find on tap yet, but the promise of developing local flavors, as well as economies, is worth the wait.

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