On a cold winter afternoon in the midst of the three-day Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines festival in Vail, Colo., four brewers from different parts of the US gathered to lead a packed room of curious industry members in a conversation about terroir: the set of unique environmental factors and farming practices that impart distinct flavors to wine or beer. Based on a challenge issued by the festival organizers, the panel—Jeffery Stuffings of Jester King Brewery, Chase Healey of American Solera, Phil Markowski of Two Roads Brewing Company, and Nile Zacherle of Mad Fritz Brewing Company—each followed the same recipe using ingredients sourced from their brewery’s region. It was an experiment that showcased just how important raw ingredients are to beer, and an ode to the locavore movement inspiring a grain-to-glass approach at breweries. From water, to wild yeast strains, to locally grown hops and grains, this ethos has infiltrated the craft brewing industry, and it’s picking up steam.
For most breweries, joining the movement is a nod to the experimental nature of the brewing profession, and an effort to cycle money back into the local economy. But just like “shopping local” in the food world, making beers entirely with ingredients from a single state comes with a list of challenges—the biggest being location. Hops and barley, two staples of nearly every beer recipe, grow better in some parts of the country than others, giving breweries in climate- and geography-blessed states like Washington, Oregon, and Idaho a leg up on crafting quality beers exclusive to their state. Yes, Florida is now growing hops in small quantities, but will they ever be more than a token ingredient for the growing breweries there?
The second biggest challenge? Money. Organic, locally-grown ingredients aren’t the cheapest option, and often involve buying directly from smaller farmers, whose pricing structure understandably varies from those of much larger farms focused on commercial production. “As the market becomes saturated with other beer brands, brewers find price point positioning adding pressure to [the] cost of goods, thus affecting margins,” explains Zacherle, whose Northern California brewery focuses on origin-specific beers where ingredients trump recipes. “In general, you can expect to pay 2 to 5 times your base pale malt cost when buying from small maltsters instead of the bigger guys,” he adds. But many breweries justify the expense with the understanding that the relationship between farming and brewing is an important one.
“Farmers are craftsman, just like us,” says Kurt Randall, head brewer at Ska Brewing Company in Durango, Colo. Midway through 2016, the brewery released Hop Ivy Ale—a hop-forward beer made entirely with ingredients from Colorado—a state that isn’t particularly well known for its homegrown hops. But the demand for quality ingredients is high, and businesses like the Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa and the Simply Grown Hops farm in Palisade (both of which contributed to Hop Ivy Ale) have been swept up in the beer industry’s explosive boom. In short, the steady business from craft breweries has allowed hop farmers and maltsters to afford newer and better equipment, like hop pelletizers, which in turn enable more breweries to make more beers featuring local ingredients more often. “For us, it’s really important to reinvest our money back into Colorado,” adds Randall, who has witnessed Hop Ivy grow from a seasonal fresh hop beer to a year-round brew available statewide.
Meanwhile, some breweries are sidestepping some of the financial hurdles of creating locally inspired beers by eliminating the middleman entirely. Larger breweries with deeper pockets, like Oregon’s Rogue Ales & Spiritsand California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, are creating “estate beers,” using ingredients grown on their own respective farms. Harvesting fresh Chinook, Cascade, and Citra hops plus wheat and two-row barley grown in Chico for its Estate Homegrown Ale gives Sierra Nevada the chance to showcase the flavors of the Sacramento Valley, the place it calls home, while yielding a distinctive SKU for the retail market. Originally introduced as Chico Estate Harvest Ale in 2008, Sierra Nevada continues to release this beer nationally each year in limited quantities during hop harvest season.
Breweries unable to grow their own ingredients but interested in pursuing beers with terroir are working closer than ever with local farmers to encourage the cultivation of new hop varietals and barley intended to produce specific flavors and textures when malted. And these close relationships, brought on by an evolving craft brewing industry, are beginning to noticeably change farming. In upstate New York, a region once hailed for its hop production, demand from in-state breweries has sparked new growth in hop farms working to create a supply. Brooklyn Brewery uses Willamette hops grown near Syracuse in its Brooklyn Greenmarket Wheat, which is made almost entirely with ingredients sourced from the Empire State, from honey to raw wheat. And Empire Brewing Company, which opened a new farm brewery in Cazenovia, N.Y., last year, has been championing all-natural ingredients and sourcing them from more than 60 New York farms since the brewery’s inception in 1994.
“It’s really about the authenticity of where our products come from,” says Zacherle of Mad Fritz, who began growing barley in the Napa Valley in 2014 and started malting local barleys in the fall of 2016. “At the end of the day, you are what you eat, and you are what you drink.”
The locavore movement is evolving, and as it continues to grow, expect new beers inspired by this philosophy to hit shelves and draft lines. In the meantime, keep an eye out for these locally inspired beers, all of which will be available this year.
Pike Brewing Company’s Pike Locale Series
Pike is working directly with farmers in Washington’s Skagit Valley to highlight locally grown barley varietals in this series, which has included the Pike Locale Copeland. The 2017 version of Pike Locale Skagit Valley Alba will be released in the fall.
Mad Fritz’s Local Origin Farmer’s Ale
In California, Mad Fritz’s Farmer’s Ale will consist of beers brewed with ingredients sourced exclusively from local farmers and its malt house. Beers from this series can be purchased exclusively at the Mad Fritz brewery in Saint Helena.
City Star Brewing’s Local Yokel
Capitalizing on northern Colorado’s thriving malting industry, Local Yokel is a Pale Ale brewed with Chinook and Cascade hops and barley grown and malted just down the road from the brewery in Berthoud. Find it on draft at City Star and select locations throughout Colorado.
Brewery Ommegang’s Hopstate NY 2017
For the third consecutive year, Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., will release Hopstate NY, an ale brewed entirely with hops grown in the Empire State. Look for bottles of this beer in the fall—but don’t expect nationwide distribution.
Grand Teton Brewing’s Ale 208 Session Ale
Brewed in homage to Idaho’s 208 area code, Grand Teton’s 208 Session Ale is made with Bravo and Super Galena hops and two-row barley that were all sourced from within the state. It’s currently available year-round.