For Farmhouse Brewers, Terroir Is Beer’s Crucial Ingredient

Barley Harvest at Dusk / Photo by: Travis Ralls

Farm-based breweries bring ingredients from field to pint glass.

For years, craft breweries around the country have been encouraging customers to “drink local,” conjuring up a sense of place with each sip. While the beers brewed inside refurbished churches and schoolhouses, former banks and city buildings, strip mall storefronts, and warehouses are exclusive to those locations, most of the ingredients used to brew them come from large malt and hop suppliers. Other components are harvested far from the brewery walls.

To that end, terroir might seem like a misnomer, although some breweries use native yeasts to inoculate beers, or locally grown herbs and vegetables to accent recipes.

But there are a number of farm breweries around the country that use the land to the advantage of their beers, growing malt and specialty grains, harvesting from acres of hops, using well water and yeast that is native to the property.

These breweries are a return to basics, where working the land results in flavorful pints that cannot be replicated anywhere else. In some cases, breweries were added to long-operating farms after owners realized that their ingredients were being used elsewhere for brewing.

There is something satisfying about drinking a pint where you can see the fields that grew its ingredients. These farm breweries allow brewers to tell the story of and showcase the importance of American agriculture. Beer can be a mass-produced or factory-made product, but at these breweries, harvest is as close as your glass.

Bale Breaker Brewing Company Owners
Bale Breaker Brewing Company Owners: From left, Meghann Quinn, Kevin Quinn, and Kevin Smith / Photo courtesy Bale Breaker Brewing Company

The Freshest Hops

In the 1920s, when the practice was more common, Meghann Quinn’s ancestors followed the railroad west and wound up settling a farm in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Following the repeal of Prohibition, they got into the hop industry and have ridden the wave since. The family supplied larger brewers through decades of large-scale American brewing, and into today’s craft surge.

Inspired by hops’ market viability and the growth of homebrewing, Quinn, her husband, Kevin, and her brothers launched Bale Breaker Brewing Company on the property in 2013.

Bale Breaker Hops Production
Bale Breaker Hops Production / Photo courtesy Bale Breaker Brewing Company

“It takes us less than five minutes to get the wet hops from the bine [stem] and into our beer,” says Meghann of the wet-hop IPAs, for which fresh hops are added to the brew kettle shortly after harvest.

Those seasonal beers make it to the company’s distribution footprint, along with Field 41, a pale ale with hops harvested from the same location on the farm. For a more intimate drinking experience, the brewery opened a taproom in the middle of a hop field several years ago.

Bale Breaker Hops
Bale Breaker Hops / Photo courtesy Bale Breaker Brewing Company

“We actually have a patio that’s surrounded by hops,” says Kevin. “During September, people will be pulling the [hop] cones off and dropping them into the beer, and that’s encouraged.”

There’s an apple orchard on the nearly 3,000-acre farm, along with fields of Hungarian wax peppers and hemp. This year marked the farm’s third barley harvest; last year, the company processed more than 200,000 pounds of barley, some of which went into Bale Breaker beers as well.

“Having a hand in the growing of our ingredients is so important,” says Meghann. “We love to share this experience with everyone who visits.”

Barley being harvested at Mecca Grade
Barley is being harvested at Mecca Grade / Photo by Katie Ralls

Small-Batch Grain, Big Flavor

In the shadow of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains lies a 1,000-acre farm that brewers around the country talk about in hushed tones and with reverence. Mecca Grade is small as far as maltsters go, but the attention to detail, high quality, and exclusivity based on a limited crop has brewers putting the provenance of their malt on beer labels, a rarity.

Seth Klann is the owner as well as a farmer and maltster at Mecca Grade Estate Malt, a multigenerational family business established in 1905. Providing grain to breweries is relatively new and still a small part of the company’s overall business. Previously, Klann says the malt was largely going toward commercial milling. Today, harvest for beer accounts for about 200 acres of the property and is split among rotating crops like wheat, barley, and rye.

An closeup image of Malted Barley
A close-up image of Mecca Grade Malted Barley / Photo by Seth Klann

Klann says the family wanted a better understanding of grain’s role in beer. After a foray into homebrewing, they installed a professional one-barrel brewing system with fermenters to match and opened a taproom with the plan to grow into a bigger brewhouse. For now, the small batches allow Mecca Grade to test its malts in beer and to offer guidance to other brewers, while also offering up pints to customers and curious drinkers who come through the property.

An image of Mecca Grade's Malt House and silos
An image of Mecca Grade’s Malt House and silos / Photo by Seth Klann

As a small business in a small setting, Klann and his family are able to break down the grain bill of every recipe for visitors and point to flavors that can identify individual malts.

“Then we can point out the door and say, ‘Here’s where it’s grown,’ and ‘There’s our malting facility,’” he says. “The fun is that we can see people appreciate what we do and to see the relationship between grain and beer. We get them excited about grain farming and malting.”

Aerial view of Plan Bee Farm Brewery
Aerial view of Plan Bee Farm Brewery / Photo by Derek Dellinger

Pitch Perfect Pints

Studies over the years have suggested that singing to plants helps promote healthy growth. That could be one reason the beers made at this small farm brewery in New York’s Hudson Valley are so dang enjoyable. Evan Watson, a professional musician turned brewer, has been known to walk through his fields and sing to his corn, which will soon be transformed into Saison and other ales.

The brewery, which Watson owns with his wife, Emily, works to create beers with ingredients grown exclusively in the state, if not solely the farm. Plan Bee opened its steam-heated, 10-barrel brewhouse in 2015. Its flagship Barn Beer features heritage malt and estate-grown hops from around New York; it’s open-fermented before being aged in oak.

An closeup of hops and an image of owner Emily Watson with Bees
A close-up image of Plan Bee Farm Brewery owner Emily Watson picking hops and tending bees / Photo by Derek Dellinger

True to the brewery’s name, Watson cultivates yeast from honeycomb harvested from the farm’s apiary. The results lend a floral, fruity, naturally sweet essence to his beers.

Recently, Watson has been brewing with rye grown on the farm. Depending on the season, herbs like lemon verbena and dill, or fruits like black currants or cucumber, may be added. Lagers that make it onto his tap list tend to be rustic and hearty.

The grounds and tasting room open to the public on weekends are woodsy, a bit untamed and pulsing with creativity. A large stage adjacent to the barn that houses the brewery is often lit up with musicians, including Watson himself.

Cofounder Marika Josephson gathering herbs at Scratch Brewing Company, Ava, Illinois
Cofounder Marika Josephson gathering herbs at Scratch Brewing Company, Ava, Illinois / Photo by Kendall Karamanian and Aaron Kleidon

Flavors from the Land

There are around 10,000 breweries operating in the United States right now, but Marika Josephson, co-founder of Scratch Brewing Co., says that visitors to the Ava, Illinois, property “can tell immediately that this is a different place.”

The brewery works hard to showcase the bounty of the region. Hops come from Illinois and all of its malts are supplied by nearby Sugar Creek Malt in Indiana. Almost everything else is foraged from an 80-acre family plot not far from the Shawnee National Forest.

Josephson says the late summer is one of her favorite times of the year on the farm.

What is “Farmhouse Beer,” Anyway?

“The chanterelles are coming up,” she says. “We’re collecting those and will freeze them and then brew with them when the temperature gets cooler. We just harvested a bunch of basil, and we’ve got plums coming off of our tree, and we’re figuring out if we want to use peaches because they are in abundance.”

While a lot of thought goes into ingredient selection, the brewers occasionally play fast and loose with homegrown or locally foraged adjuncts. They get a base beer ready to go on the wood-fired copper brewing system, and then decide what to add based on whatever comes in fresh from the woods or their garden.

The brewery has rightly collected numerous accolades since opening in 2013 and continuously bends the palate perception of what beer can be. “We’re trying to present our beer in a different way by expressing the woods around us, showing what grows around us and how we integrate that into a drinkable beer profile,” says Josephson.

Published on October 14, 2021
Topics: Drinks