Reuniting Farmers and Fermenters - Modern Farmer

Reuniting Farmers and Fermenters

A look at brewers and distillers working with farm fresh ingredients.


Except that when brewer Chris Davis found himself in that situation, he wasn’t at any old kegger, he was at famed food writer John T. Edge’s house, at the Southern Foodways Alliance conference in Oxford, Mississippi. Davis channeled the wisdom of brewers from the days before cans and coolers, and headed to the garden. He plucked a few sprigs of basil from Edge’s patio pots and stuffed them in his beer.

Today, Davis brews at Durham, North Carolina’s FullSteam, making beers with local persimmons, yams, burdock and ginger. His best seller? Summer Basil. As odd as burdock or basil beer sounds, herbaceous brews like them were once the norm. The history of alcohol is a tale of craft turning to science and, thanks to brewers like Davis, back again. Fermentation is rot – as pure an expression as any of the natural, entropic chaos of the world – and making alcohol was once the purview of farmers, monks and medicine men. Booze was local, and magic.

Fermentation is rot, and making alcohol was once the purview of farmers, monks and medicine men.

Centuries of industrial refinement later, today’s most popular beers and spirits traffic in consistency. Anheuser-Busch and brewers like them reign supreme because that can of Bud, like Warhol’s famous Coca-Cola, tastes the same from Oxford, Mississippi to Oxford, England. Davis’s sprig of local basil is a revolutionary leap back in time.

His work, and other beers and liquors made with the local harvest, is good news not only for palates bored by the mass made, but also for farmers. Booze and agriculture grew up together – distilling extra bushels of grain to whiskey was a great way to get a little more cash from a season’s surplus, and a little more space in the silo. So when FullSteam asked their North Carolina neighbors YamCo for a puree of unsold spuds to make into beer, the farm was happy to oblige. In Oregon’s Hood River Valley, pear farmer Steve McCarthy sighed as his precious produce got packed into syrupy supermarket cans, until a fateful trip to France inspired him to make brandy. Now he packs 30 pounds of fruit into each outrageously good bottle of Williams Pear Brandy.

Some state governments offer incentives. In New York, distillers like Hillrock that use at least 70% local grains – Hillrock, in fact, grows and malts their barley and rye on-site – qualify for tax breaks and get to serve tastes and sell bottles, just like wineries.

Still, it’s expensive. It costs Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. about $170 to grow each pound of their estate hops, versus $2 to buy a pound of imported hops on the open market. Brian Hunt or Moonlight Brewing in Santa Rosa, California plucks redwood twigs from his front yard to make an herbed ale called Working for Tips. According to Hunt, “most brewers, if they’re using fruit, say, just get a sterile puree from the Oregon Fruit Company, shipped across the country. Not enough brewers have the time, the understanding, or the regional closeness to go to the farm.”

And that raises an important question. The Cleveland locavore craving an heirloom beefsteak in January is out of luck. Is the brewer miles from the nearest hop yard similarly fated?

Not so, says Hunt. Embrace your unique surroundings – “use what you have,” he says. For Hunt, that means redwood tips. For San Francisco’s Almanac Beer Co., coriander and fennel. Just as gin was born in Europe’s juniper-scented forests, so are today’s craft brews and spirits flavored by their locale.

St. George Spirits Terroir Gin is with flavored with bay laurel and Douglas fir that distiller Lance Winters harvests on his hikes around Mt. Tamalpais in northern California’s Marin County.

Pittsburgh’s Wigle Whiskey gets its punch from hardy Pennsylvania Monongahela rye, Columbus’s Oyo vodka its creamy body from soft, Ohio red winter wheat, Ancram’s Hillrock its clove and cinnamon notes from New York’s Hudson Valley barley and rye.

And makers will tell you that geography certainly does play in role in the way their ingredients taste.

Clear Creek’s brandies even taste different year to year.

Clear Creek grows Bartlett pears – the same species the French brandy makers McCarthy met use – but his eaux de vie tastes worlds apart. It’s more tropical, less spicy than the inspiration.

Clear Creek’s brandies even taste different year to year.

“We love to taste that first run from still every year,” sales manager Jeanine Racht says. “It’s a direct reflection of the fruit without the sweetness. So 2013 had an incredible nose; 2012 had a softer beginning, but a full ripe middle and end.” To her, those differences are the beauty of terroir. “But it drives some people nuts!” she laughs. “These days, everything needs to be consistent – it’s all so blended and recognizable, it’s boring.”

But thanks to Clear Creek and their kindred spirit-makers, that magic is creeping back, one basil sprig at a time.


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