Farm Brew Offers a Lifeline to CT Agriculture.
Connecticut’s first farm brewery doesn’t exactly follow the rules. Two years before farm breweries were recognized by state legislation, Kent Falls Brewing Co. opened its doors on a 50-acre farm, just one hour north of Connecticut’s posh coastal hub of Fairfield County. Now that the Nutmeg State is finally coming around, Kent Falls doesn’t see much use for the government’s suggestions.
“As much as I would love for it to say ‘Connecticut Farm Brewery’ on a little piece of paper on the wall, there are no added benefits,” says Barry Labendz, brewery manager for Kent Falls Brewing Co. “We already produce more beer than they allow. If we were licensed as a farm brewery, there would be no room to grow.”
Last July, Connecticut governor Daniel Malloy signed a new statute into law that allows farmers to brew, bottle, distribute and sell up to 75,000 gallons of beer each year. The requirements? Use at least 10 percent locally grown or sourced ingredients and promote the product as Connecticut craft beer. Obliging breweries received discounted licensing fees, but no real incentives exist for the state’s original gravity (OG). Still, the number of Connecticut breweries has quadrupled since 2011, from 16 to 66. And with another 30 in the works, according to the Brewers Association, structured state operations are in high demand.
All parties agree that the new statewide precedent makes starting a local brewery in Connecticut easier. But even though the idea behind a regulated local-sourcing minimum is well intentioned, critics are pushing back on executing the statue. Nothing will change for active brewers, but the new law may actually cap the potential business for local agriculture.
“Plenty of farmers were already brewing beer,” says Lora Rae Anderson, communications director for the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. “This just makes it official and more accessible for new breweries in rural areas.”
Kent Falls predated Malloy’s statute, drawing up its own permit with the town of Kent in a successful effort to reinvent the 50-acre Camps Road Farm, which was at risk of being sold. When the brewery opened in February 2015, the goal was twofold: to build a successful brewing business and to keep Connecticut’s farmland. Over time, they’ve grown a 20 percent locally sourced operation into a nearly 100 percent local supply chain that depends on innovative brewing that truly reflects the region. Not only do the traditionally local farmhouse ales and saisons use Connecticut malt but so do the India pale ales and pilsners.
“The town of Kent’s goal wasn’t to have a brewery that makes cool beers with local grains,” says Ladenz. “It was to help keep this farm in operation. They could have built more mansions, but if you really value agriculture, farm breweries are the way to go.”
Kent Falls is on track to produce roughly 2,500 barrels of nearly 100 percent locally sourced suds in 2018. But that wouldn’t fly under the Connecticut farm brewery license. The 75,000-gallon state limit equals 2,419 barrels. “We’d be done brewing by October,” says Ladenz. “The problem isn’t that we need to make more money; it’s that we want to work with more local maltsters and use more local ingredients.”
By limiting the size of the breweries that must use local ingredients, Connecticut is capping the amount of local ingredients used. According to some critics, it’s kowtowing to the large beer distributors that originally opposed the farm brewing license. In an agricultural and manufacturing state that’s often stereotyped as select Fairfield County financiers, it’s an issue that’s resonating. In early October, Ned Lamont, the Democratic nominee for the governor of Connecticut, promised policies to help the craft-beer industry expand. “I understand how important it is for small businesses to get government out of the way,” Lamont said in early October. “This is a great start-up business.”
First order of business? Eliminate the arbitrary limit on retail sales. Currently, a brewer is permitted to sell up to nine liters of beer to an individual in its taproom for off-premises consumption. That’s the equivalent of four growlers, or a case of 12-ounce brews. And forget about selling a keg. “Obviously, the industry is having an impact,” says Ladenz, who has had to turn thirsty customers away, “but I’m not holding my breath.”
Another Connecticut staple that predates the statute is Salem’s Fox Farm Brewery, a rehabilitated dairy farm whose cathedral-style tasting room lives inside a classic red barn. According to Zack Adams, the owner and brewer of Fox Farm Brewery, his local ingredients create a product that is unique to Salem and to his farm. “Our beer has a strong connection to our place in the world,” says Adams, who uses fruit, microflora and yeast grown on site in the brewing process. “You won’t get these beers anywhere else.”
Then there’s Fat Orange Cat Brew Co., a bohemian art lover’s dream brewery in East Hampton. The small-batch operation is heavy on experimentation, using the farm’s tasting room as a sort of test kitchen of sorts. Every weekend, Fat Orange Cat rolls out new brews, like the divine Jalapeño Jack cream ale, and elicits feedback from loyal customers who spread the good word. With a small one-barrel system on site, trial and error is encouraged. Meanwhile, owner and head brewer Mike Klucznik brews mass quantities out of state for distribution through the Twelve Percent Beer Project. “It’s the best of both worlds,” says co-owner Sheila Mullen. “We nail down recipes for large-scale production, and there’s something new to try every weekend.”
But if Connecticut was to allow higher limits of local production to farm breweries, how would Fat Orange Cat’s operations change? Mullen ensures that they wouldn’t. Her farm is too small to accommodate distribution needs, and their cans are found everywhere from New York City to California thanks to the Twelve Percent Beer Project. But larger operations, like Kent Falls and Fox Farm, plus state-licensed breweries that currently meet the 20 percent minimum of local ingredients, would be encouraged by more than agrarian righteousness to keep their hops close to home. In the booming Connecticut craft-beer scene, it’s time that farms went in on the big business, too.