Craft brewers are turning to local farmers, foragers, and fauna to source their ingredients—from persimmons and pumpkins to hops and wild yeast. The “plow-to-pint” movement is giving beers an identity more tied to an area’s soil, climate and terrain, or terroir—much like wine.
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“It’s really having a beer that’s unique to the location. To me that’s the most significant thing,” says Jeff Stuffings, founder of Jester King Brewery, about 18 miles southwest of downtown Austin, Texas.
For his beers, Stuffings turns to local farmers and growers for ingredients like figs, melons, grapes, strawberries, and peaches. He also gathers his own yeast, harvesting microbes on lemon bee balm, prickly pear cactus flowers, and other plants growing wild on the brewery property.
The wild yeast is mixed with commercial brewer’s yeast to create a unique yeast strain. Stuffings says the wild yeast adds variable flavors and “interesting mouth feels.”
“The mouth feel is very, very dry. It has a richness and fullness to it,” he adds. “From a sensory perspective, you’re able to tie a beer to the location.”
Supporting Farmers, Others
The local-ingredient movement reflects different factors. Brewers are responding to the demand for local foods. They want to help the local farm economy. And new laws in a number of states—including New York, Maryland, and Virginia—support the use of local ingredients and make it easier for farm-based breweries to expand and serve locally sourced beer.
“A lot of it has to do with the larger ‘buy local’ movement,” says Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland.
For Fullsteam Brewery, Durham, N.C., the use of local ingredients is tied to creating a “Southern Beer Economy” that supports local farmers, foragers, and agricultural entrepreneurs. The brewery, for example, has used foragers for persimmons, figs, and spicebush berries, also called Appalachian allspice.
Sometimes ingredients appear at the front door. Fullsteam founder Sean Wilson recalls a friend showing up with 100 pounds of Candy Roaster winter squash. “We made a beautiful, malty brown ale using the grilled squash, spicebush berries, and local sugarcane molasses,” Wilson says.
Changes in Laws
The local sourcing trend has accompanied a changing legal landscape. In 2012, Maryland passed a law creating a farm brewery license. Among other things, the license holder can brew up to 15,000 barrels of beer a year—provided it’s made with an ingredient from a Maryland farm, like hops, barley, or fruit. Twelve farm breweries have since emerged, with the total number of craft brewers now 55. More farm breweries are in the works.
In New York, a 2013 farm brewery law created a license that stipulates the beer must be made using New York state-grown farm products. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in early December that 43 farm breweries had opened their doors in the past year. The state has 106 licensed farm brewers.
Bruce Zurschmeide and his wife capitalized on a 2014 change in Virginia law that made it easier for farm breweries to open on land zoned for agriculture. The couple’s Dirt Farm Brewing, opened in 2015, is an “extension” of their 400-acre farm in Loudon County, Virginia, over an hour northwest of Washington.
“We were looking for a way to have the land pay for itself,” Zurschmeide says. “We’ve got quite a few recipes that we source from the farm.”
The Peter Peter Pumpkin Ale is popular. A sweet potato stout arrived for Thanksgiving. Zurschmeide has used cherries, peaches, apricots, and plums, too. He grows hops and is testing grain varieties.
The local trend is expected to continue. It has attracted different names: “farm-to-keg,” “farm-to-barrel,” “plow-to-pint,” “ground-to-glass.”