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'Farm-to-glass' movement drives brewers to local ingredients

Posted April 16

— As rain pounded down on the roof of Rising Silo Brewery Monday night, people began to trickle in for some of its agriculture-themed beers.

One of the more popular drinks on tap was the Carrot Ginger Saison, made from carrots pulled from the earth right outside the brewery doors. Rising Silo sits on Glade Road Growing, a Montgomery County farm on the outskirts of Blacksburg. Brewery co-owner Greg Zielske regularly uses produce grown on site in beer, from squash to beets to berries. Next up, he plans to flavor a batch of brew with home-grown hot peppers.

Zielske believes that Rising Silo, a small operation that doesn't distribute its beers, is a place for experimentation and a home for people who seek creative, locally created beers. People desire an authentic product, he said. Last fall, he offered a beer on tap that featured all Virginia-grown ingredients, a recipe that's been popping up at breweries all over the state.

"Knowing it's local, it means we want to buy even more," said patron Conner McBane, who was trying the carrot beer. Knowing that the libations come from local growers is one of the reasons McBane and his wife are frequent visitors to the small brewery.

As people have sought to drink local, craft breweries have surged in the state, and brewers have increased efforts to use Virginia ingredients. Interest in growing hops and barley has never been more prevalent as growers aim to get a piece of the booming beer business. And brewers have increasingly been adding locally grown vegetables and fruit to the mash.

"The connection between the farmer and the brewer has encouraged consumers to search for local products made with local ingredients," said state Agriculture and Forestry Secretary Basil Gooden. "Virginia craft brewers have really started to hone in on the terroir of their region, and some are developing distinctly Virginian beer."

Josh French, a senior brewer at Devils Backbone Brewing Co. in Lexington, calls this a "farm-to-glass" movement, comparing to it national food trends.

"We always are trying to pay attention to where our ingredients come from," French said, adding how much he enjoys using locally sourced ingredients and supporting the farming community. Last year, Devils Backbone launched a specialty batch of Virginia Farmhouse Ale, which has all Virginia ingredients, including honey from Nelson and Rockbridge counties, as part of an homage to the state's agriculture.

Similarly, Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers in Roanoke produces Ike's Fresh Hops Smash every fall, made with locally grown Cascade wet hops. Brewer Sean Osborne has a 50 foot-by-100 foot spot at Ikenberry Orchards in Botetourt County for growing hops that he uses for the smash. He said it gives the beer a "fresh" authentic taste that patrons continually request. Zielske grows just a few trellises of hops to use in small batches. Growing hops is hard and time-consuming, but Zielske said having locally grown products is one of the brewery's selling points.

The farmhouse ale and the smash are available in limited quantities for a limited time. Breweries need ingredients, especially hops and malted barley, in such large and consistent quantities that it's not possible for most of them to rely only on Virginia-based agriculture. However, efforts have begun to make using Virginia ingredients easier.

Virginia has 196 breweries, up from 159 in 2016, according to Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control records. Growers have taken note.

"Farmers in Virginia are smart, resilient and adaptable, so a lot of folks have already started thinking about the high-demand market for high-quality, locally grown ingredients that can be used in craft beer," Gooden said.

Cassidy Rasnick, the state's deputy secretary of agriculture and forestry, said there aren't a lot of good statistics on the amount of malted barley and hops grown in Virginia, since they are not traditional commodities. However, craft beer has definitely created new demand. One extension agent in Shenandoah County saw such an interest from farmers in growing barley for malting that an entire day of informational events was created for them, Rasnick said.

The Virginia Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability, a nonprofit that assists agriculture businesses, recently produced an informational guide on farm brewing and details about producing malted barley. Most Virginia barley is used for feed and isn't grown for malting, which is a more difficult crop.

The foundation has worked on projects with brewers, including the formation of a new malting house in Nelson County, to help address the lack of malters. Malters are needed to convert grains, especially barley, into malt used in beer. Most of country's malted barley comes from the Midwest.

Additionally, state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, introduced a bill during the last General Assembly session to allow tax exemptions for barley, hops, wheat and malt purchased by Virginia craft brewers from local farmers. New state grants and economic development incentives have also been created to encourage brewers to buy locally.

Parkway Brewing Co. in Salem is applying for one of these grants. If it gets the grant, the brewer will agree to use a certain amount of Virginia-grown ingredients in its beer.

"If we can regrow the ag economy, that's a big thing," said general manager Mike Pensinger. Buying local is also better for the environment, he said, since it cuts out the transportation and energy involved in buying from outside the state — something green-focused consumers care about, he said.

While Soaring Ridge and Rising Silo have brewed some small batches of beers using their own hops, making large quantities of beer typically requires buying hops from out of town. The vast majority of hops are produced in the Pacific Northwest, which has a proper climate for the tricky crop. Virginia Cooperative Extension loosely estimates about 30 acres of hops are planted in Virginia. Extension agent Laura Siegle said it's hard to track down hops growers since most grow less than an acre.

Siegle and Virginia Tech horticulture professor Holly Scoggins have been researching hops for several years and have seen the interest in new growers.

"It's one of those things where the beer came first," Siegle said.

But they explain to interested growers that, as with malted barley, farming hops is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It's farming and it's vigorous.

Kelly Wichman said her husband, Tom, has always been a fan of hoppy beer. After seeing the popularity in craft beer, the couple decided to start Sitting Bear Farms in Craig County. They first planted hops in 2015 and now grow four different kinds of hops on about a half-acre of land.

The rain last year really hurt their production, but she hopes to produce more than 300 pounds in the next three to four years, enough for a limited specialty batch. They plan to sell most of it but keep some for home brewing.

Scoggins said a big point of discussion about using Virginia hops is how to take some of the experimental growth to the next level. Producers have to work with brewers to see when and how the hops can be used. An extension survey of hops growers in 2016 showed that many of them feel strongly about the demand for the crop's future, and the best marketing strategy they found for selling hops is networking with breweries.

Nationally, hops production increased by 11 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Spurred by the growth of craft and specialty beer-makers, Virginia joins many other Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states in seeing a surge in interest in hop growing.

Parkway, the Roanoke Valley's largest brewery, needs more hops than it can get locally, but it also uses other Virginia ingredients, such as Floyd-based Red Rooster Coffee, as well as local fruits and honey.

"There are so many options now in ingredients," Pensinger said. "Someone the other day asked if we needed any pawpaw. I don't really know what pawpaw is, but I wondered if we could make a pawpaw beer. ... (Craft brewers) need to be different. It could be more expensive for us. But in the long run it could benefit everything."

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