Written onJune 01 , 2009
My husband and I love beer. We used to be wine drinkers, until we discovered that a well-chosen beer actually pairs better with most of our meals than wine. He was also a homebrewer for years (my job was capping the bottles) until his recent recruitment into the ranks of the professional brewers at Otter Creek Brewing in Middlebury.
So as beer drinkers and beer producers, we found a glaring absence on our dinner table during our first “Localvore Challenge” two years ago, when we joined with others to eat (and drink) as many locally produced items as possible. We realized that Vermont has no truly local beer.
Of course, Vermont has plenty of local breweries—more than any other state, per capita. And Vermonters love their beer, as evidenced by the strong attendance at the Vermont Brewers Festival, where eager beer-drinkers wait for hours every July to sample the region’s best brews. Most liquor stores and even many gas stations in the state stock a wide selection of high-quality and locally brewed beer. Pair this enthusiasm with the growing support for local foods, and an all-local beer seems like an obvious win-win. So what’s the problem?
Let’s start with how beer is made. It contains four essential ingredients: water, yeast, hops, and malted barley. Brewers combine these basic elements in a nearly infinite variety of ways, producing the majority of beer styles using those ingredients alone. Some styles, such as oatmeal stout or raspberry wheat, have additional ingredients (and a very few even leave out one of the basic four: gruits, for example, use a mixture of herbs in place of hops, while some sour beers are fermented in part or entirely by wild yeasts or bacteria). After assembling the basic ingredients, brewers usually follow this process: they combine malted barley with hot water; let the sugars and flavor from the barley steep into the water; strain the barley out; add yeast; and let the yeast turn the sugar into alcohol.
While the quality of water does affect the outcome of a batch of beer, breweries tend to work with what they have. So ingredient #1 qualifies as local, inasmuch as it qualifies as an ingredient. In addition, many breweries use and propagate their own “house yeast,” much the way a home baker might maintain her own sourdough starter. These yeasts could certainly be considered local; however, some styles of beer, such as Pilsners or hefeweizens, require specific strains of yeast, and most breweries will need to buy those from time to time. Currently, American breweries get most of their yeast from companies in Oregon and California, but yeast can be propagated anywhere. Perhaps this is an opportunity for a new Vermont business—collecting and propagating specialty yeasts for local brewers.
New England used to be a major producer of hops, the herb that gives beer its characteristic bitterness and also much of its keeping ability. (India Pale Ales, for instance, were developed in response to the need to ship beer from Britain to its colonies in India. They were brewed with extra hops in order to withstand the journey and the high temperatures.) During the 1800s, New York led the country in hops production; however, the hop yards moved to the West Coast around the turn of the century in response to lower land prices and a disease called powdery mildew, which ravaged hops production in the East.
Currently, essentially all domestic hops are grown in the dry valleys of the Pacific Northwest, where the climate protects somewhat against disease. However, many home brewers, and some local breweries such as the Bobcat in Bristol, grow some amount of their own hops, and there are commercial hops farms in New York and Maine. Perhaps with renewed interest and modern techniques, hops could again be grown in Vermont.
It’s the final ingredient in beer that presents the greatest challenge for Vermont: barley, and specifically malted barley. (“Malting” is the process of carefully sprouting barley grains, then heating them to stop the sprouting without deactivating key enzymes. This converts the starch in the grains to sugar, which can then be used by the yeast to produce alcohol.) The last issue of Local Banquet profiled some folks who are working to increase the availability of grains in Vermont. Some—such as Heather Darby at the University of Vermont—are developing small-grain breeding programs for the Northeast. In fact, several farmers currently produce barley in Vermont.
Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm has been growing barley since 1977. His 40 acres of it will, however, almost certainly all go to feed his cattle, and if it rains as much this summer as it did last year, he might not get any barley at all. Although Jack has 30 years’ experience, the fussy nature of the plant itself makes each year’s harvest an uncertain affair. According to Jack, barley is the most sensitive of the grain crops, susceptible especially to wet conditions and liable to sprout prematurely if left on the plant for too long before harvest. Some years, he says, he’s “gotten some really good-looking barley,” and has sent it to malting facilities to be tested, but even his best crops “don’t make the grade.” The barley used for beer has to meet specific requirements of protein, starch, moisture content, and germination rate to be useable.
Another hurdle for local Vermont beer-makers is the fact that currently, the closest malting facility is in Quebec. The closest organic malting facility is in Wisconsin, and any barley grown here would have to be shipped out for malting. Without a local maltery, shipping costs and logistics make the production of “local” malted barley unfeasible at the scale of Vermont farms. At the same time, so few farmers are growing barley—much less malting-quality barley—that the incentive for building a maltery seems low. The process requires such close control of conditions (especially temperature and moisture levels) that it demands a full set of equipment and trained technicians; it couldn’t be done in the back room of a brewery. Still, it could be done on a Vermont-sized scale; historically, breweries often ran their own malteries, and many still do in Europe. Warminster Maltings, in Wiltshire, England, is a small malting house that has been in operation for some 130 years. It currently runs a program that features locally grown barley, sold to local breweries.
The question is, who will step up to direct projects that can lead Vermont toward local beer producton? Morgan Wolaver of Otter Creek Brewing in Middlebury suggests that the academic community and “educational farms” could be of help in terms of breeding projects and feasibility studies. In 1999, the University of Vermont’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture received a grant from the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund to research “the Feasibility of Producing Organic Barley, Malted Barley, and Malt Extract in Vermont.” The study concluded that growing barley itself is not problematic, but growing malting-quality barley would be a challenge due to Vermont’s damp weather, and malting it locally would be a greater challenge yet. Since then, little active research seems to have been done, but Heather Darby at UVM says she’s starting “a new barley initiative” this year to look at possible changes in the way farmers treat their barley crops—rather than just look at new varieties. This might affect the feasibility of growing malting-quality barley in the state.
While a batch of all-local beer may be out of reach for now, there are several ways that Vermont’s breweries could increase their use of local products. Many styles of beer use ingredients besides malt, yeast, and hops, and many of those ingredients could be sourced within the state. Wolaver rattled off a list of possibilities: maple syrup (already a common addition), honey, rosemary, lavender, pumpkins, raspberries, blueberries, oats, and wheat, for starters.
In fact, Wolaver’s—Otter Creek’s organic line—just released a wheat beer composed of about 40 percent wheat, which was grown in Bridport by Ben Gleason of Gleason’s Grains. “Ben Gleason’s White Ale” is third in a series of Wolaver’s beers celebrating specific farmers. “Pat Leavy’s All American Ale” featured hops from a farmer in Oregon, while last fall’s “Will Stevens’ Pumpkin Ale” was flavored with pumpkins from Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham. Wolaver sees the active use of these additional ingredients as the next step toward local beer.
I agree that brewers should do everything they can to incorporate local products into their beers. Still, without local malting barley, a Vermont beer will never be made with only, or even mostly, local ingredients. I wonder whether the solution might best come from a bottom-up, grassroots-style approach, rather than one defined by institutions and commercial interests.
For example, a pair of farmers in southern Vermont are currently enlisting other farmers and gardeners throughout the state to test varieties of rice. Perhaps the legion of Vermont gardeners and home-brewers could be enlisted to test small plots of barley. According to The Homebrewer’s Garden, by Joe and Dennis Fisher, barley can be malted at home in five-pound batches. Their system relies heavily on five-gallon plastic buckets and aquarium supplies, but claims good results. I imagine a small army of enthusiastic experimenters—myself included—with our home-grown barley and perhaps some unusual malting arrangements, forging a new future for Vermont beer. Will you join me?
Photo of Ben Gleason of Gleason’s Grains courtesy of Otter Creek Brewing and Ben Gleason