To the outside observer, Scratch Brewing Co. will likely seem more locally rooted—so to speak—than most modern American beer makers. The brewery, based in rural Ava, Illinois, focuses on idiosyncratic ales laced with ingredients foraged from nearby fields and woods. Mushrooms, tree bark, sassafras leaves—name some flora native to southern Illinois and it’s likely entered Scratch’s wood-fired brew kettle, which is more like a magician’s cauldron than any antiseptic steel brewing system.
But Scratch, which was founded in 2013, felt its agrarian commitment didn’t go deep enough. In recent years, Scratch has expanded to include a working farm, encompassing one acre of hop bines and an extensive garden producing vegetables and herbs such as horehound, anise, and sage.
“We grow about 95% of our adjunct ingredients, which is everything we put into beer besides grain and hops,” says Marika Josephson, one of the brewery’s co-founders. Having better control over the supply chain isn’t the big-picture idea, though. For Josephson and Scratch, the initiative is about becoming a farmhouse brewery in practice, not just messaging.
“It’s become more and more important that we are, in fact, a farm,” she says. “It’s driven by our passion for creating something that has the terroir of a brewery.”
The concept of farmhouse brewing conjures fuzzy images of farmers happily harvesting grain, brought to a barn to brew beer forever described as “rustic.” But the reality is somewhat less countrified. “There are many breweries that people think of as making farmhouse beer when they’re essentially in a warehouse and order a strain of yeast from a commercial yeast lab that maybe came from Wallonia,” Josephson says.
America’s farmhouse brewing traditions are pretty barren. The country’s breweries blossomed in urban centers such as Brooklyn, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, hulking factories pumping out Lager on grand scales, a product of modern times and European-immigrant can-do. “We never had that smaller, non-industrialized agriculture economy that European beer was rooted in,” Josephson says. “We skipped over that and ended up in industrialization, had giant Lager breweries, then Prohibition. Now we’re starting all over again.”
America-wide, there’s a groundswell of brewers growing hops and grains, plucking yeast strains from flowers and apple orchards, the goal to brew beer with what the ground gives them, not what’s easily bought.
“When true winemaking began in this country, it was all about the terroir of this region,” Evan Watson, founder of New York State’s Plan Beer Farm Brewery, told me during a 2015 interview. “Brewing is far more agricultural than winemaking. For none of that to exist as a baseline for brewing in this country, that’s kind of strange.”
Historically, beers evolved from a confluence of agricultural availability, local water, and microbes mucking about in the air. Brewers just made capital-b Beer, plain and simple, the liquids a true expression of the soil.
The best case study, of course, is Belgium, where local agriculture forged iconic global beer. Wheat fields are legion around Flemish Brabant, home to the village of Hoegaarden where, in 1966, milkman Pierre Celis revived Witbier. Fruit orchards and farms fill Pajottenland and the Senne Valley, home to spontaneously fermented beers such as the Kriek, tinted pink with local cherries. Hainaut farmers grew barley and hops to brew beers for workers, the agronomic grab bag helping create the Saison, no two recipes alike.
“We don’t make styles. We make good beer with our hops,” says Joris Cambie. He co-founded Brouwerij De Plukker in a converted barn located on his multigenerational organic hop farm. Among farmers in Poperinge, Belgium’s main hop-growing region, Cambie is alone in producing beer. “None are interested in brewing,” Cambie explains.
He certainly was. Cambie started homebrewing, the quality so-so at first. “If we want to do this really decently professionally,” he recalls thinking, “there’s a lot more involved than just making beers on a Sunday morning in the kitchen.”
Cambie was a hop grower, and a good one at that. “The more I got into it, the more I realized it would be impossible to do it,” he says. “I have a full-time job as a hop grower. If I brewed, there would be no more hops.”
He froze his thought, perhaps thawing it out during retirement. Then he met homebrewer Kris Langouche, who was keen to turn his pastime into a career. The twosome joined forces and, in 2011, launched De Plukker. They utilize the farm’s bounty to brew unpasteurized, bottle-conditioned beers, including the world’s freshest wet-hopped beer, the cones harvested during brew day. The brewery sources malt elsewhere, but plans are afoot to grow barley and create something truly homegrown. “The plan is to brew a beer that we will produce 100% on the farm,” he says.
That plan resonates with Jef Janssens, whose generations-old family farm, located in pastoral Tildonk, is home to Brouwerij Hof Ten Dormaal. The farmstead supplies many of the grains, hops, fruits, and yeast strains found in his farm-guided beers such as White Gold, where chicory root substitutes for hops.
“These days we’re trying to do even more about the farm, with ingredients locally grown within a 10-mile radius,” Janssens says.
Although he sources locally, the majority of his beer is allocated for export to markets such as the United States. “For us, it would be nice if we could sell everything locally, but if we tell people who live a mile from here, ‘I’m from the brewery,’ they’re like, ‘What brewery?’” Janssens says.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the American market, where drinkers will drive many, many miles to make a pilgrimage to the hallowed grounds of Vermont’s Hill Farmstead or Jester King, a Texas brewery that grows its own grapes, hops, melons, peaches, and more.
“I get a lot of requests from people to visit, and they come from the States,” says Tom Jacobs. I can see the allure. The former philosophy teacher and his brother, a doctor, founded Antidoot Wilde Fermenten on a small farm in Belgium’s Kortenaken, located about an hour east of Brussels. There, they use grapes, apples, and herbs such as gentian root to make mixed- and spontaneous-fermentation beers, every bug wild, nothing bought from some sterile yeast lab.
“It’s mainly a project about freedom,” Jacobs says. “I don’t want a big operation. I don’t function in those kinds of contexts. It’s about what functions for us as a family.”
Antidoot started producing beer earlier this year, the goals modest from the get-go—produce some 60 barrels a year. “We can only forage ingredients when the batches are really small,” Jacobs explains. This lets Jacobs follow his agriculturally driven artistic impulses. He’ll brew wild-fermented cider from foraged apples, turn a neighbor’s bounty of cherries into wine, or pick grapes from the property’s vineyard and press them, adding the skins to beer and fermenting the fruit with wild beer yeast.
“We want to get rid of these borders and mix things up,” Jacobs says. “There are no names for it and it’s not important.”
Modern American beer has grown alongside competitions such as the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival, which dole out medals for beers brewed according to style. This is a pretty novel notion. Historically speaking, beer, wine, sake, and mead did not develop in isolation. The fermentations were as muddled as a mutt—crossbreeding was the rule, not the exception.
Then along came this idea of style. Beers should fit within neat little flavor paradigms, no extra phenols, please. At best, styles ensures consistency, targets to hit. At worst, styles enforce homogeneity, a sameness filling taps everywhere. How many IPAs have you had lately that tasted just like that other IPA?
Belgian brewers of a certain vintage, both new and old, help provide a template for flavorfully flouting convention and making the beer that you can, not that you should. One of America’s fiercest adherents to this philosophy is Nile Zacherle, the founder and brewmaster of Mad Fritz Beer, located in California’s fertile Napa Valley.
The interesting concept behind Mad Fritz—which is named after his kids, Madeline and Fritz—is utilizing native grains, hops, and unique waters to create what Zacherle calls “farm to foam” beer. He blends his brewing and winemaking background (he also makes wine for David Arthur Vineyards) to devise his Local Origins and Terroir Series, the latter containing ingredients sourced from a single county such as Sonoma or Mendocino.
“I consider what we do almost going back in time,” says Zacherle, who malts his barley and dries hops in his custom-configured kiln. “All our beers come out of barrels and go right into bottles and are naturally conditioned. There’s no cold box. The beer never gets cold. This is old-world beer making with some new-world twists.”
Shepherding ingredients from ground to glass on a granular level helps Zacherle explore the minute differences of, say, Cascade grown on different sites. Sure, it’s no longer the hottest new hop on the block, but the little flower does still have secrets to unlock inside its lupulin glands. “We’ve been taking in hundreds of pounds of hops from Napa and Sonoma and learning about the different flavors of expression of Cascade from different sites,” he says. “One site will be real melon-y and have citrus, while the other will be more citrus and floral.”
No Mad Fritz beer is brewed to style, per se, though the labels do list descriptors such as “saison,” “honey ale” or “grisette ale.” They’re frames of reference to arm consumers with a loose set of expectations. “A lot of people ask us, ‘What beer styles do you make? Well, we kind of make everything.”
New York State has been instrumental in clearing a path for a future of style-agnostic, fiercely local beer. The Farm Brewery Bill, passed in 2012, incentivizes brewers to use New York State–grown hops and ingredients, allowing breweries to sell beer by the pint, open up to five additional locations, and offer New York–produced wine and spirits.
The bill spurred the growth of hop farmers and maltsters, whose products are used by breweries far afield. One of my favorite Brooklyn breweries is Strong Rope, located a few blocks from the not-so-bucolic Gowanus Canal. Founder Jason Sahler fills his two-barrel system with raw materials almost exclusively sourced from New York State, his J.J. Bollerack’s Brown Ale and Young Lion of the West Cream Ale a taste of the countryside in the big city. “I want regionality to come back into what we’re drinking,” Sahler says.
The relative youth of New York’s hops and malting industries lets Sahler work closely with farmers and producers to ensure that everything is up to snuff and the supply pipeline is filled. “When we really needed flaked corn and rice hulls, New York Craft Malt’s Ted Hawly said, ‘Let’s figure this out,’” Sahler recalls.
To Sahler, part of the thrill of using native hops is discovering new flavors and aromas. “Pacific Northwest hop farms have been able to concentrate aromatics down to tropical fruit, citrus, or whatever,” Sahler says. “What you’re seeing with the New York varieties is that whatever is happening in the soil, it feels like all these oils are just getting dispersed. You now have all these different characteristics.”
Farm-focused breweries come in all shapes and sizes in New York State. Suarez Family Brewery uses local botanicals and fruit in their agrarian-minded country beers, while From the Ground Brewery sits inside a 100-acre orchard on Magliorelli Farm, which grows much of the brewery’s barley and fruits. Plan Bee Farm Brewery rehabilitated a 25-acre farm in Poughkeepsie, a crucial cog in the brewery’s mission to solely make beer with New York State ingredients.
“As a farm brewery, you’re literally attached to the land,” Plan Bee’s Watson says. “The goal is to grow every ingredient on the property for a 10-barrel system.” The beers are inoculated with yeast cultures harvested from the farm’s raw honey and fermented in open barrels hewn from native oak. “It’s a new wave of brewing, and I hope it’s the way that we all start heading.”
Be it in Belgium or America, it’d be nice to envision a future where brewers tether their futures to a plow, seeding a revolutionary approach to beer making. But the realities can be harsher than bright sunlight after a bender.
Rogue Ales runs several farms in Oregon, growing 10 varietals of hops, as well as the pumpkins, rye, marionberries, jalapeños, and more used in various beers. The brewery has had to contend with flooding, which opens a huge jar of headaches. “We have to get creative when the roads flood to get people out there to feed the pigs,” president Brett Joyce told me in a 2015 interview. “It’s stuff like that you never think about when you enter this project.”
Relying on origin-specific ingredients also means contending with Mother Nature’s many uncertainties. One of Scratch’s more remarkable releases is a French-style Bière De Garde made with foraged chanterelle mushrooms. This year, the brewery didn’t find enough mushrooms to brew a batch, so the beer went on a nature-enforced sabbatical.
“Everything changes with every season, and we won’t make a beer if we can’t gather enough ingredients,” Scratch’s Josephson says. “We definitely embrace seasonality at our brewery. We don’t make flagship beers.”
Mad Fritz’s Oast House Ale series highlights the unique characteristics of Napa Valley hops, bought wet and dried on the brewery’s kiln. A finite amount of hops are grown annually, and once they’re gone, they’re gone, meaning a popular beer can be put out to pasture until next harvest.
“Eventually, the freezer is empty,” Zacherle says.
Another concern is cost. Mad Fritz uses indigenous hop cultivars such as Ivanhoe and Gargoyle in four or five beers, the price a pretty spendy $36 per pound. (To put that in perspective, brewers can buy 2017 harvest Cascade hops for $4.50 a pound on the Lupulin Exchange online marketplace.) This escalates pricing, with some Mad Fritz sixtels going for around $250.
Getting consumers to understand why they’re paying more for a beer is problematic for brewers on both sides of the Atlantic. At supermarkets, says Antidoot’s Jacobs, “you can get a big bottle of Girardin [Gueuze 1882]”—for three and a half Euros. It’s impossible to compete with that.”
It’s not like Belgian farm brewers can make up the difference by selling beers directly from the source, either. “In Belgium, people don’t make the effort of getting beers from a farm because they can find great craft beer everywhere,” says De Plukker’s Cambie. “The prices of beers in local supermarkets are ridiculously low.” It’s not like the beer side of his business is crucial to keep lights on. “I sell all my hops, so I don’t need to brew beer,” he says. “I’m not getting any extra value out of it.”
The problem is, beer has always been priced like a daily commodity, something to stuff in your grocery cart alongside a gallon of milk. “Unlike wine, we don’t have a luxury position for our products that lends itself to authenticity of origin,” Zacherle says. “The brewing community in general needs to start branching out and say, ‘Look, we’re going to charge more and we’re going to source more local ingredients. It’s going to cost more.”
We’re in a world overrun with fast-food dollar menus and cases of domestic lager costing less than a decent hamburger. Breweries committed to regional agriculture will never win a price war. “If you’re looking to be more mass-market, having those local grains may not give you an edge at all,” Zacherle says. “It might be kind of a downer.”
The best way to enlighten consumers about higher prices is through storytelling, focusing on the ingredients’ provenance. Local beer is not just about the liquid—it’s about forging new connections between brewers and farmers, creating new pathways to economic survival.
After all, the goal for many farmhouse breweries isn’t to take over the land. It’s to celebrate the land and put the focus back on the raw materials used to create distinct beers that can never by copycatted. Strong Rope’s Sahler recently pondered expansion, trading in his two-barrel system for something larger and shinier. After all, a brewery should grow, right? Not always.
“We decided, Let’s be a small brewery and focus on that and create a unique thing that people want to try,” Sahler says, “but you’ve got to come to New York to try it.”