Both farms and breweries are businesses that anchor people to the sources of their consumption. Farms supply brewers with fresh fruit, hops, and grain. They can be a source of indigenous yeast and local well water. It’s no surprise that a growing number of breweries have since invested in farms of their own, redefining what it means to produce “farmhouse” beers.
In 2016, Jester King Brewery famously turned its property on the edge of Austin into farmland: its 165 acres are now dedicated to growing various fruits, hops, and wine grapes, as well as supporting a host of farm animals (including a herd of beloved goats). This year, Massachusetts’ Tree House Brewing Company added Tree House Orchard & Farm Fermentory, just across the border in Connecticut, to its list of locations. The site is a 100-acre, working farm with grass-fed cattle, orchards, and a community CSA.
Then there are the farmers who become brewers. They’re not as prevalent as the inverse, but a growing number of small breweries are setting up shop in converted farm buildings. Those who choose to take on either occupation accept a life of long hours and physically exhausting work, all in the hope that their commitment pays off. And that brings us to the state of Rhode Island.
As I drive down a dirt road, my car rolls past rows of Christmas trees and hibernating hop bines. In front of an old barn, two labs—one black, one yellow—are napping. As the barn door slides open, Matt Richardson, co-owner and brewer at Tilted Barn Brewery, emerges.
He certainly looks the part of the farmer. He wears a Tilted Barn hat, Carhartt pants, and work boots that look capable of withstanding anything from spilled beer to donkey dung. Not wanting to miss out, the dogs, Tupelo and Summit, rouse themselves and nuzzle against my legs as he introduces himself.
Matt and his wife Kara own and operate Tilted Barn Brewery in Exeter, Rhode Island (roughly 18 miles south of Providence). By their estimation, it is the state’s first farm brewery. Their family home sits less than 100 yards from the “tilted” barn, which houses the production space and taproom.
The joint property has all the hallmarks of a four-child family home, mingled with industrial equipment. A gray van is parked in the driveway, and there’s a Playskool picnic table where their two oldest sell Girl Scout cookies and veggies during open taproom hours. Toys are scattered among trash cans of spent grain, tarps, tractors, and wooden pallets. Across the parking lot sits an animal pen, home to two donkeys (Jack and Harley) and four sheep (Snowball, Asteroid, Tic Tac, and Willa).
Farther in the distance looms a hill littered with rocks: the site of Tilted Barn’s future 30-barrel brewery, but for now just an empty space.
[Disclosure: Tilted Barn is a pro-level member of the Fervent Few, GBH’s subscriber community that’s made up of industry folks and devoted readers.]
Kara’s grandparents bought the farm in 1954. Back then, they used the land to grow Christmas trees. Kara was raised at her parents’ farm, located just down the road, while Matt grew up a short distance away in Warwick. The two met in 2000 at Schartner Farms in Exeter, while working in the greenhouse.
If farmwork came naturally to both, their appreciation for craft beer developed later. During their undergraduate years in Vermont, they lived next door to Matt and Renee Nadeau: owners of Rock Art Brewery, one of the state’s earliest craft breweries. “Coming back to Rhode Island in 2004 was a shock,” Matt says. “To go from a great beer state like Vermont back to Rhode Island—with literally one brewery—was tough. That was really what planted the initial seed for Tilted Barn.”
Shortly after they were married in 2007, Kara’s grandmother fell ill, so the couple moved in and helped take care of the farm. When Kara became pregnant with their first child, Violet, her mother moved in to help as well. “At one point there were four generations of women in this house,” Kara says. “And Matt.”
Wanting to keep the Christmas-tree farm in the family, Matt and Kara officially bought the property from Kara’s grandmother in 2011.
From the outside, it would appear that the duo stumbled into farming, but both always felt a pull to the land. “I don’t know if I always wanted to be a farmer, but I’ve always liked to work outside,” Kara says. “My brother and I took care of the trees when my grandma and grandpa couldn’t anymore. I like working in the dirt and outside. I’ve learned about hard work through farming.”
For Matt, working full-time on the farm always felt like the end goal, before Tilted Barn was ever in the picture. “Initially I was an environmental consultant, and then I got a job working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” he says. “I would be going, visiting other people on their farms, seeing what they’ve done, what businesses they’ve started, just thinking how this is what I want to do.”
In 2007, Matt and Joel, Kara’s brother, began growing hops on the farm, selling to homebrewers and local breweries under the name Ocean State Hops. They quickly learned, however, that small-scale hop farming was extremely labor-intensive and not very lucrative.
“They’re kind of a pain in the ass,” Matt admits. “They’re a lot of work unless you buy really expensive, specialized equipment that does it all for you—which we weren’t going to do at this scale. My passion was in the end product, so Kara and I decided to open Tilted Barn and focus on growing our own ingredients and using them in our own beer.”
Wary of outside investment, the couple bought what they could afford from a recently defunct brewery: a 2-BBL brewhouse with 2-BBL fermenters. It cost every penny they had.
“The advice I got was, ‘Don’t do it. It’s not worth it. It’s too much work. You’ll never succeed,’” Matt remembers.
For a rare moment, he looks despondent.
Name aside, Tilted Barn actually began life in a small shed adjacent to a barn. To call the space “tight” would be an understatement. “We had a little bar on wheels that we would move to the side during brew days, and then when we were open we would wheel it out and put it right here,” Matt says, his hands hovering over a spot no wider than his arms can stretch. “This was our first taproom. It was kinda crazy.”
Meanwhile, the barn was brimming with junk from its past lives, the second floor loft was falling down, and Matt and Kara quickly learned that nothing was straight or plumb (a fact which gave the brewery its name). They applied for—and won—a $20,000 grant through a competitive state program designed to support agriculture and farming in Rhode Island. The funds allowed them to eventually convert the dilapidated barn into a fully functioning brewery and taproom, inspired in part by other rural, New England breweries.
“There are so many difficult aspects of being on a farm that most people don’t realize,” Matt says, counting out the issues on his fingers. “No utilities, getting weekly deliveries on tractor trailers down a half-mile-long dirt road, countless hours [of] snow plowing in the winter. Hill Farmstead has been an inspiration to so many brewers, myself included. I felt great inspiration from the fact that Shaun is in a rural location, off the beaten path, brewing on well water.”
Given Matt’s interest in hop cultivation, Tilted Barn started as a hop-forward brewery, and early on it focused on Hazy IPAs, DIPAs, and Pale Ales. Making beer was daunting at first. Matt’s prior brewing experience was limited to a rudimentary homebrewing kit Kara had gifted him in 2006.
“I was never one of those crazy set-up homebrewers,” he says. “With my background being science, I just researched and read so much. I would sometimes try out techniques, sometimes not. If I could go back and do it again, I would have volunteered to work in a brewery for a little bit. The brewing process is the same, but the equipment at this scale was a very steep learning curve.”
The couple also had to overcome zoning hurdles, and drafted Exeter’s first ordinance to allow farm breweries. Throughout the process, Dave Witham at Proclamation Ale Company in Warwick was there to lend support.
“Dave basically opened a year ahead of us,” Matt says. “We’ve always been learning from his mistakes. He’s very open to sharing, which is great for me.”
Dave’s willingness to pass along Proclamation’s successes and failures has become an ongoing joke between the two friends.
“We over at Proclamation try to do something, fuck it up, and figure out the correct way to do it,” he says. “Then Matt shows up with a smile on his face and asks about the thing, and gets the answer. So that's what we are at Proc: Matt's R&D lab.”
Despite the many initial challenges, Tilted Barn formally opened its doors in November 2014.
“I’m still amazed that we made it after the first year, looking back at how little I knew,” Matt says. “People come to me for advice now and I think, ‘Man, I’m amazed it worked—and there’s so much work involved.’ I started telling people that and then I stopped. I didn’t want to hear about that when I was opening our spot. You want to hear it’s worth it—just put in the extra effort.”
Rhode Island’s 26 breweries represent a mere sliver of the more than 7,000 beer makers operating in the U.S. today. That low number is at first bewildering, given the Ocean State’s robust coastal tourism and proximity to New England craft destinations like Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. The stark difference is largely attributable to local laws around on-premise sales, which have lagged behind peer states, and ultimately handicap the state’s beer tourism.
When Tilted Barn opened, the brewery was only able to sell 72oz of beer per person. Those rules limited its production to between 250–300 BBLs in the brewery’s first few years. In 2016, however, Rhode Island increased the limit, and the brewery’s sales eventually grew to the point that Matt could quit his full-time job with the USDA. Increasing demand also pushed Matt and Kara to upgrade to a 7-BBL system with 7-, 10-, and 15-BBL fermenters. Production expanded into the newly renovated barn, and in 2017, Tilted Barn acquired its own canning line. Custom-designed labels soon followed.
Those combined factors, and the increased 288oz-per-person limit (the equivalent of 18 16oz cans), helped Tilted Barn attain steady, year-on-year growth. In 2018, it brewed 1,000 BBLs. Although production is still significantly smaller compared with many other New England breweries, Kara and Matt are proud that, beyond plans to install a few draft lines at local restaurants, their beer has otherwise been sold exclusively at the farm.
There are still special challenges to operating a craft brewery in Rhode Island. Although per-person limits have increased, Matt feels that the state’s breweries are still at a disadvantage.
“Until some of the outdated laws and restrictions that still exist are changed, we’ll still continue to trail behind our New England neighbors.”
Fortunately, Rhode Island breweries have an advocate who understands their challenges: Matt’s father, Gary. In addition to conducting parking at the brewery on weekends, he also serves as the executive director of the Rhode Island Brewers Guild, the first ever hired.
In a state struggling to attract beer tourists, and within a national beer market nearing Hazy IPA saturation, Kara and Matt are ready for a shift in approach. “I think it’s going to slow down,” Matt says in reference to the style, sounding unfazed. “It’s not like people are going to stop drinking them. I think eventually people’s palates are going to get saturated.”
Although there are no plans to abandon the hoppy beers in Tilted Barn’s portfolio (or stop growing hops), the upcoming expansion provides an opportunity to broaden the brewery’s portfolio. The brewery is now looking to experiment with Pilsners, mixed-culture and foeder-aged beers, Saisons, and beers made with fruit grown on the farm and wild yeast that Matt captured and isolated on site. As with most things, Matt is approaching the shift with an optimistic enthusiasm. “It’s great to see people willing to step outside of their box. I’m excited to not only have greater variety for our customers, but to push myself as a brewer and really experiment with new styles and ingredients.”
To grow the brewing team, Matt hired Cobi LaBine, formerly of Springdale by Jack’s Abby Brewing, in August 2018. “His passion for the craft was obvious immediately,” Matt says, “and we were looking to really delve into the barrel-aged and mixed-fermentation side of things, which was his specialty at Springdale.”
The move to a smaller brewery was a great fit for Cobi as well. “I was always in the back of the house, surrounded by stainless steel, and never got to interact with the customers,” he says as he drags a hose across the brewery floor. “A huge part of enjoying this is seeing people react to it.”
This past winter, Tilted Barn collaborated with Fox Farm Brewery in Salem, Connecticut. Together, the two farm breweries made a farmhouse ale using Fox Farm’s coolship and house yeasts from both breweries. The partnership was a natural one.
“The shared experience of brewing in settings such as ours is as much personal as it is professional,” Fox Farm owner and brewer Zack Adams says. “We’re both attempting to balance managing a brewery and retail space with raising a family in the same place—all while trying to preserve a piece of farm property. It’s such a unique work/life environment that we can’t help but feel a strong connection.”
When Matt decided to expand to other styles, he also wanted to try the best mixed-fermentation beers in the United States. The easiest way to do that was trade for them. So he created a BeerAdvocate profile and posted his first trade inquiry:
ISO: mixed ferm saisons
FT: fresh, consistent Tiled Barn
“I put one post up there and I didn’t know if I would get any reaction,” Matt says, awkwardly laughing at himself. “Then it was like ping, ping, ping. So I have a Hill Farmstead guy now. I have a Fonta Flora guy now. Whenever I’m not brewing or I have some downtime, I’m packaging beer. The girl at Staples knows my name.”
Cobi clearly enjoys giving Matt a hard time about the whole thing.
“We got a yeast shipment in [and] I was going to recycle the box at the end of the day and Matt said, ‘Whoa whoa whoa, that’s a good shipping box.’”
In addition to the demands of running a farm and brewery, Matt and Kara do it all while raising four kids. Violet (eight), Libby (six), Milo (three), and Tate (almost one) are as much a part of the identity of the brewery as its farm setting.
Kara and Matt’s life is typical, in some ways. They dodge Milo’s trucks as they walk across the kitchen floor, and the table remains a collection of plastic utensils, Paw Patrol cups and Valentine’s Day cards covered in glitter.
Still, despite the “normalcy,” few kids spend their days the way the Richardson children do. When Violet and Libby were younger, they would take spent grain up to the loft to blend into their “witches concoctions.” Today, they both help out in the taproom. Milo pops into the brewery to visit Matt and Cobi when his sisters are at school. And they all wander among the crowds that flock to their yard every weekend.
“When Violet is pouring at the taproom, people are taking pictures with her,” Cobi says. “She’s a little celebrity.”
In contrast to her older sister, Matt is betting on Libby to be the brewer. “Libby would rather be in here by herself. She likes to work, she likes to get dirty.”
For that reason, brewery experience wasn’t the only requirement Matt had in mind when hiring Cobi. “Being able to not only tolerate, but to also interact with, our family was an important consideration. He had spent plenty of time catching frogs in the pond and playing with our kids on his visits here. He and Milo were pretty much best friends instantly.”
Perched on one of the tanks in the barn are two green dinosaurs, toys from Cobi’s childhood and an inside joke between him and Milo. “There’s a green dinosaur on all of our Rahr Malting bags,” Cobi says. “At one point, right when I had just started to get to know Milo, he freaked out over the dinosaur. So I thought, ‘I got an idea. I’m going to make the Rahr Malt dinosaur real.’ While I was mashing in, he was walking over and I had the dinosaur in the bag. Right as he’s about to say something I pulled the dinosaur out and his brain just explodes.”
Though work and family life are blurred at Tilted Barn, Kara and Matt have reserved Sundays as their “sacred day,” just for family.
“We have a rope we put across the driveway,” Matt says, pointing towards the yard. “You wouldn’t believe how many people come down the driveway and turn around. The kids call them gawkers now.”
In between raising their four children and running a farm, both Matt and Kara are full-time brewery employees. Matt in is charge of brewing and production, working behind the bar most Fridays and Saturdays. Kara schedules the staff at the taproom, and handles all of the label artwork and merchandise.
The brewery operation still relies heavily on family and friends. Their friend Stew works part-time, managing packaging and pouring during open hours. Kara’s mother, Judy, helps label cans and babysits when needed, while Matt’s father, Gary, directs traffic on the weekends. His sister, Amanda, handles Tilted Barn’s social media accounts. She and Kara’s brother, Joel, also volunteer behind the bar on weekends.
Despite the considerable challenges, Matt and Kara have cultivated a unique customer experience. Erica Vigneau, Kara’s cousin, went to school for art and graphic design and assists Kara with the label designs and graphics.
“They have done a great job of making their customers feel at home when they come to visit and have opened their customers up to their lives with how personal the story and illustrations on their labels are,” she says. “From beers named after their children and dogs, to their favorite spot they visited on their honeymoon, to their favorite musician, you can't help but feel more connected to them and part of their family. That is the charm of visiting Tilted Barn Brewery.”
Zack from Fox Farm echoes the sentiment.
“On the most basic level, we’re both welcoming folks to a quiet, scenic environment and that’s unique among small American breweries. More importantly though, I think locations such as ours help guide visitors towards an understanding and appreciation for the agricultural components of their beer.”
Tilted Barn’s current production area and taproom measure a meager 500 square feet (including the upstairs loft). The new facility, by contrast, will span 3,200 square feet, and will house both a 30-BBL kit and a taproom. It will also allow Matt and Kara to welcome more customers and extend their opening hours. Despite some issues with permits and zoning, they are on track for completion by year’s end.
“We want to keep doing everything like we do it now,” Matt says, while bouncing Tate on his knee. “Not too big—just big enough.”
The duo hopes the expansion will ease their weekly anxiety around knowing they can’t produce enough beer for all of the visitors.
“During busy times, we know that we only have enough cans for maybe half of the people who are lined up. It sounds great, but it is very stressful as a brewery owner, and something Kara and I struggle with at times,” Matt says.
They’re also eager to create some distance between the brewery and their home. “I think getting it out of our yard is going to make a world of difference,” Matt says. “I love being here and being able to have lunch with the kids and put the kids on the bus. But at the same time, there’s never privacy. Even Monday through Thursday when we’re not open, the people that work for us are here—you never have your own space.”
Tilted Barn’s expansion comes at a finicky time for craft beer, and it’s a major investment for a family operation. Customers, especially haze fans, can also be fickle, often moving unpredictably to the latest shiny tallboy.
“I think what both excites and scares me most about the beer industry right now is the sheer passion for craft beer out there. We see people coming here from miles and miles away to visit our brewery, have a few beers on the farm, grab some cans, and then move on to the next brewery on their trip,” Matt says. “It’s motivating and inspiring to see and meet these people who have the same passion about craft beer traveling around, not just for the beer but for the experience. At times, it can be overwhelming too, though. During slower times in the winter, you start to wonder why there aren’t as many people lined up as the week before.”
The most immediate risk associated with expansion is losing Tilted Barn’s homespun charm. “Well, we’re going to turn the heat off in the wintertime,” Kara laughs. “That will make it feel the same.”
“When we tell people we’re going to build the new building, they still want to feel like they’re on the farm,” Matt says. “I think it adds to the customer's experience to be able to come to this beautiful place and really connect with where the beer is made and originates from.”
Looking ahead, Matt and Kara have a lot to be excited about. They continue to sell out most weekends. Summer is coming, which means long lines of customers willing to brave oppressive heat for their 18-can allotments. They’ve got a much-needed vacation on the horizon: a Disney cruise with the kids. And this time next year, their new taproom should be open. While they certainly see challenges ahead, they trust that their vision will pay off. It seems like other folks trust in it, too.
“I think [our fans] appreciate seeing hard work and genuine people,” Matt says. “I know I certainly do. The fact that we open up our farm—our home—to our customers is appreciated.”