Allagash Brewing wants to help re-establish the northeast as America’s breadbasket. To that end, the company vowed Friday that by 2021, it would purchase one million pounds of Maine-grown grains per year for use in its beers. To put that figure in context, Allagash says it will use approximately 115,000 pounds of Maine-grown grains in 2017, a mere fraction of the 5 million pounds of grains it will use overall. “We’ve been excited to see breweries throughout Maine using local grain,” says Allagash founder Rob Tod in a press statement. “We’re lucky to have a community that strongly supports buying local and we’ve found ourselves in a great position to positively affect that trend.”
WHY IT MATTERS
Speaking with GBH, Allagash brewmaster Jason Perkins says the company has “always had interest in sourcing local ingredients, and has for many years.” The problem, though, is that grains haven’t been as readily accessible, at least compared to other resources like fruit. Now, though, it seems an amber wave is washing over the state, as the company says it has seen a “steady and substantial increase in the amount [of] Maine-grown and malted grains” becoming available. In fact, the amount of grains acreage set aside for human grade consumption in the state has about quadrupled since 2010, according to Tristan Noyes, executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance.
Getting to a million pounds, though, is no less bound to be a process. For starters, while acreage and infrastructure has increased, there are other bottlenecks to be aware of. Noyes says the “number one” constraint is in processing, namely as it relates to cleaning, sorting, and storing. This, says Perkins, is why it was so important for Allagash to offer a hard figure and five-year road map: it gives the company’s agricultural partners time to build, if need be, and offers a clear idea of what Allagash itself will need.
“If we had said we’re going to start using 10% locally grown grains, and I tell a farmer that, he’s going to say, ‘What the hell does that mean? I need pounds,’” says Perkins.
Allagash has long highlighted local ingredients, but with regards to grains, its “first foray on a bigger scale” as Perkins puts it, came last year with the release of Sixteen Counties, a year-round offering made using 100% Maine-grown grains. The release of Sixteen Counties left the company “jazzed” on the idea of making a deeper investment in local grains, says Perkins, but more than that, it gave the company the confidence that doing so would actually be feasible.
“It got us in a lot more in depth conversation with farmers,” he says. “Every farmer is different, but they said, ‘we’ve got the ability.”
Historically, barley farmers were often closely located near breweries as the agriculture and brewing of beer went hand in hand at a time when the transport of such commodities was slow and expensive. But as regions began specializing in the production of grain, places like Idaho, Montana, Colorado, and up into Canada became tied to the largest brewers, namely Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, who also built large production facilities nearby. As recently as this past January, however, commitments to purchasing those crops has wavered. So as the larger barley industry tries to tack to the larger demand trends, the localization of grain production and micromalsting is continuing to find relevance with smaller brewers who can similarly commit to long-term buying trends.
Allagash isn’t alone, of course, as a number of brewers in the state – which is known for its affinity for close-to-home food and drink – have helped boost the grain industry in recent years. One such company is Oxbow Brewing, which is headquartered in Newcastle, but also operates a brewery in Allagash’s hometown of Portland. Reached by GBH, the company confirmed its celebrated coolship beers all utilize 100% Maine-grown barley and wheat.
“The craft brewing scene in Maine has increased and it’s become a critical part of seeing that infrastructure grow,” adds Noyes. “It’s an incredible commitment.”
Even beyond Maine, though, Perkins believes local investments like this are important to the future of beer in the United States. Asked how other brewers around the country can help to grow their own local agricultural economies, Perkins offered some advice.
"The key is just communication, as simple as that sounds," he says. "Realistically, they're probably not going to start growing barley, brewing quality barley -- or even a specialty grain like an oat or a rye or a spelt, you name it -- unless they think people are going to buy it. Have those open communications with farmers and give them as much of a heads up as possible."
- Dave Eisenberg
One Million Pounds of Maine Grown Grain [Allagash]