“Drink local” has become a powerful mantra in recent years, and it’s reflected in the size of businesses serving the industry. Roughly three-quarters of breweries make less than 1,000 barrels a year, and an additional 18% of the country’s beer producers land between 1,001 and 7,500 BBLs.
Size allows these breweries to be flexible not only in how they make beer, but the ingredients they choose. Smaller businesses, increasingly working to deepen ties with their communities, are partnering with nearby residents and farmers to source a variety of hops and malt. But this is especially true with how fruits and vegetables give their beer unique flavors and, in some cases, a truer sense of place.
There are more breweries than ever making more beer meant to be more special, all thanks to what’s grown around them. For years, this change was highlighted through the Good Food Awards, an annual celebration of "pioneers of local manufacturing, using traditional and creative brewing and fermenting methods to redefine consumer expectations for craftsmanship with their beers." Winners in the beer category have ranged from core brands with an eye toward in-state ingredients to specialty one-offs highlighting the use of barrels and agriculture.
From 2012-2016, the average annual production for breweries who received a Good Food Award decreased by more than 100,000 barrels, from 126,362 to 18,920. That first year included large regional and national breweries like Victory, Alaskan, Lagunitas, and New Belgium. Five years later, the largest producer was Ninkasi, who made an estimated 99,685 barrels in 2016, as reported by the Brewers Association. The second-largest brewery that year was Lakefront, which made 44,234 barrels.
The method of measurement through the Good Food Awards is a bit arbitrary, but it’s also revealing, as larger brewers are being highlighted for finding ways to make beers that are more intimate in their creation. In 2017, Firestone Walker received an award for Feral One. With production of around 400,000 barrels that year, it was the second-biggest brewery to have ever received a Good Food Award. (New Belgium is number one, having produced about 765,000 barrels when it was awarded in 2012.)
“We have always been curious brewers with a love for the art of brewing,” Firestone Walker co-founder David Walker tells GBH. “That DNA doesn’t simply evaporate when your beers become popular and your brewery grows. We remain as curious today as we were when we began.”
At this past January’s awards, Allagash Brewing received its first-ever Good Food Award for its Sixteen Counties Belgian-style “Maine-sourced ale,” made with grains exclusively grown and processed in the Pine Tree State. The Portland brewery has long sourced local produce for many of its wild and mixed-fermentation beers, but Sixteen Counties is a tip of the iceberg of sorts, as the company looks to make “local” a larger part of what they do.
The beer is a perfect example of the brewery’s “million pound initiative,” a goal of using that much Maine-grown and malted grains for Allagash beers by 2021. In 2017, the company used 125,000 pounds, a number brewmaster Jason Perkins says is expected to double in 2018.
Whether specialty one-offs or part of a core lineup, beers like Sixteen Counties allow Perkins and his team to better reflect what it means to be “a Maine beer,” but also connect with farmers, residents, and drinkers on a more personal level.
“With Sixteen Counties, it gave us the opportunity to almost make a beer in reverse of the way we normally make a recipe,” Perkins says. “Normally we’d have a concept and ingredients that can be sourced to execute a vision of flavor, but in this case, these are the grains we have, these are the farmers we want to work with, so that’s the beer.”
For about 10 years, Perkins says the brewery has been using locally-sourced raw, unmalted wheat as part of ingredients in Allagash White, and the amount of Maine-produced grain has steadily increased since. He sees Allagash’s size—the brewery produced about 100,000 BBLs in 2017—as a key factor to that. Their spending power is big enough that they can refocus budgeting to more thoroughly reflect core values of environment and agriculture. The hope, Perkins says, is that the choice resonates with drinkers, too.
"It should bring value to our beer, our community, and to our consumers," he says.
With 60% of his company’s beer sold in its home state of Pennsylvania, John Trogner sees Tröegs Brewing Company’s investment into local agriculture as a literal and figurative process. As co-founder of the brewery with his brother, Chris, John says use of locally-sourced ingredients is a connection that runs through their own “food memories” from growing up in Central Pennsylvania, straight toward the customers they serve today.
“I think food memories either come from an exotic trip you’ve taken, and you have to use exotic ingredients to do it again, or they’re from growing up,” he says. “I had amazing apples just down the road. We have a fruit belt in our backyard. Forty minutes away there are 40,000 fertile acres with some of the best growing regions in the country.”
Having surpassed 100,000 BBLs in 2017, Tröegs is one of the top-50 craft brewers in the country by volume. In the six years since the company moved into expanded brewing space in Hershey, Trogner says annual investment in items from nearby farmers “went from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars,” though he laughs and quickly says it’s likely more. The spend is a big part of the brewery’s ongoing “Splinter” and “Scratch” series, which represent anything from weekly one-offs at the taproom to specialty runs available in variety packs and single bottles.
In 2016, John was visiting Peters Orchards 39 miles away to inspect a cherry crop when a farmer casually mentioned peaches and nectarines damaged by hail. They couldn’t be sold at market, so he bought about 3,000 pounds of each to use in “Pennsylvania Wild Ale” recipes for the brands that became Sir Peche (peaches) and Dear Peter (nectarines). Last year, Trogner estimates the total was between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds between the two fruits.
“We’ll do a whole lot more in 2018 if our tanks are ready,” he says.
Additional investment goes into tens of thousands of pounds of local honey that goes into the brewery's Wild Elf Wild Ale and when staff gather for weekly recipe meetings, no ideas or ingredients are off the table. Scratch beers have used apples, honey, pumpkins, and more. Splinter beers have included strawberries and cherries, as well as peaches and nectarines. Local hops and malt—already used in some recipes—will increase in the future, too.
“When we’re coming up with recipes, the first thing we look at is what’s grown in our backyard and from our personal knowledge,” Trogner says. “We’ve eaten these things all our lives. We’ve gone to local farmers markets and picked up this fruit from when we were kids all the way to now. When we talk recipes, we want to talk things familiar to us.”
It’s that recognizable, intuitive connection that increasingly pushes big breweries back to their “craft” roots. Sierra Nevada has long brewed its Estate Ale, made from hops, wheat, and barley grown at its Chico brewery. Rogue's own farm supplies ingredients for a variety of its beers. But this current moment presents a cultural movement where locality and the authenticity it supplies is increasingly desirable by brewers and drinkers alike. Guided by their own ethos, many of the country's largest breweries are now finding new ways to circle back to where they might have started so long ago.
“It’s hard to put it into succinct words,” Allagash’s Perkins says when trying to verbalize the feeling of purpose behind these agricultural choices. But after a few seconds of silence, he finds it.
“It feels really natural,” he says.