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Born in a barn: America’s farmhouse breweries

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America’s farmland has given rise to a handful of rural breweries.

These days, most farmhouse beers don’t have much to do with the farm: The moniker’s slapped on funky, earthy styles brewed in the rolling hills of Belgium—or in an urban brewery in Baltimore. But in quiet stretches of American countryside, a handful of farmers are converting their barns to breweries to create, for lack of a better term, nouveau farmhouse beers of all styles, like traditional saisons and habanero-infused stouts, with ingredients sourced from their own land.

There’s a certain romance to bottling up ideals like localization, community and craft, but as the country’s first modern farmhouse brewer, Weeping Radish’s Uli Bennewitz, points out, the return to pastoral brewing is about more than making small-radius beer.

“We ingest way too many chemicals and preservatives, and the only way to keep those out is to go back to small-scale farming,” says Bennewitz. “And in the last 15 years, this country has had a brain drain in rural America. People go to college and never return to the farms. I think we’ve gone way overboard with our desire to send every kid to college to sit at a desk.” He says advocating for craft education—be it brewing or butchery—could swing the American landscape toward Europe’s model of an independent butcher and baker in every town.

We caught up with seven brewers, some who’ve traded in a white collar job for open air and overalls, and found out why they’re committed to bringing breweries back to the farm.

Grandy, N.C.: WEEPING RADISH FARM BREWERY

“In 1986, starting the first microbrewery in the area was crazy enough,” says Uli Bennewitz, a native Bavarian who, back then, was a large-scale farm manager with a homebrewing habit. “But to talk about natural food, too? People said, ‘This time, you’ve gone truly mad.” What was a wacky idea more than 20 years ago is now the hugely successful, 14-acre Weeping Radish “farm-brewery-butchery complex” in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Beers brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot like the acclaimed Black Radish schwarzbier anchor the farm, which also produces vegetables, herbs and eggs; ferments its own sauerkraut in barrels from the winery next door; and as of 2010 hosts an on-site butcher (imported from Kassel, Germany, naturally) who stuffs sausages and slices cuts of nitrate-free meat. The butcher’s smokehouse will eventually hickory-smoke barley for the farm’s own rauchbier. Also coming soon: an IPA brewed with North Carolina hops, and trials in distilling with the farm’s potatoes. [Photo: Ashley Nichole]

Floyd, Va.: SHOOTING CREEK BREWERY

Brett Nichols has farmed organic fruits and vegetables on a few-acre swath in Floyd, Va., for nearly a decade. But two years ago, noticing there wasn’t a drop of local beer within a two-hour drive, he and neighbor Ray Jones decided a new harvest was in order. “I personally think that good craft beer should be local,” says Nichols. “Everywhere you go, you should find a local product and enjoy it.” Commingling localization, farmhouse brewing methods and the region’s moonshine culture, Nichols creates distinctly American farm-brewed beer. His hops lend spice to the 500-barrel production, but the house-grown habanero peppers in his chocolate stout strum the local flavor. The brewery’s not open for tours, and you won’t find Shooting Creek beers outside of the region, but visitors are encouraged to find their beers and befriend the brewery. “I’m a firm believer in bringing things closer to the people you know.” [Photo: Jeff Reid]

Lancaster, Ohio: ROCKMILL BREWERY

Thirty miles from Columbus, Ohio, in rural Lancaster, Matthew Barbee models his organic beers after brews from Belgium’s Wallonia, the region that birthed saisons. After getting hooked on craft beer in Los Angeles, he moved home to the family farm (where his grandfather had once been a vintner) in 2006 and set out to build a brewery. While converting an 1870s barn into what is now an art gallery and the horse stables into the brewing facility, Barbee and his father, a hydrogeologist, discovered the farm’s water was almost identical to Wallonia’s. “It’s similar in minerality and bicarbonates—we have black sandstone outcroppings, which impart some flavor—and we don’t share our water source with any other farmers, so it’s pure,” says Barbee. “When I leave for a few days, the water’s the first thing I miss.” The water lends a hint of Belgium to a four-beer portfolio comprising a witbier, a dubbel, a tripel and, of course, a saison, all brewed one barrel at a time, bottle-conditioned and sold at a handful of local purveyors. (Tastings at the farm are available by appointment.) Barbee’s toying with a sour beer he’ll likely release this year, but the family operation will grow slowly. “My mom and dad and I are hand-labeling and hand-corking; it’s been intense,” he says. “Mom’s still the only one who can do a whole case of labels without screwing it up.” [Photo: Brian Hockensmith]

Austin, Texas: JESTER KING CRAFT BREWERY

Five hundred dollars in contest winnings and a chance real estate deal allowed Jeffrey Stuffings to turn beer wishes into an authentic farmhouse brewery that reflects the Texas Hill Country terroir. “We were contacted by a man who owns a farm in southwest Austin and was interested in hosting a brewery,” says Stuffings. “We fell in love with the property: 200 acres of rolling hills, scrub oak, cows and donkeys.” The farm’s surrounded by pastures, an olive grove and a winery, and Stuffings brings the environment into his beer, sourcing local well and rain water, and like farmhouse breweries abroad, the landscape’s wild yeast. Leaving wort to sit outside overnight, Stuffings and his crew were able to inoculate the liquid with native yeast, which was sent to a lab, isolated and combined with Brettanomyces for a special house blend. The result imparts rural Austin flavor into farmhouse ales like Das Wunderkind! and Boxer’s Revenge. And although the brewery also brews Anglo-American style beers, like Wytchmaker Rye IPA, which debuted during Austin’s 2010 Beer Week, Stuffings hopes his farmhouse recipes will eventually define the brewery. “They’re beers that are incredibly complex and unique,” says Stuffings. “But to develop the intense complexity will take anywhere from eight to 18 months. A big part of it, for us, has been to stay patient.” [Photo: Tom Mattera]

Greensboro Bend, Vt.: HILL FARMSTEAD BREWERY

Shaun Hill’s family has occupied Greensboro Bend, Vt., a small town an hour northeast of Vermont’s capital, a long time; since the 1780s, when his ancestors co-founded it. Hill grew up haying the fields with his cousins, but at age 15 took to homebrewing. After a few professional brewing gigs, Hill returned last year to launch Hill Farmstead Brewery, and honor his lineage with a line of Ancestor beers. Using the same well water his family’s been drinking for centuries, Hill’s flagship beers—from Abner, an imperial IPA named after his great-grandfather, to Edward, an American pale ale named for his grandfather—each tell a story about Hill’s heritage. The beer’s found a loyal following in New York and Vermont, but despite his success, Hill has no plans to expand beyond his means. “Within two to three years we’ll build the big brewery and rebuild my grandfather’s barn, then we cap out,” he says. “I don’t want an industrial park on my farm. This is a way to give life to people and memories that are now ghosts, honoring our ancestors who I wouldn’t be here without.” [Photo: Hill Farmstead]

Greenville, Del.: TWIN LAKES BREWING CO.

Following 9/11, financier Sam Hobbs left Wall Street to build a brewery at his family’s nearly 200-year-old Brandywine Valley farm, a 252-acre woodland spread most known for its ice skating pond. Since its 2006 launch, however, the brewery—housed in the former tractor barn and art studio—has stolen focus with its small collection of all-natural American-style ales, brewed with strictly whole-flower hops and water from the farm’s own aquifer. Beers like the flagship Greenville Pale Ale pour in restaurants throughout Delaware and Philadelphia (Twin Lakes also brews the house beer, Taylor’s Grog, for the nearby Deer Park Tavern), though most folks prefer to swing by the tasting room when a volunteer sticks an “open” flag on Route 52. Along with head brewer Rob Pfeiffer, Hobbs channels any extra energy into making the complex completely sustainable by 2018; the brewery already boasts a span of solar panels, and Pfeiffer will plant hops and flip the switch on a new canning line this spring. [Photo: Michael Roth]

Mt. Airy, Md.: STILLPOINT FARM

A criminal attorney turned farm brewer is the fodder of B-list movies, but Tom Barse isn’t a fish out of water. His grandparents and parents were farmers, and he’s been homebrewing since 1972—before it was legal. Today, the retired lawyer/current high school government teacher and his wife own Stillpoint Farm, 47 remarkably diverse acres in Maryland: They have an apiary, horse boarding, a flock of rare-breed sheep and a hop crop they sell to local breweries. Before the year’s out, Barse will have opened Milkhouse Brewery and saved some of the cones for himself. “I’m still cobbling it together,” Barse says. “My mash tun and brew kettle are dairy equipment, and I’m looking at used fermenters.” While he hasn’t solidified the lineup, he says his 300- to 500-barrel system will likely have an IPA, a porter and a stout, and that he’s been experimenting with saisons. With the addition of a tasting room and a hilltop gazebo, the farm will be open for guests to enjoy whatever’s on tap. [Photo: Brodie Ledford]