From Farm to Tank

By | April 05, 2017
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Poles taller than basketball goals sprout from the ground at a farm outside of Frankfort. Soon, vines will soon start creeping up them in a dramatic dance that will produce flowers that contain hops—an essential ingredient in the brewing of beer.

At West Sixth Farm in rural Franklin County, the hop vines dramatize an often-forgotten fact: Brewing beer is essentially an agricultural act. As the craft beer industry experiences an explosion in Kentucky, brewers and farmers are connecting in a collaborative mindset that celebrates the Commonwealth’s rich agricultural heritage, with an emphasis on using what’s local.

Apple trees, brambles, blackberries, cherries, sorghum and herbs will share the soil with the hop vines at West Sixth’s grand experiment — an extension of West Sixth Brewing’s urban brewery in Lexington — which aims to reconnect craft beer lovers to the industry’s agricultural beginnings.

“We will never absolutely be able to replace our everyday ingredients with things from here,” West Sixth Brewing’s co-founder Ben Self said at the farm. “What we hope to do is show that some of the ingredients we use can be grown successfully in Kentucky, and hopefully encourage other people who are professional farmers to grow it at a bigger scale so someday we could source a higher percentage of our ingredients from Kentucky.”

The idea is taking root. In a first-of-its kind venture, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture last fall partnered with the Kentucky Guild of Brewers in an initiative that paired farmers with craft brewers to create five beers to showcase locally sourced ingredients like peaches, paw paws and pecans. An encore initiative will roll out this fall — underscoring craft beer’s rise in popularity in Kentucky and farmers’ eagerness to capitalize on the growth. All of it boils down to one thing: localism.

Craft beer’s growth in Kentucky is stunning: Last year, the industry added 25% to its workforce, which is expected to happen again this year. Eleven breweries opened last year; at least that many are expected to open in 2017. To put that in perspective: In 2009, there were five craft breweries in Kentucky. At last count there were over 40 and by year’s end it’ll be well over 50.

“One thing craft beer lovers and the craft community like is they want to know that something is handcrafted that really accentuates the local flavor,” said Derek Selznick, executive director of the brewers’ guild. “It’s really important for us to have that local feeling. Because what we care about here in Kentucky is capturing the market and giving something special and handcrafted so we can really say, ‘This is a Kentucky Proud product.’”

Crafting the Local Connection

Infusing craft beer with local ingredients is an industry-wide practice throughout Kentucky. Against the Grain’s Richard PerSimmons features fruit hand-picked in Louisville’s Cherokee Park. Alltech’s Kentucky Honey Barrel Brown Ale uses honey from Midway. Goodwood Brewing Co.’s Louisville Lager depends on barley from Walnut Grove Farms in Adairville. The list goes on and on.

“As far as produce goes it’s pretty important just because the fresher something is, the higher quality it is,” said Amelia Pillow, head brewer at Louisville’s Against the Grain. “I personally like supporting other industries locally. The craft beer industry is very much driven by local consumerism so tying those things together seems like a natural fit.”

Pillow and her crew took “locally sourced” to a whole new level last fall when they filled two five-gallon buckets full of persimmons for the central ingredient in Richard PerSimmons, which was a collaboration with Olmsted Parks. They also plucked wild ginger, dandelion root — good for bittering, Pillow says — and invasive wild ivy, which has a minty flavor — all worked into the persimmon concoction. “It’s about as local as you can get in Louisville,” Pillow said.

Against the Grain was part of the Department of Agriculture and Kentucky Guild of Brewers collaboration, sourcing peaches from Mulberry Farms in Shelbyville for a peach sour saison. In partnership with Ethereal Brewing in Lexington, the saison — dubbed Peach Better Have My Money, a nod to a road trip in which Rihanna was on heavy rotation — used 200 pounds of peaches that produced 12 barrels of ale.

“For me it’s a good way to kind of piggyback other businesses on one of the fastest-growing industries in the country,” Pillow said. “I think we do a pretty good job of trying to source things as closely as we can and the agriculture department is definitely doing a good job of basically pairing folks with brewers because it’s such a growth industry. The more you can get other Kentucky businesses a piece of that pie, the better.”

Partnerships can be mutually beneficial for the brewer and the farmer—and potentially big business down the road as more producers consider growing ingredients for craft beer production.

“I think it’s extremely important,” Amanda Gajdzik, who owns Mulberry Farms with her husband, Matt, said of the partnership. “Consumers today are so much more aware of where their food comes from. The marketing piece of it is where the benefit comes for both sides. They market it as a local product they’re using, and we market from our end saying this is a really cool thing they’re doing with peaches. So we get a lot out of that.”

Blossoming Relationships

The partnerships can take an entirely different — and profitable — direction than originally intended.

Goodwood also was part of the agriculture department’s initiative, collaborating with White Squirrel Brewery in Bowling Green and Kentucky Hemp Works in Christian County to use hemp oil for a still-in-development altbier, which is a German-style lager.

Joel Halbleib, brewmaster and chief operating officer at Goodwood, was on a quest for something different when it came to hemp beer.

“I wanted something that tasted like what you might think hemp beer might taste like,” Halbleib said. “Something a little stanky on the marijuana side, something that has flavor to it.”

Most hemp beers traditionally use toasted hemp seeds that produce a nutty flavor, he said. “It’s nutty, not hempy.”

In working with the folks at Commonwealth Extracts, which processed the cannabidiol oil — a nonpsychoactive concentrate extracted from the hemp plant — from Kentucky Hemp Works’ product, Halbleib stumbled upon a byproduct of the cannabidiol production that sparked his interest.

The byproduct, essentially an aroma from the hemp plant called terpene, was being poured down the drain at Commonwealth. Halbleib had another idea in mind. After being run through a still and cleaned up, the terpene became a key ingredient in the brewery’s Hemp Gose, an Eastern European–style kettle saison that also features lemon peel, Grains of Paradise and coriander.

Two packaging runs totaling 2,000 gallons of Hemp Gose are in the books with another 1,000 gallons in fermentation, and the beer just recently became available throughout Kentucky. Halbleib likes to use Goodwood employees as a barometer of a beer’s potential success. “We launched an IPA and Hemp Gose at the same time and all the guys in production started drinking Hemp Gose,” he said. “So I think we have a hit.” The hemp oil altbier collaboration with White Squirrel is up for a pilot batch any day.

Returning to Their Roots

At West Sixth’s 120-acre farm, an agritourism attraction will allow visitors to experience the brewing process from farm to tank.

Produce from those 16-foot hop vines buried four feet in the ground will be harvested and brewed into ales onsite for tastings. Same with the apples — those’ll become cider — and the blackberries and other fruit, and even honey produced by bees on the farm.

Bigger picture, it’s all part of a longterm process with a timeline of five to 10 years, though Self and his team hope to begin hosting visitors possibly in late spring or early summer.

“It’s really about demonstration and education, showing people those sorts of things,” Self said. “We’ll keep a wide variety of stuff but the idea is to show people that farm-to-tank process.”

The farm also will act as a kind of lab, with West Sixth experimenting with ingredients that could be grown on a larger scale with Kentucky producers.

“We have partnered with farms since we’ve been open and those are great things because it can be a situation where it’s mutually beneficial,” Self said. “We can provide a new market for their products and we can also make sure we can source top-quality ingredients from them. That’s a huge thing for us.”

West Sixth alone plows through about 46,000 pounds of grain every two-and a-half weeks — all sourced from outside Kentucky. Production of ingredients essential to brewing, like barley and hops, is in its infancy in the Commonwealth. “Very candidly, it’s a very minimal amount coming from the state,” Self said. “There are no farmers growing the kind of barley we use in any of our main beers.”

There are, however, success stories. Goodwood, for example, uses barley from Walnut Grove Farms in Adairville, Kentucky, in its Louisville Lager. It’s no small production: The brewery uses 1,300 pounds of barley per thousand-gallon batch of lager. Six batches are constantly in production.

“It’s a question of, with malt especially, the environment in Kentucky isn’t conducive enough to support large-scale farmers getting into it, so it’s a question for farmers if they want to take a risk,” Halbleib said. “Because it’s a big risk.”

Farmers and brewers also have begun working together to experiment with varietals of crops like hops and grain to expand Kentucky’s footprint.

“I think what the research is showing, what folks are really working on, is ‘Are there different varietals of crops that can be grown here successfully? Are there diff erent varietals of grain?’” said Self, of West Sixth. “So much of the grain side particularly is a scale game. When you’re doing it at a very large scale, it becomes a point where you could do that.”

A Distinct Personality

The last time an economic impact study was conducted, in 2014, the craft beer industry’s 87,000 barrels of beer generated over $500 million for Kentucky’s economy. According to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, Kentucky ranks 32nd in the country in craft beer production — and trending upward.

Driving that growth is demand, said Selznick, of the Kentucky Guild of Brewers. Craft breweries cover the entire flavor spectrum, from sour to sweet, which appeals to more palates. Also key to success is the craft beer experience: Oftentimes a brewer will be behind the bar, eager to chat with customers about his or her creations. “And you just don’t get that in a lot of places,” Selznick said. “You can really feel the individual personality of each of these breweries.”

Farm to table is all the buzz in the culinary world. Craft beer has a similar philosophy: farm to tank. Take it a step further: tank to glass.

For West Sixth’s Self, craft beer’s success is more than a catch phrase. “I think there’s no doubt that the craft beer world is becoming more locally focused,” he said. “It’s not just driven by that trend, but it’s actually driven by quality. One of the reasons why local beer tastes better is that we can get it to a customer fresher and handled under better conditions than someone from out of state can. “Local beer tastes better and because of that it’s driving why people want to buy local beer." 

Kentucky Guild of Brewers

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Guild of Brewers partnered on the release of five limited edition, Kentucky Proud– infused beers, which included:

Against the Grain (Louisville) and Ethereal Brewing (Lexington) used Kentucky Proud peaches from Mulberry Orchards in Shelbyville. The Peach Sour Saison was released Monday with a ceremonial pouring and tasting at Against the Grain. A second tasting is scheduled Oct. 17 at 6pm at Ethereal Brewing.

Monnik Beer Company (Louisville) and Paducah Brew Works will use pawpaw fruit from Kentucky State University in Frankfort. Release is scheduled Nov. 2 at Monnik.

Great Flood Brewing Company (Louisville) and Ei8htball Brewing (Bellevue) will use pecans from Kight’s Pecan Orchard in McCracken County. Goodwood Brewing (Louisville) and White Squirrel Brewery (Bowling Green) will use hemp oil from Kentucky Hemp Works in Christian County. Gordon Biersch (Louisville) and Apocalypse Brew Works (Louisville) will use sorghum from Townsend Sorghum Mill in Montgomery County. A second brewery/farm partnership will launch this fall.

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