Born in a Barn: America's Farmhouse Breweries
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.
Weeping Radish Farm Brewery (Grandy, N.C.)
“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 courtesy Ashley Nichole)
Shooting Creek Brewery (Floyd, Va.)
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 courtesy Jeff Reid)