Not your grandfather's beer
A local malt scene germinates from farm brewery legislation
Chances are, the craft beer boom has already won you over.
Consumers care about craft, and in New York, legislation has put an emphasis on local ingredients. The Farm Brewery license, which went into effect in 2013, allows license holders to sell pints without an additional license and to open satellite locations. The catch? A growing percentage of ingredients must be sourced from New York State.
Currently, farm breweries must use at least twenty percent hops and twenty percent all other ingredients to be grown and produced in the state. In 2019, the percentage will increase to sixty, and by 2024, no less than ninety percent of hops and other ingredients must be local.
Hop yards and barley fields have cropped up across the state but not without toil. Expertise and agriculture have had to catch up with demand.
Jeff Trout farms about 450 acres in Waterloo, and he’s no novice. He began helping his grandfather on the farm as a nine-year-old, and today his grandfather, ninety-one, helps him with a new endeavor. After years of raising cash crops like soybeans, corn, and wheat, Trout took on barley as a “personal and professional” challenge.
He began growing barley around seven years ago, and he admits there was a bit of a learning curve. Barley destined for beer has a much higher standard than other crops, and it’s taken an alliance of academics and fellow farmers to find the right varieties and growing conditions. As for how the Farm Brewery legislation has encouraged the growth of the barley industry, “it’s still a niche market,” says Trout. “It’s a high management crop—wheat, soybeans, and corn are much easier to produce,” he says.
Barley doesn’t get any lower-maintenance once it gets to the malt house, according to Judd Hallett of Murmuration Malts. Hallett prides himself on a scrappy family-run business—his wife, Emily, and two small children all have a hand in its success. After revitalizing a dilapidated service station in Bloomfi eld and converting old dairy tanks to process grain, Murmuration Malts set its sights on farm brewers seeking a hyper-local craft product.“It all comes down to honing your craft,” says Hallett. Barley is tested before and after the malting process through Hartwick College to make sure its moisture and enzyme levels are optimal. Only if it meets a high standard is it sold to a brewer.
Hallett recognizes that there’s a higher cost to the brewer for going local, which is reflected in craft beer’s higher price point. But he sees a new generation of consumers who are interested not only in where their beer was brewed, but where its ingredients were grown—and are willing to pay a premium for it. “I don’t see them going back to their grandfather’s beer,” he says.
Many area craft brewers are looking to use local ingredients in their beers but without the strings. Tony Moringello of Noble Shepherd Brewery in Bristol opted against the Farm Brewery license because he didn’t want his hands tied. “I think it’s a great idea, but I knew a lot of the ingredients I would be using wouldn’t necessarily be available in New York State,” he says. Despite IPA friendly hops like Centennial and Cascade being grown locally, a lot of the citrusy, tropical types he likes to use just aren’t available.
When Moringello is asked if Noble Shepherd is a Farm Brewery, he understands the underlying question: “are you using local ingredients?” And while he likes to support local hop yards and malthouses as much as possible, “if it’s not cost effective, it just doesn’t make any sense,” he says. For now, about thirty percent of the hops he uses are grown locally. His beers also feature local ingredients like honey and, of course, Murmuration Malts.
Despite the challenges of navigating a relatively nascent industry, there’s a palpable optimism.
Hallett, for one, is looking forward to expanding Murmuration’s offerings and continuing to collaborate with area farmers and brewers. “The whole idea of farm breweries wasn’t just to install breweries, it was to revitalize everyone in the chain,” he says. “Everybody loves farm to table—now it’s grain to glass.”