It’s common to hear people talking about drinking “local beer,” but does anyone ever drink truly local beer? While one frequently sees “Local Farms, Local Food” stickers, “local beer” stickers have yet to make an appearance. Most malt still comes from a handful of major mid-west malt houses while it is rare to find locally grown hops. Thankfully, this is rapidly changing.
So what is the definition of a local beer or drinking local? Is it having a pint that is made locally or one made with local ingredients or simply having a pint at the neighborhood brewery itself?
Massachusetts has quickly become a beer lovers paradise with an increasing number of breweries opening and expanding. Most of these brewers are smaller in scale and not many seek to expand quickly or far, instead emphasizing quality beers that attract a loyal and dependable following. While there are certainly breweries larger in scale such as Sam Adams and Harpoon, many seek to stay local or operate such that people come to them for the beer. The Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission has made it such that nearly every new brewery operates with a full tap room offering full pours, growler fills and beers that are often accompanied with local music, food and a strong neighborhood vibe. Licensed brewers however must also must use at least a partial amount of local ingredients. This aligns well with the significant Community Supported Agriculture that has come to dominate the local organic produce scene. Just as people have long gone straight to the farm, increasingly beer drinkers are going straight to the source for their beer. It is rare these days that I even shop at a liquor store for general beer purchases ( I save those trips to seek specialty beers). Instead I go to local breweries in my town of Easthampton, MA.
As hard as we try, we have to ask ourselves the question. Is the beer we buy in our hometowns really local? There is one brewery that makes this an easy answer – Stoneman Brewery in the tiny hill town of Colrain, MA.
There is no tap room at Stoneman, and you can’t even use a GPS to find it as you head into the small town of Colrain, MA. Stoneman Brewery is a one man operation that is one of the smallest breweries anywhere, operating with only a 1 BBL system. Located on a 74 acre farm, Stoneman Brewery grows many of the ingredients used in the beer and sources nearly all the rest locally. They are currently working on transition plans to expand the brewery. Currently, the brewery has operated as a beer CSA, similar to a farm CSA where members pay for their share size up front and pick up their share of beer at the designated time. Many of these beers use Valley Malt, a small local malt house which has been leading the resurgence in micro malt houses throughout the country and has allowed us to purchase local beers with local ingredients.
Valley Malt out of Hadley, MA first began production in 2010. Partnering with local farmers, Valley Malt produces organic grains with each batch coming from only one farm. Although starting as a small operation out of a garage, Valley Malt currently is used at 29 different breweries including such big names as Sierra Nevada (NC), Trillium, Jacks Abby, Brooklyn Brewery, Peak Organic and even Dogfish Head. One can even sign up for the Malt of the Month club, and pick up fresh local and organic malts including base malts and specialties such as Chocolate Rye and Cherrywood Smoked Malt which I’ve used to create some of my best home brew.
By partnering with local farms, farmers have been making consistently unique and excellent malts. It has also increased demand and encouraged them to grow an increasing amount of barley and wheat. Currently Valley Malt themselves farm around 70 acres, with 1/3 being grains used for malting and the rest divided between legumes, veggies and corn. Some of which is sold back to local farms as a source of local organic animal feed, helping to create a sustainable and local network.
The end of summer always brings numerous wet hopped beers using local hops from Four Star Farms in Northfield MA which are quickly snatched up. While many breweries are now starting their own hop yards, Four Star Farms is the only major commercial hop grower in Massachusetts and is used by an increasing number of brewers throughout New England. New England once was a large hop producer and Four Star Farms is seeking to bring back local hop growing and has been expanding since releasing their first crop in 2008 . Hops were originally grown as a way to diversify what the farm grew. Production has expanded from 3/4 of an acre up to 17. Production has grown to seven varieties including unique hops such as Rakau and Teamaker which has strong notes of black tea. Having a grower such as Four Star Farms has allowed brewers to create truly local beers in part because local brewers also have access to locally create malts.
With local hops, local malts and an increasing number of breweries, truly local beer has become a reality. It has transformed the meaning of drinking local from simply finding nearby beer to drinking beer made from local ingredients. These ingredients have been made from a community of local entrepreneurs seeking to create a sustainable network and it is beneficial for both business and consumers who appreciate unique and truly local beers. Craft beer has been a revolutionary movement, making it local and ultimately more independent will only help further it’s growth and of course continue to bring us all delicious brews year after year.
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