A version of this piece originally appeared in the CUESA Newsletter.
Wendell Berry has said that eating is an agricultural act, but what about drinking beer? A thirst for fermented beverages may have inspired the world’s first farmers to plant crops some 13,000 years ago, yet today beer is rarely part of the larger conversation about where our food comes from.
In California, a handful of local craft brewers are starting to tap into that primitive connection. Taking up the motto “Beer is agriculture,” Almanac Beer Co. works directly with farmers in the greater Bay Area to source specialty ingredients for their seasonal brews. “For most people, beer is what shows up in the bottle or can,” says Almanac brewer Damian Fagan. “We’re trying to create a foundation that beer is rooted deeply in agriculture.”
Fagan founded Almanac with Beer & Nosh blogger Jesse Friedman last year, after they met in a home-brewing club, where they traded brewing experiments. (“I’d show up with a fig beer or a puréed turnip beer. Not always great ideas,” Fagan admits.) The two instantly bonded over their interest in San Francisco’s farm-to-table food culture. “We saw a real opening to think and talk about the brewing process using that same vocabulary and ideology,” says Friedman.
From the farm to the barrel
While the term terroir is usually reserved for fine wines, Almanac has found creative ways to “infuse a sense of time and place in each brew,” as Friedman says, by integrating fresh produce into the mash.
Since last summer, Almanac has collaborated with Sebastopol Berry Farm, Twin Girls Farm, Hamada Farms, Marshall’s Farm Natural Honey, and most recently, Heirloom Organic Gardens. For each of their beers, made in small batches and released seasonally, Friedman and Fagan meet with the farmer, tour their farm, and feature it prominently on the bottle’s label and Almanac’s website.
Like the Farmer’s Almanac, each brew serves as a record of the season. The Autumn Farmhouse Pale Ale celebrated the last of the area’s fall plums, while the Winter Wit preserved the end of December with a mix of Cara cara, navel, and new blood oranges. “If we’d brewed two weeks earlier or later, the mix of oranges would have been different,” Friedman notes.
Their most recent release, Bière de Mars (March beer), is a French-style farmhouse ale highlighting baby fennel. While fennel might sound like an unexpected choice for beer, Heirloom Organic Gardens farmer Grant Brians thought it made a lot of sense when Almanac approached him. “The flavors in fennel are carried in an oil and slightly alkaline base,” he explains. “It’s perfect to mix into the brewing process.”
The goal with each brew is to provide a distinct but subtle accent that does not dominate the flavor profile, but adds depth and pairs well with seasonal dishes. “We want the ingredient to be an integrated part of the beer,” Friedman insists. “It should not be a fennel cocktail.”
How’s the finished result? “It’s good!” says Brians. “I’m generally a wine drinker, but I enjoy full-bodied and well-balanced flavors in beers. And it was nice to taste the end result of our collaboration.”
Bottlenecks for local brewers
While Almanac has sourced some local grains for their brews, including wheat from Massa Organics, brewing a truly local beer is fraught with challenges when it comes to hops and barley malt. “Unfortunately, the beer world is defined by the big American brewers,” says Friedman.
California was once home to a thriving hops industry, but by the 1950s, the mechanization of hops harvesting, outbreaks of downy mildew, and changing beer tastes wiped hops growers out. Today, the majority of U.S. hops are grown in Washington and Oregon.
Sourcing specialty malt poses another obstacle, since there are no malt houses in California, and out-of-state industrial malting facilities prefer to work with large brewers. “You can grow high-quality barley here, but the issue is malting,” says Ron Silberstein of Thirsty Bear Brewing Company. “Part of the problem is that local growers are competing with commodity growers who can grow and malt their barley very inexpensively.” Organic malt from locally grown barley is even rarer.
San Francisco’s first and only brewery to carry a seal from organic certifier California Certified Organic Farmers, Thirsty Bear experimented with brewing a 100 percent local and organic beer in 2010, collaborating with nearby Eatwell Farm and Hops-Meister, a hops farm. Since there are no local malt houses, Eatwell had to ship its barley to Colorado Malt Company, which hand-malts in small batches.
In launching the Locavore Ale, Silberstein had hoped to enlist more local craft brewers to commit to purchasing organic malting barley from Eatwell Farm, but the buy-in wasn’t there, and the farm has since abandoned the project.
“You have to get enough brewers who want to tell a story, who want to have an heirloom varietal of the barley, and who are willing to pay a premium for that,” Silberstein says. He is hoping to build momentum to start a small artisan malting facility, which would make local, small-batch malting more feasible.
While the process of reconnecting local brewers and beer drinkers with local farms still has a long way to go, Silberstein and Friedman are optimistic that the farm-to-bottle movement is growing. “We need to build larger systems to support local brewing, and that’s a challenge we’re excited to tackle,” says Friedman. “In the meantime, we’ve contented ourselves with highlighting specialty ingredients from local farms.”