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Beer: Farm-to-glass drinking

The makings of Estate Homegrown Ale. (Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.)

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. calls it an “estate beer.” Rogue Ales uses the term “GYO” (“grow your own”).

Either way, it refers to a beer brewed with barley and hops cultivated by the brewery itself.

In Chico, Calif., Sierra Nevada employs two full-time farmers to tend to 30 acres of barley and 9 acres of hops adjacent to the brewery. The yield goes into making an autumnal seasonal, Estate Homegrown Ale, that’s now on the market in 25-ounce bottles. Only 800 barrels were brewed, reports spokesman Bill Manley, and that’s a thin stretch for the entire country.

The fresh barley (a standard two-row malting variety) adds a nice underpinning of sweetness, but the malt is a supporting player in this beer; the hops are the headliners. Three varieties -- Cascade, Chinook and Citra -- give the beer a sharp, grapefruity aroma that mellows into a more complex fruitiness (there are notes of peach, melon and mango) after a few sips.

Sierra Nevada has no machinery for drying and pelletizing the hops, so the hops are added in whole-flower form right after they’re hand-picked (a process called “wet-hopping”). I expected to pick up some earthy, grassy, green vegetable nuances, but what surprised me -- and Manley backed me up on this -- was a distinct whiff of cedar.

“I wonder if it has anything to do with terroir,” he mused. Terroir is a French term for the effect the geography of a region -- its temperature, rainfall, soil -- has on a particular crop. Chico, notes Manley, is infamous for hot, dry summers that cause locally grown hops to mature about three weeks earlier than they would in the prime hop-growing region around Yakima, Wash.

While Sierra Nevada produces a single-estate beer, Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore., has released five beers so far under its Chatoe Rogue appellation. The brewery leases land from Oregon farmers to produce the raw materials for these beers: 265 acres for growing barley (two varieties called Risk and Dare) and 42 acres for raising seven strains of hop. “We don’t own the land, but we supply the capital and labor and we take the economic risk,” says brewery president Brett Joyce.

First Growth OREgasmic Ale is a hoppy amber ale with a clingy tan head, a peachy aroma and an earthy, dry bitterness. It’s quite appetizing, and would accentuate a variety of foods, including spicy ethnic cuisines.

First Growth Creek Ale, a cherry beer, is a murky reddish-brown with a tart, fruity aroma and flavor that gives way to a long, dry, almost woody finish. (Joyce says they use whole fruit, rather than a puree.) The label offers an overload of information (down to the latitude and longitude of the Rogue “micro” hopyard and barley farm), but does not state the source of the Montmorency cherries used in the brew. “No, we didn’t grow them,” admits Joyce; they came from Michigan.

Other beers in the series include Chatoe Rogue Single Malt Ale (currently on the market in the DC area), Chatoe Rogue Wet Hop Ale (just hitting the local market) and Chatoe Rogue Dirtoir Black Lager (due to return in January).

Will we see more breweries attempting state beers?

Manley is pessimistic. Most breweries don’t have the real estate for growing their own ingredients, he notes. Moreover, these beers are expensive to make. According to Manley, Sierra Nevada president Ken Grossman has estimated that when you factor in the labor, it costs him $170 to grow a pound of hops, compared to $2 a pound he’d pay on the open market. Getting his fields certified organic set him back “in the tens of thousands.”

However, a few European breweries are trying out this concept, including Fuglebjerggaard, an organic farm brewery in Helsinge, Denmark that not only grows barley and hops but operates its own micro-malting facility. (Both Sierra Nevada and Rogue Ales ship their barley to other companies to be malted, although Rogue intends to have its own floor-malting facility completed within the next three weeks.)

The East Coast should soon have its own estate beer. Tom Barse, who grows hops at his Stillpoint Farm in Mt. Airy, Md., hopes to open a microbrewery, Milkhouse Brewery, next spring. Barse has experimented with growing barley as well, and intends to sow a couple acres with spring barley in 2011. Meanwhile, Jesse Morgan, a farmer in West Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, is setting up a malting operation in an old barn on his Ripon Lodge Farm. “We’re planning on getting together this weekend or the next weekend,” Barse adds.

A local beer made from locally grown and processed ingredients? That would be a locavore’s delight.

Correction to last week’s blog post: When Stone Brewing Co.’s Greg Koch took over 40 taps at Churchkey on Oct. 3, he said he believed he set a record for most beers from a single brewery served simultaneously at one location. Shortly after the blog was posted, Dan Kopman of Schlafly Brewing Co. in St. Louis sent me a jpeg of 50 Schlafly beers on tap at the Beer Sellar in Newport, Ky.

Will Kopman bring his cornucopia of brews to the District? “You never know,” he answers, adding that he’ll be in town the first week of December to lobby Congress on behalf of small brewers.

-- Greg Kitsock

By Greg Kitsock  | October 18, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock, beer  
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While it's not strictly in the "beer" universe, Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia, malts 100% of their own barley, which is specially grown for them on a farm that they partially own. It's quite a task, and would be virtually impossible to perform on the scale that Sierra Nevada needs, but locally-focused microbreweries should be able to malt enough to make less than a thousand barrels a year (which is VERY small).

Posted by: rwc20011 | October 20, 2010 7:55 AM | Report abuse

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