From Field to Ferment

WNC Breweries are crafting a market for the local farm economy.

FROM THE MOMENT you walk into the taproom of Burial Beer Company you can feel that it is a celebration of the land. The cyclical nature of the world is captured in old farm tools gracing the walls and tap handles, images of harvest and rebirth, and flavors both bold and familiar. Burial Beer Company, co-owner and Head Brewer, Tim Gormley has a love affair with the people of the land and the flavors which capture the essence of agriculture.
“The whole idea of a farmhouse brewery is so romantic. The concept of brewing with what’s available on the farm at the time, the rustic quality you get from brewing with raw grains in makeshift, dairy equipment, the idea of brewing for the farm workers…” Gormley says, “…it’s just such a beautiful amalgamation of necessity and art and craft.”
It comes as no surprise that in this age of “Farm to Table” restaurants and a thriving beer industry that craft breweries are returning to the land for inspiration and ingredients. “There are talented and creative farmers all over the region that are growing things that we can’t help but want to experiment with.” Gormley continues.
The U.S. craft brewing market is home to over four thousand breweries and growing. In 2014, the Brewers Association reported an economic impact of $1.2 Billion in craft brewing in North Carolina alone. This growth has created a wonderful opportunity for small farmers with a penchant toward creativity and the drive to join this armada of brewers. Michael Rayburn, of Rayburn Farm in Barnardsville, NC is one of these local farmers who recognized the potential.
Rayburn often uses the term “Plow to Pint” to describe the marriage between local farms and craft breweries. “We have found a lot of success working with breweries. It is not easy, there isn’t a textbook that tells you this is what to grow and here’s how to do it.” Rayburn says.
In February of 2015, Rayburn went door to door asking brewers what they wanted. As the cold winds of winter were blowing, a new chapter was germinating at Rayburn Farms. This year, Rayburn is growing a variety of crops for eight breweries across western North Carolina, and has broken into the homebrew market as well. Among the offerings are New England pie pumpkins, delicata squash, roselle hibiscus, black elderberry, and various herbs including six varieties of basil.
“Growing this diversity and having a guaranteed buyer allows us to experiment with things that a market farm is unable to.” Rayburn says.
North Carolina Barley farmers are another group who are riding the craft beer wave. In general, beer malt is produced by large companies like Cargill and Malteurop. In 2010, Brett Manning and Brian Simpson opened Riverbend Malt House, a business with the aim of supporting local farmers who were growing barley in North Carolina. Their traditional floor malting process revives the quality driven art form which faded into obscurity during prohibition.
“At first we thought that all the grain for Asheville breweries could be grown right here in Buncombe county.” says Simpson with a chuckle. The steep mountain land and more property tied up in development than agriculture made this more of a challenge than anticipated. “We have converted to a regional approach. Our malt house helps support grain farmers in a 500 mile radius.” Simpson continues.
The brewers, farmers, and beer lovers of North Carolina are creating a revolution. The state boasts hop and barley farms, a malt house, a yeast lab, perfect water, as well as innovative farmers and brewers seeking to lift the craft of brewing to new heights. Whether you prefer the intense hop forward flavors of west coast style IPA, the wild style of sours, or the full meaty body of a porter, there is one unmistakable flavor tying all these beers together – the farm.
To borrow from author Wendell Berry and Riverbend Malt House co-founder Brent Manning:

“Drinking is an agricultural act!”