How does a new craft brewer stand apart from the pack? A few have hitched their brewery onto the local food bandwagon, sourcing the ingredients that form beer’s DNA straight from the fields around them.
Last year, more than 400 breweries opened nationwide. It shouldn’t surprise that the craft beer industry is growing at a tremendous rate. In some states, like Colorado, there are so many craft breweries they’re starting to blend together.
Kyle Carbaugh’s Wiley Brewing Company is half-finished. Right now it’s just bare floors, a framed bar, and four industrial size brew tanks in a former cinderblock factory in Greeley, Colo. The area is already home to numerous microbreweries – familiar names like New Belgium Brewing and Odell Brewing in nearby Fort Collins. So Carbaugh says it became very clear that he needed to be different.
“At the end of the day, beer is an agricultural commodity through and through,” said Carbaugh. “There’s a huge thing going on with the local food movement and farmer’s markets and ‘know your farmer,’ that kind of thing. And the question came up to us, why isn’t anybody doing this?”
To answer Carbaugh’s question, breweries in the Pacific Northwest have perfected the art of a “farm to glass” beer. Few have sprouted elsewhere though. In southern Colorado farm country, the idea is starting to take root.
Water, malt, hops, and yeast are the basic ingredients of beer. While breweries focus on the art of brewing, Jason Cody is perfecting the art of craft malt. Since 2008 Cody’s Colorado Malting Company has been malting barley and wheat from his own fields. He works with specialty grains too, like millet and quinoa. He then sells bags of malt to craft brewers throughout Colorado, like Kyle Carbaugh.
And business is booming.
“The first full year we were in business we sold 20,000 pounds inside the state of Colorado,” said Cody. “And our projection for this year, which we’re right on target with, is about half a million.”
Even half a million pounds isn’t enough to satisfy brewery owners who want to create and sell a hyper local beer.
“There are only so many guys you can take care of. With brewers it’s repeat business,” said Cody. “So they brew a beer and then when it’s time to brew again they need more malt so they’ve got to come back and buy more malt. But then it’s hard to pick up new guys sometimes when you’re in that position, because what do you do?”
It's also tough to keep with the demand for locally grown hops. Three states, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, produce more than 90 percent of the nation's crop. The amount of hops grown in other parts of the country isn't even tracked. Growth in hops production has been slow in Colorado, a state where the craft brewing industry is accelerating quickly.
Zach Weakland and his father saw an opening to set themselves apart. They took their supply into their own hands when they started High Hops Brewery in Windsor, Colo. A two-acre hops farm sits adjacent to the brewery's tasting room. He compares the set up to a winery, where you enjoy a glass of wine while looking out onto the vineyards. Only replace grapevines with hops.
"You come here for the experience on top of the good beer," Weakland said. "How many other places can you sit out the patio and look out on the hops and see where your beer comes from?"
Steve Kurowski with the Colorado Brewers Guild says craft malting and small hops farms are just starting to take off, allowing breweries to source locally.
“There’s just so much beer being brewed now, and the movement to supply local hops and local grain is just getting started,” said Kurowski. That supply hasn’t caught up with the demand yet.
Kyle Carbaugh is still trying to navigate where his supplies will come from for his unfinished brewery in Greeley. His malt will be Colorado grown, but his hops will come from Washington. Eventually he hopes to pour a completely Colorado grown glass of beer.
“It’s really all about telling a story, right?,” said Carbaugh. “Through a product or through materials.”
Until his brewery opens up, it’s a story Carbaugh will still be writing.
Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. To learn more, visit harvestpublicmedia.org, like Harvest Public Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.