Friday, April 1, 2011

Organic or Local or Seasonal (or Does it Matter)?

As I've mentioned before, the market for craft beer in North Carolina (both brewing it and appreciating it) is a lively and healthy beast these days. Just about every small brewery in the state has a solid, tasty example of a dark stout, a crystal-clear lager, a fruity weizen… the list goes on, and it's certainly an enjoyable one to explore. But more interesting to me (as a self-proclaimed beer snob and potential entrepreneur within this segment of the community) are the lengths to which some of these progressive breweries are going in order to become more sustainable and more socially responsible, all while brewing a solid pint of beer.

Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston utilizes an array of solar panels for power, pulls tap handles made from bamboo, walks around on eco carpet and utilizes a tankless water heater for their hot liquor. They even use old blue jeans as insulation within their walls and their head brewer Josh recently traded his car for a bike. That's pretty awesome.

Highland Brewing Company in Asheville adopted the Swannanoa River, participating in annual cleanup efforts. And instead of charging for their brewery tours, they request the donation of canned food items that are then provided to the Manna Food Bank.

Durham's Fullsteam Brewery takes pride in their lofty mission to "develop a Southern craft beer identity". They also have a test recipe in the works called "300 Mile", which will be made with ingredients found only within a 300-mile radius of their headquarters in central NC (an ambitious goal, if you're familiar with the process of brewing beer).

This last project is one after my own heart. Next spring, we're planning to open our own brewery called Haw River Farmhouse Ales in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, just west of the Triangle region of the state. Saxapahaw is located in what could be considered "rural" NC, although it's about as progressive as they come. Although the bustling little town only covers a shade over five square miles of North Carolina's backyard, it boasts a number of cultural and natural draws, and between the Saxapahaw General Store, the Eddy Pub, the Haw River Wine Trail, Paperhand Puppet Intervention, the Hawbridge School… (the list goes on, so apologies if you're being left out), Saxapahaw is growing into quite a regional destination with a unique personality.

So when we decided to plant our brew-soaked feet in Saxapahaw, the first question we asked while looking at our recipe collection was "What should Haw River Farmhouse Ales brew?" One of our earliest desires was to establish a Belgian-style farmhouse brewery, which we thought would fit perfectly into the area for a number of reasons, so we then had to ask ourselves what type of beer would make the most sense, and then more importantly, how that beer should be made. Should our ingredients be traditional Belgian (imported), or locally sourced? Should they be organic? Should they be seasonal, and therefore more natural? And how do these decisions impact both the cost and availability of what we'll offer our patrons? And further, will it matter to the folks who tip back a pint either way?

The challenge with locally sourcing a brewery's ingredients in this manner lies in the geographic availability of such ingredients (hence my interest in and appreciation for Fullsteam's 300 Mile project). Unlike a small restaurant, which can more easily source most of its ingredients from local farms and dairies, a brewery and its product line both have specific needs; hops and barley usually can't just be planted in your backyard garden with great results, at least not on a commercial scale (and even after the grain is harvested, it needs to be malted, a process which only a few companies in the world handle on a large scale these days), to say nothing of any added adjuncts, fruit, sugars, specialty grains, etc. North Carolina State University has a few pilot programs in place researching regional hops development, but last I checked, the closest maltster was more than a few miles away.

I recently asked our Facebook and Twitter followers which they preferred in their favorite brew: locally-sourced ingredients or organically-grown ingredients? The consensus seemed to be split, for the most part — many preferred local ingredients, while slightly fewer found organic ingredients of importance (my assumption is that general "ignorance" of the brewing process may have lent some weight to these particular results). Also, I assume folks that don't really care how their beer is made probably didn't bother to answer, since I know there are plenty out there who don't find it important (oh, you crazy Miller Chill drinkers and your inebriated indifference…). In a perfect world, we'd be able to source local, organic ingredients and brew beer with those raw building blocks mere days after they're harvested (and for the record, that's our goal at Haw River Farmhouse Ales). But with a brewery, that's not really an option just yet. The ingredients are certainly available, but if you order 55-pound bags of organic grain from hundreds of miles away, how does that affect the net impact on your goals?

So what do you think? Is it better for a brewery to create local brews using non-traditional ingredients (which in turn, may or may not be responsibly grown), or should they look toward organic ingredients from further away than seems to make sense? Is certified organic beer a trendy phase on the fringe of a movement, or a harbinger of craft beer's next step into its increasing market share? Do brewers have the same social responsibilities as, say, chefs? Or do challenges with sourcing ingredients give beermakers a "pass" with their customers? For that matter, do their customers even care? So many questions and options… I think I'll go have a beer.

1 comment:

  1. I think that you have, in some ways, answered your own question. You mentioned that you got quite a split on the organic vs. local vs. seasonal debate. Certainly as a commercial brewery you have to consider what your potential customers are going to be drawn to. Why not consider all options? Certainly you could have a few “standard”, traditional brews but have the occasional organic or seasonal one for those that care about it strongly. I’m sure any of your fans would agree that coming up with a strictly local beer may be difficult to accomplish in a cost-effective way. They might care that it’s local, but would they still care if it cost them $15 a pint to have it that way? Personally speaking, I would be thrilled to see a beer with SOME local ingredients. Aren’t sweet potatoes one of NC’s largest exports? Is a sweet potato Stout out of the question? You could still utilize your imported hops, but put a little NC flair in there. I also feel the importance of using local resources, both because of job stimulation and the environmental impact of transporting materials. Don’t forget that part of being sustainable is keeping yourself in business too. I wouldn’t bank everything on a possible trend that may not keep someone from picking up a case of Miller instead of a Farmhouse Ale.