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Local Farms = Local Beer (Part 2)

Every Saturday morning from mid-May to late October my farm packs up our pasture raised chicken and eggs and heads to our stand at the New Milford Farmers’ Market.  Every time, I wish I could be placing a few cases of beer in the truck along with our farm goods.  One of the motivations for trying to produce and keep our product local, is the ability to get to know your frequent customers and answer questions about our operation as they come back week after week.  In that way, farmers markets are not too different from a brewery’s tasting and tap room.

While applying for Kent’s Farmhouse Brewery special permit we did not include an application for onsite tours and tastings.  This is a separate permit within the town’s zoning and planning regulations, one which we ended up deciding to postpone to a later date and focus overcoming one hurdle at a time.  To open a brewery without being allowed to give tours, pour samples, and sell a bottle of beer yourself is very very difficult.  Beyond the business disadvantages of having no retail space, it creates an unwanted distance between our consumers and us  The shared experience of seeing where a product is made, getting to know the people making it, and carrying that with you as you enjoy it off site is lost.  If Connecticut had a farm brewery law on the books as it does with farm wineries, allowing us to accomplish these goals by selling our beer at local farmers market could alleviate the impact.

Last year this almost changed (and without me having to lead the cause). In the January 2013 session of Connecticut State Senate, Bill 217 was introduced.  If passed, this bill would have allowed the sale of Connecticut made beer and spirits at farmer’s markets.  While the bill did not make it off the floor, the question of whether to try and revive it was brought up at the most recent CT Brewers’ Guild meeting (download our app!).  And I have not been able to stop thinking about it since.

[throws curveball]  Like most things you don’t have to work hard for, it would have come with a price.  The bill’s statement of purpose reads, “To allow the sale of Connecticut manufactured beer and spirits at farmers’ markets.”  I was not able to find any other information about the proposal of this bill.  If this is it, and there is no requirement to have the beer or spirits to be produced using a certain percentage of Connecticut grown ingredients I fail to see the benefit to CT farming.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, the most abundant ingredient in brewing, and also the most difficult to source locally, is malted barley.  Rarely do brewers know who is growing their grain, even rarer is an economic benefit (aside from spent grain) to their local agricultural community.  Most malt is ordered through large distributors and come from a handful of gigantic malt houses in the midwest or abroad.  I frequently receive flyers in the mail from Cargill encouraging me to buy their malt.  For those that aren’t aware, Cargill is one of the largest agribusinesses and mega-corporations in the country.  They produce and use GMO seed, chemical pesticides and fertilizers among other industrial agricultural practices to which my farm seeks to provide an alternative to.

I look around to our neighboring states and see the positive effect that farm brewery laws have had on and want the same for Connecticut.  By requiring a minimum use of ingredients grown in state, they allowed farm breweries to serve pints on premise and receive lower licensing fees.  In turn, the states have seen their agricultural communities willing to invest the time and effort in producing ingredients for brewing.  In Massachusetts, Valley Malt has grown by leaps and bounds each year, providing brewers large and small (including us!) with malt for their beers; putting craft malting back on the map.  Since NY passed their farm brewery law in 2012 more than 14 farm breweries have opened, acres in hop production have doubled each year, and a handful of craft malts houses have opened up as well.

In my opinion, for local agriculture to be a success it must be diverse and tied to economically viable and scalable industries.  Reconnecting breweries across the country with a more local supply chain for malt, hops, and other fermentables will help do just that.  Allowing breweries to sell at a farmers market without requiring that they use state produced ingredients will not.  For that reason, I’m not upset this bill died where it did and I will continue to push for a state wide inclusion of brewing and distilling into the definition of agriculture and passage of a Connecticut Farm Brewery Law.

We have truly great brewers in Connecticut, and now it’s time to make a push for truly local beer.