Farm breweries are popping up faster than the follicles on head brewer’s bearded faces.
In 1979 Ken Grossman, founder and CEO of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, made his first commercial batch of American porter on a small scale brewing outfit he fashioned himself using repurposed dairy farm equipment and old soda bottlers. In those days, Grossman’s iconic Sierra Nevada brand was a far cry from the household name it is today. But once his concept of bringing well crafted brews to America’s long-deprived beer drinking populous caught on, it spread like wildfire.
Thanks in large part to the early efforts of Grossman and others like him, today’s beer market is saturated with hundreds of styles, varieties, and brands. So saturated, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to keep up, and most craft beer connoisseurs like it that way. American beer has ceased to be a simple means to an end of inebriation. These days it’s considered by many to be a full on hobby—a passion even. Some folks brew the stuff at home in retrofitted basements and garages, while others crisscross the country in search of new breweries and emerging craft beer trends.
The current trend of “farm brewing” is taking the craft beer industry’s focus on sustainability to a whole new level. These breweries have been popping up faster than the follicles on head brewer’s faces, and several have established roots right here in the Blue Ridge. As the name implies, these rural watering holes take the beer making process a step further by actually cultivating some of their own ingredients on brewery grounds, thereby creating “estate ales” that reflect a terroir unique to their location. The following list showcases some of the best farm breweries in the Blue Ridge and beyond.
1. Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery — Virginia
This rural Virginia farm brewery is set in the rolling hills of Goochland County about 45 minutes from Richmond. On the 220-acre farm that surrounds the brewery owner Sean Pumhprey cultivates hops and barley, as well as some interesting adjunct crops likestrawberries and pumpkins. The name Lickinghole Creek pays homage to a small tributary that flows through the property, and water for all brewing operations is drawn from a deep, on-site well before being filtered and returned the area’s watershed.
The brewery and tasting room, modeled after a Virginia horse barn, are open to visitors Thursday through Sunday from 4 p.m. until sunset. LCCB’s artfully crafted offerings include such creations as the ‘Til Sunset Session IPA, the Pony Pasture Pilsner, and the Short Pump Saison. In the Fall Pumphrey plans to release an “Estate Series” which will utilize even more of the farm’s produce. Look for their beers in and around the greater Richmond area. For more information check them out on Instagram and Facebook, or go to www.lickingholecreek.com.
2. Milkhouse Brewery at Still Point Farms — Maryland
Opened during the Spring of 2013 by Stillpoint Farms owners Carol McConaughy and Tom Barse, the Milkhouse Brewery is Maryland’s first ever farm brewery. Their farmhouse brews include everything from delicate, Beligan-style Patsbiers to bigger, more hop forward IPAs and English bitters and are only available for sale in their Mt. Airy, MD taproom.
Every August, Tom and Carol invite local home brewers and craft beer enthusiasts to their remote Fredrick County location for help with an annual hope harvest. All hops are then separated from the bines by machines that Tom designed himself. Those that aren’t used in Milkhouse estate ales are sold to local Maryland brewers like Flying Dog and Heavy Seas. Milkhouse also offers kegs and growler fills. www.milkhousebrewery.com
3. Sprague Farm and Brew Works — Pennsylvania
Sprague Farm and Brew Works is located in a rural portion of Pennsylvania’s Crawford County about thirty miles from the shores of Lake Eerie. In operation since 2006, Sprague is owned by husband and wife team Brian and Minnie Sprague. The farm produces four different types of hops and much of its own barley, which the Sprague’s then malt themselves in a modified popcorn machine.
Brian Sprague has been brewing his own beer since he was nineteen, and he’s passionate about supplying his community with small-batch beers like his crisp, refreshing Marzen called the Spraguer Logger and the robust HellBender porter, named in honor of the giant salamanders that inhabit nearby French Creek. Most of Sprague’s beer is sold on the premises but some is distributed to local restaurants and bars. For information about visiting Sprague Farm and Brew Works visit www.sleepingchainsaw.com.
The Pacific Northwest has long been America’s foremost supplier of hops, but lately the state of Virginia has become an important niche producer for craft brewers throughout the Southeast. Nowhere is Virginia’s emerging potential for small-scale hop production more evident than at the Blue Mountain Brewery. Located in the heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, about 5 miles from Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park, Blue Mountain has been at the forefront of Virginia hop growing since 2006.Today Blue Mountain is harvesting two different varietals annually, 150 lbs of which go into their “wet hopped/fresh hopped” harvest celebration beer. The brewery has also teamed up with Stan Driver of Hoot ‘n’ Holler Hops in Nellysford, Virginia to form the commonwealth’s very first hop co-op. If you can’t make the highly recommended trip to Blue Mountain’s brewery and taproom in Afton, be on the lookout for their beers all over Virginia and West Virginia as well as parts of D.C, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, North Carolina, and South Carolina. www.bluemountainbrewery.com
5. Jester King Brewery — Texas
Located in the hill country of Southwest Austin, Texas, Jester King embraces its status as a farmhouse brewery in one of the most traditional ways possible. Like the authentic farmhouse breweries of Belgium and France, the folks at Jester King have managed to harness the wild yeast already present on their 200-acre farm.
They did so by inoculating a batch of wort—beer before yeast is added—during an over-night, open-air fermentation. They then sent the harvested yeast off to a lab for isolation. Add in locally sourced and malted grain and water drawn from nearby wells and you have a beer that is inextricably linked to the Texas Hill Country from which it comes. For information about distribution and taproom hours visit www.jesterkingbrewery.com.
6. Climbing Bines Hop Farm — New York State
Like Virginia, the state of New York is enjoying a veritable hop growing and farm brewing renaissance. Thanks to newly implemented laws extending tax incentives to breweries that grow and utilize local ingredients, growth in the Empire State’s farm brewing scene has reached explosive levels. In fact, the state has recorded a total of fourteen farm breweries since the law was enacted back in 2013.
One of the many New York state farm breweries enjoying success at the moment is the Climbing Bines Hop Farm. Located between Watkins Glen and Geneva near New York’s Seneca Lake, this hop farm and craft beer destination was conceived in 2007, when two home brewing buddies planted eight hop rhizomes in a small backyard garden. Today, Climbing Bines grows seven different hop varietals on 1.5 acres of land near the scenic shores of Seneca Lake. They brew nine different beers, including an imperial IPA and a hefeweizen that incorporate only estate hops and local barley. In addition to regular tasting hours and beer-centric events, Climbing Bines offers pre-scheduled tours of their scenic, lakeside hop farm. To learn more check out www.climbingbineshopfarm.com.
7. Farm Boy Farms — North Carolina
Although Farm Boy Farms doesn’t actually brew commercial batches of beer at their Pittsboro, North Carolina farm, it would be careless to leave them off a list of this nature. After all, they do supply one of the countries most prolific craft beer states with home grown hops and barley
Founded in 2011 by a home brewer named Dan Gridley and his farm savvy father in law Michael Hagar, Farm Boy Farms is currently cultivating four different grains and five hop varieties, and they serve a region that is quickly becoming one of the nation’s most sought after craft beer destinations.
Not only do Dan and Mike contend with North Carolina’s insatiable demand for home grown hops and grain, they also own and operate their own malt house—where the grain is germinated and dried to become malt—while educating home brewers and the public at large about the intricacies of small batch, hyper-local brewing. To learn more visit www.farmboybrewery.com
–Travis Hall is a regular contributor to Blue Ridge Outdoors print and online. Find more of his work here.