Naptown Pint: Success of Maryland’s breweries tied to future of its farmsbilliej.design
There is something unique about Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm in Mt. Airy. And it goes beyond the barrel-aged smoked peach ale of theirs I tried this spring, which still haunts my dreams.
It’s a particular combination of their beer (of course), the idyllic backdrop of the rolling countryside, the family-friendly atmosphere — complete with handmade blankets for use during the colder months — and the warm feeling of community, as you survey their offered selection of local meats and cheeses.
But one of my favorite things about Milkhouse is its motto, which is as powerful as it is simple.
“No farms, no beer!”
And I couldn’t agree more. That’s why, when it comes to the Maryland beer community, local farms — and the brewers that want to see them thrive — are what I’m thankful for most this Thanksgiving.
Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes the connection between farms and beer.
I get it, though. Most consumers engage with beer at shops, restaurants and local watering holes. Or, if they do happen to venture out to their favorite brewery, they’re often tucked away in business parks, giving off more of an industrial vibe than something that’s reliant upon the land.
But just like wine, beer is an agricultural product through and through.
“I wish more people realized that when you choose to drink a beer made with locally-sourced ingredients, you’re doing much more than just enjoying the way it tastes,” Janna Howley told me this summer over a pint (or two) at the Manor Hill Brewing farm brewery in Howard County.
“It has everything to do with where those ingredients came from, the people that worked to get them there, the local economy that supported it, the jobs being provided and, ultimately, the money that’s going back into their communities.”
Haney is the director of operations and solutions at Grow and Fortify, a Baltimore-based firm focused on agricultural and food production businesses in Maryland. They represent the Brewers Association of Maryland, along with the Maryland Wineries Association and the Maryland Distillers Guild.
(In short, they’re some of my favorite people, because they’re advocating for the stuff I love.)
But as Flying Dog CMO Ben Savage said during his presentation at the Beyond Brewing Forum, hosted by Organarchy back in April, the fault doesn’t rest squarely on the shoulders of the beer drinker.
As Savage looked across the room of potential hop farmers, he said that while there is a significant opportunity in front of us for East Coast hop production, “the beer industry has done a terrible job of telling the story of beer as an agricultural product.”
I remember listening to that talk, as I sat perched on my bar stool at Vanish Beer in Lucketts, Virginia, and that line hitting me like a ton of bricks. He was right — but how do you fix that?
Ben Little, head brewer at Manor Hill, painted the scene for us, as we sipped on his brews.
“Working here is incredibly peaceful. You have the cows off to the left, and corn starting to grow on the right. Then the hops are coming in. It might be 4 a.m. when I’m rolling in, but when I arrive here every day, life does not suck,” Little shared.
“I come in, I open all of the doors, and I watch the sun come up… and then I realize I get to do what I love.”
But he also pointed out that as the local Maryland beer industry continues to grow, the availability and connectivity between farmers and brewers is going to become that much more important.
“I try and tap into everything I can,” he said. “If I had the availability right now to get malted wheat or malted rye — anything like that — I’d use it as much as possible.”
Howley echoed, “Our brewers would love to use more Maryland ingredients, but we don’t have the infrastructure in place to make those ingredients available to them. We don’t have hop processing. We don’t have a malting house, etc.”
“Absolutely,” Little agreed. “I would use more if I could, but it’s just not there right now.”
Grow and Fortify Director of Strategy and Special Projects Kelly Dudeck, who joined Howley, Little and myself at Manor Hill that day back in June, broke it down further:
“Maryland is like American in miniature, from an agriculture perspective. We have a wide variety of climates in different areas — and you can grow just about everything you can in the rest of the country here, as a result.”
But as brewers struggle to find enough locally-sourced ingredients to sustain desired production volumes, many local farmers are also facing their challenges. Because, as Howley pointed out, our diverse agricultural landscape is also fragmented.
And Maryland farmers are sometimes left scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to make their land profitable.
“One of the ways to do that is to take something from the farm that they produce and create a value-added agriculture product out of it,” she said. “Coming up with an additional business line like that can make their farm economically viable for their children or their grandchildren – that leads to land preservation around our state.”
But even if we, as consumers, were more educated, both farmers and brewers have uphill battles to climb.
For instance, when the production and farm brewery bill was brought up by the County Council in 2015, there was no community push-back for the former. But as soon as feedback was solicited during the meeting for farm breweries, residents shared their dissent with passion, including concerns of safety and community disruption.
The bill passed, ultimately, but there is still friction between farm breweries and their communities across Maryland – both in the literal and figurative sense.
“You can see the tension in the landscape,” Dudeck pointed out. “Driving to Manor Hill today was so interesting to me. You see people with their houses, who want this beautiful, bucolic countryside. And everyone says they want to preserve this land, but the tension lies in how we choose to preserve it.”
Then there are the brewery owners, many of whom are far exceeding the amount of time and money they had allotted to get their brewery off the ground.
Howley shared how a brewery that opened northeast of Baltimore struggled initially.
“When we looked at how much time and money (the owner) had budgeted for this to happen, he blew that out of the water,” she shared.
This is something I’ve heard myself from brewers and others time and time again: When it comes to starting your own brewery, the bureaucratic landscape at both the county and state level in Maryland is almost prohibitive, if not completely unwelcoming, in some areas.
I know focusing on this kind of conflict is a strange tone to strike for Thanksgiving.
But as Dudeck said to me, “I wish people would be proud of Maryland beer the way they’re proud of Old Bay.”
I want that, too. And I would even take that a step further.
I want Maryland to not only be proud of our beer, but also our brewers and farmers. They aren’t an enemy to be thwarted – they only want to create a sustainable business for themselves that they love, while also doing their part to lift up their communities and preserve the agriculture that surrounds them.
So, that’s why this year I’m thankful for farms. (And the brewers that already love them or “live” on them.)
We still have a long way to go, and we may not yet have the champions in government like they do down in Virginia. But I’d like to think this is just the beginning of our story.
Liz Murphy lives in Annapolis with her husband, Patrick, and their two lazy dogs, Horatio and Nugget. Liz also runs her own Annapolis-based beer blog, Naptown Pint. You can usually find her kicking back a pint (or four) at 1747 Pub off Church Circle. Or you can just set a scotch ale out on your porch, and she’ll be there in five minutes. You can reach her at [email protected].