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Friday, December 12, 2008

Localvore Movement Goes Beery

Five years ago I read a story in Harper's Magazine that revolutionized the way I thought about food. It was really the vanguard of a now well-documented movement devoted to eating local. In the Harper's piece, Bill McKibben described a diner in Barre, Vermont that tried to buy all its produce locally. At the time, it was a radical idea. There weren't so many local producers--gigantism had wiped out most of the family farms. The remaining local producers already had contracts with huge conglomerates. And thanks to the streamlined national food-production network, there weren't local producers growing the diversity owner Tod Murphy needed.

Since there weren't any Vermont pork producers, Murphy found a 15-year-old kid to do it on his parents' dairy farm. He had to build his own smoker to cure the pork. And so it went. Murphy had to build up a micro network of producers who were willing to disconnect from the national/global food chain and sell directly to him. (If you are a subscriber, you can log on to the Harper's webpage and see the archived article here.)

The virtues were manifold: small farmers could make more money selling to Murphy and could survive as small-scale producers; Murphy got local food that was healthier and tastier than what he could find in the national marketplace; it helped create a sense of community and began to rebuild local connections between producer and retailer; the money stayed in the local marketplace; the carbon footprint required to produce the food dropped substantially; and on and on.

The movement has gained a lot of traction, and now we're seeing breweries get into the action:

A few yards from his brewhouse at Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, Virginia, Taylor Smack, owner and brewmaster, shows me his little field of dreams. One year ago, on a quarter-acre plot, Smack planted 200 hop vines, climbing plants that produce the flowers that are used to make beer. Today he admits that his yield wasn't quite what he'd hoped for. He didn't water the plants enough, he says, and he used the wrong fertilizer. Standing between thin rows of his plants, Smack reaches up and picks off a bud. "These are kind of pathetic looking compared with a German hops yard, where they grow thick and bushy and 30 feet high. But we're trying," he says. "We don't claim to be farmers."

Eco-conscious foodies already know the "buy local" mantra, and for good reason: reduce the miles a product travels from farm to table and you typically reduce its carbon footprint. But for many, including Smack, buying local is about something more. It's about establishing a sense of place, knowing where your food comes from, and supporting your own community. Smack is trying to apply these principles to his beer. And so despite his obvious shortcomings as a farmer, Smack continues to tend his fields, because he can't get locally grown hops unless he goes out and grows them himself.
Leave aside the fact that he doesn't know how to grow hops (planted a year ago, it's no wonder his yield sucked), this is a great trend. He's trying to do what the Farmer's Diner did:
Toward the end of my visit, Smack walks me out the back door of the brewery to show me the irrigation system he's set up: he's recycling the wastewater from his brewery and using it to water his hop vines.... Smack has a lot of loyal patrons, and he's even opened a restaurant in his brewhouse that will soon feature beef and lamb raised on a nearby farm and fed with Blue Mountain Brewery's leftover barley.
Smack is trying to figure out where to get local barley, but it's just not grown in Virginia. He has a local who is willing to help him grow hops, and maybe he can find someone to grow some barley for him, too. (Gentleman farming is big in the South, right?)

It would be great to see this happen all over the country--or at least where barley and hops can be reasonably grown (counterintuitively, not everything local is green; if farmers have to use too much energy--power for greenhouses, petrol-derived fertilizers, precious water in arid climates--it takes more energy to grow local than to ship from, say, Oregon).

Since I spent yesterday castigating Rogue, let me at least tip my hat to them here. It is the only Oregon brewery I know of that has begun hop and barley cultivation. The motivation may have been financial as much as environmental, but that does nothing to diminish the impact.

The benefits of local production could extend well beyond lowering carbon footprints. The hop market is one of the most streamlined, global markets in agriculture, and small breweries often get crunched by the demands of the giants. Hop growers cater their crops producers like In-Bev, which mainly demand super-high-alpha varieties that maximize the bitter-to-dollar ratio. Why not? You can't taste hops in Bud, anyway.

Perhaps local cultivation would lead growers to develop specialized hops that would thrill craft beer lovers. American brewing is distinguished mainly by our citric hops, but why should it stop there? Local cultivation creates the opportunity for rebuilding those connections between brewer and grower, creating the opportunity for collaboration. What about organic hops--it's a lot easier if you've trying to convince a 10-acre producer. You get the point.

So cheers to Virginia's Blue Mountain, and cheers to Rogue. May you be only the start of a much larger trend.


  1. I don't know too much about all the specifics of Rogue's business, but I do know that they have been very active in local sourcing - including even the kobe beef they serve so proudly.

    I don't know if this puts them at the vanguard of the local breweries, but I suspect so.

    Rogue has taken a bit of a beating over the Green Dragon thing, but they are a pretty cool company.

  2. I don't get it!

    They are screwing the public by selling short pints, that are costing almost double that(by ounces) of Bridgeport.... but! Because they use local resources it's all OK??

    Am I reading this correct??

    Does this mean, it's OK that we all get financially screwed, as long as they kiss the babies?

  3. There are many bennefits to local food production/consumption, and I practice it whenever possible. However, an argument can be made that reducing a carbon foot is not one of them.

    I don't necessarily agree one way or the other, but I also don't think it should be taken as fact. Like I said, an argument can be made.

  4. That should read:


    for some reason part of the word tangerines got cut off.

  5. Joe, that's why I put in the counter-intuitive aside. However, it's very difficult to imagine how growing hops near your Virginia brewery--watered by your wastewater--could have a greater footprint than those shipped from Yakima.

  6. Jeff - are the hops going to be dried? If so by what means? Does the efficiency differential of the kilning in Yakima offset the extra miles traveled? Does Yakima use hydropower vs. coal in Virginia so even if the energy used is equal or less Yakima has the cleaner source.

    I'm not trying to be a wet blanket. Like I said, I think there are lots of positives to local consumption. But it wasn't difficult for me to imagine a senario where it was better to ship than grow and process your own on hops on a carbon emitting basis.

  7. Uh, kilning. Yeah, you're right. No idea how they'll dry the hops. But if they go with an old-fashioned oast house, they're back in business!