Why North Carolina Farmers Are Partnering With Local Breweries
Small-batch beer-making is booming in North Carolina, triggering opportunities for farmers who are open to exploring these budding markets. Partnerships with brewers can work both ways, with some farmers supplying ingredients and others recycling the nutritious, distilled grain to feed their livestock.
From Byproducts to Beef
Dennis Martin, co-owner of the fourth-generation Martins’ Charolais Farm in Fallston, is quick to point out that the idea of feeding brewer’s grain to farm animals is nothing new. “Cattlemen have been doing that ever since they’ve been making beer,” he says, “so pretty much forever.”
Martin’s connection to Newgrass Brewing Co. in Shelby began four years ago, when the farmer who’d been hauling off the fledgling brewery’s wet grain, a byproduct of the brewing process, decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. Since then, Martin has picked up about a ton of the product each week, pulling up behind the brewing company in his truck and loading it into tubs to take to his farm. The most common brewer’s grain is barley, but the mixture – “it looks a little like oatmeal,” Martin says – sometimes contains wheat, oats or rice.
Although the wet grain weighs twice as much as its dry counterpart, making it heavy to lift, Martin says he benefits financially because it’s basically no cost to pick up the grain. “And I do them a service to remove it from their property,” he adds.
The barley-based byproduct also supplements the grass and grain his pasture-raised Charolais cows already consume. “It’s very similar to the regular grain we feed cattle, except it has been cooked in the brewing process and they have taken a lot of starches out of it. It still has good protein value and provides a lot of good fiber for the cattle,” says Martin, who also sells beef to the Newgrass Brewing chef. “It makes them grow even better.”
And no, the cows don’t get tipsy. Brewers add yeast to the juice left from the cooking process, and the liquid then ferments and turns into alcohol. Farmers like Martin only use the cooked grain.
His advice to other farmers considering a similar alliance: “You have to make the effort to go to town and meet the folks that run the brewery and communicate with them. You’ve got to talk to people in order to make connections and partnerships.”
A New Niche for Sorghum
Back in the 1970s, Peter Fleming and his dad began growing sorghum – which Fleming generally refers to as milo – partly because it was such a good drought-tolerant source of food for their hogs at Triple Creek Farm in Yadkinville. There were a few challenges, like grass control, but the sorghum only required half as much water as corn.
“I always loved growing the crop,” Fleming says. “I was always looking for another avenue for it. Sorghum’s been good to us.”
Today, Fleming raises about 150 acres of sorghum for various uses, including two small-batch beers crafted by Fullsteam Brewery in Durham. Three years ago, after hearing about the company’s interest in flavoring beer with sorghum, Fleming teamed up with Fullsteam to provide the sweet cereal grain.
“We were tickled that we were going to be able to partner with somebody that was going to make beer,” he says.
See more: From Field to Pint
So far, the microbrewery has created two seasonal offerings flavored with Triple Creek sorghum: Foxfire Sorghum IPA with a “bright tropical aroma” and Fleming’s favorite, Farm’s Edge: Triple Creek Grisette, a tart ale with a bit of a twang.
“They’re both really, really good,” Fleming says proudly. “They both have a lot of flavor.”
Because Fullsteam is a niche market and still experimenting to see which beers sell best, it only buys a fresh supply of sorghum every few months, says Fleming, who has also sold some sorghum to the brewer at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. In fact, many small breweries, he points out, need no more than 2,000 pounds a year “because they’re not Budweiser or Jack Daniel’s,” so farmers might not be able to sell high quantities to these creative customers, at least not at first.
Still, the partnership has been worth the effort, Fleming says. “The reason I started the whole process with Fullsteam is hoping that the beer that they make will catch on and it’ll be another avenue, another market, for us. It has opened doors.”
What’s more, he adds, “Where we benefit on the back side is that when they sell the beer, they’re going to get our name out there and hopefully bring other microbrewers to us, wanting our product.”
– Nancy Henderson