What’s Brewing on the Farm?

10/20/2012 7:00 AM
By Laurie Savage Maryland Correspondent

3-State Tour Highlights Artisanal Alcohol Production

Artisanal alcohol production facilities are popping up in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, prompting a tour last month hosted by Future Harvest — A Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.

Tour participants were treated to an inside look at a brewery, cidery, vineyard and limoncello distillery.

Amy Crone, an agriculture marketing specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture who attended the tour, said an increasing number of farms are looking to get into such new and diverse areas as artisanal alcohol production.

“Farmers benefit through an opportunity to diversify their products as well as their sales outlets, providing potential new income streams and an opportunity to engage directly with their consumers,” Crone said. “Consumers benefit from being able to access the producers and get to know where the products that they are consuming come from, as well as the opportunity to learn more about agriculture.”

Vineyards and wineries are the most prolific, with many new ones opening in Virginia, said Vicki Fedor of North Gate Vineyard in Purcellville, Va., on of the stops on the tour.

About six acres of wine grapes are grown at the farm, with additional fruit brought in from farms within Loudoun County.

“Everybody is jumping on the wine bandwagon,” she said. “There is a huge demand for wine grapes.”

The facility distinguished itself from the industry with the addition about a year and a half ago of a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold building.

“It was the final piece we needed,” she said, in order for her and her husband to devote themselves full-time to the business. “We wanted to be aware of our environment.”

The building includes a roofline full of solar panels and a television inside where patrons can view the energy savings.

Besides the blossoming vineyard and winery business, distilleries and breweries are among the more fledgling ventures gaining ground in the area. Here’s a look at those featured on the tour:

Stillpoint Farm

Carol McConaughy and Tom Barse took advantage of Maryland’s new on-farm brewery legislation and will open the state’s first on-farm production facility and tasting room in November.

Standing in Stillpoint Farm’s newly constructed tasting room, Barse said several farmers and brewers worked on legislation, particularly to bring county and state regulations into agreement.

“We modeled the legislation after the recent winery modernization act,” he said.

Equipment for whipping up the first brews is being delivered to the Mount Airy farm.

“We can make 10 barrels at a time with this system,” he said, and the brews are ready to drink fresh in just a few weeks.

Four years ago, Barse began growing his own hops after making his own home brews for many years. Good hops were hard to find, he said.

He went to a local craft beer festival and handed out his homegrown hops to brewers. Soon after, he found himself meeting with a brewer and began charging $18 a pound for his hops.

“I have a waiting list of breweries who can’t wait,” the Northeast Hop Alliance director said.

Brewers pay a premium for local hops, and there are five producing farms in Maryland with more on the way. In a good year after several years of growing hops, a farmer can make about $10,000 per acre of hops grown, Barse said.

In the first year, the plants send down deep tap roots, followed by a half crop the next year.

One positive aspect of growing hops is that they can be harvested, bagged and sold as is with no processing required.

This year, Barse hopes to harvest one to two pounds of dry hops per plant. Plants that are irrigated can yield as much as three to six pounds.

He grows two varieties of hops on his farm and is hoping to cultivate and experiment with hops growing on a neighboring farm.

Producing hops requires a large start-up investment. Plants are grown several feet apart with several strings running up from each hill to a sturdy wire 18 feet above. Wires run to large poles at the end of each row.

Plants are also subject to issues, such as powdery mildew. Barse allows his Leicester Longwool sheep to graze the hops bushes down after they are finished producing for the year to decrease disease.

Because growing and harvesting hops is rather labor intensive, Barse fabricated two pieces of equipment to assist in removing hops from vines and separating leaves from hops.

In addition to the hops, farmers and researchers are working together to identify suitable varieties of barley to grow on Maryland farms.

“We’re planting five acres of experimental barley,” Barse said.

For more information, visit www.stillpointfarming.com.

Distillery Lane Ciderworks

The land on which Distillery Lane Ciderworks sprang up is as deep-rooted in history as the apple trees that grow there.

The property just outside Burkittsville, Md., is officially known as “The Encampment.” During the Civil War, specifically the Battle of Crampton’s Gap, the farm was used as a camp for Union soldiers, according to the company website.

Robin Miller and his wife, Patty Power, bought the farm 15 years ago and planted the apple orchard 12 years ago with the intent of producing hard cider for on-site sales.

A long list of apples, mostly English and French cider varieties, are grown on the former dairy farm with sandy loam soil. About 30 varieties grow on just under 10 acres of trees.

“Very few you would see in the grocery store,” Miller said.

A few older American varieties are also grown. The Newtown Pippin apple, one favored by some of the country’s forefathers, was not one of Miller’s favorites, he said, after giving it a try.

Several members of the Mount Vernon ladies auxiliary called Miller interested in several old varieties cultivated by George Washington for making brandy.

The Kingston Black is grown for the only single variety cider marketed by the cidery. The whole orchard would be planted in this variety, except for the every-other-year fruiting and disease-prone quality of the apple.

Miller says anybody dissatisfied with his baking apples after making a pie is more than welcome to return the pie remains for their money back.

The farm’s old milking facility is now the fermentation and bottling area. Everything is bottled by hand. Outside the facility in a small garden bed grow a few newly grafted apple trees. All the trees were purchased at start-up, but replacing trees is more easily done by starting them themselves.

“We grow our fruit on semi-dwarf rootstocks,” Miller said. Smaller dwarf trees do not root well and snap easily in bad weather.

As different varieties are planted, lessons are learned. The Freedom variety of apple is a favorite of Miller’s, but blight can be an issue. To ward off the problem, trees were pruned and dropped apples cleaned up and given to farmers and hunters instead of allowing them to overwinter.

“We spray as little as possible,” he said. “Ninety percent of our apples go to cider, so we’re not worried about how it looks.”

He does spray for summer rots. Kaolin clay is used on the apples to coat them and deter stinkbugs. Everything is irrigated and pruned every year.

Tests are done to determine the sugar level before harvest, which is important to cider making. The starting sugar is directly related to the level of alcohol in the end product, he said. This year, the fruit is ahead of schedule by three weeks.

A new venture is several rows of aronia with berries that are high in antioxidants. Research is being done on adding the juice to ciders with the added benefit of a nice red color.

Electric fence and dogs help deter deer, as well as hanging dryer sheets on newly planted trees to keep deer from gnawing on them.

For more information, visit http://distillerylaneciderworks.com.

Bloomery Plantation Distillery

Forty lemon trees grow on a secluded property that can be reached at the end of a winding driveway in West Virginia’s countryside.

The state’s first on-farm distillery, located outside Charles Town, was established in 2011 by Linda Losey and Tom Kiefer. The duo took a trip to Italy and discovered limoncello, followed by a period of experimentation to replicate the hand-crafted flavor they found there through their own farm-fresh fruit cordials, according to the company website.

The farm produces several types of limoncello, an after-dinner dessert liquor, said Miranda Slone, a manager who worked behind the bar as samples were passed around. When dining in Italy and after having too much to eat, the liquor is served instead of dessert.

“It is nice and sweet to kick the sweet tooth,” she said.

The farm’s lemon trees were imported from the southern Alps, which is similar to the West Virginia climate, said Adam Mullins, who lead a tour of the small farm.

Lemons begin from purple buds, which turn to white flowers and eventually to “baby lemons,” he said. The trees fruit year round.

As the lemons began to form on the trees, smaller ones are removed to make room for just a few in each cluster. Leaves of the trees carry a distinct lemon scent as well. Lava rocks placed around the trees provide a long-lasting source of iron, and praying mantis are released in the greenhouse to control spider mites.

The greenhouse is temperature controlled during the cold months through the use of a heater and two layers of plastic between which air can be blown.

“We don’t like to get below 40 degrees,” Mullins said.

In the summer, the sides can be rolled up and a shadecloth added when temperatures soar above 100 degrees.

While the lemons take five years to arrive at production, lemons for the farm’s products are imported from California, he said.

The plantation is also growing an acre of raspberries for the raspberry limoncello, and other products from local farms are brought on site to make other flavors, such as peaches and cream.

“This is our newest flavor,” Slone said, and a variety of peach had to be selected to lend a nice peach color to the final product.

Enough raspberries came from the farm this year to make several batches of cello, Mullins said, and eventually other produce will be grown, possibly apples, pears, blackberries and cherries.

The distillery is the only maker of the raspberry limoncello worldwide, with a dark chocolate raspberry flavor also available. The mixture involved experimentation with various types of chocolate as well as a lot of filtering.

“We hand filter everything,” Slone said.

The distillery is open Fridays and Saturdays year round. The main building began from an 1840s-era cabin in the center with portions on each side that were added later. Mullins said wood for the new sections was brought from C&O Canal boats.

For more information, visit www.bestlimoncello.com.

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