Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How Local is Your Beer?

We Ashevillians love to buy local. From our numerous small businesses to our weekly markets scattered across town, there is no shortage of love for everything Asheville. This love also extends to our beer. In Beer City, you would be hard pressed not to find several local beers on tap in just about every bar and dining establishment in town. Unfortunately, our beers are not exactly local, and presently it is impossible to brew a truly local beer on a brewery sized scale. I'm hoping that will change.

Lets take a look at the present state of brewing in the United States. Unless you live in a few choice regions in the country, all of the ingredients used to brew your beer will be coming from other places. You might get your malted barley from Europe and your hops from the Pacific Northwest. And there isn't anything wrong with that. Like a great chef, a brewer may need a specific ingredient that is not available locally to get the exact flavor profile that he or she is looking for. But I also think that there is a market for a beer that is made with 100 percent local ingredients. And herein lies the problem. North Carolina is not exactly known for its barley, wheat or hop production. Thankfully, the times they are a changing.

Look no further than the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project (please visit their website to donate to the cause). For years, local bread makers have been using milled flour from far away places. Recently, there has been a movement to use heirloom wheat that is grown and milled locally, producing a bread that is local from the seed to the table. If it can happen with bread, it can happen with beer. Unfortunately there is a significant hurdle standing in the way.

Beer requires more than just barley or wheat to brew. The grains have to be malted. Malting involves soaking the grains to start the germination process. After a couple of days or so, the grains are heated at just the right moment to stop the germination process to leave the grain with the right amount of fermentable sugar needed to make beer. Many years ago, most local communities in early America, as well as across the pond had their own malt house to produce malted barley. Those days are gone, and almost all the malted barley and wheat used to brew beer is made by giant malt houses, miles and miles away. Some people are trying to change this. Valley Malt, in Hadley Massachusetts, is blazing a new trail on the path to locally made beers. Working with local farmers and brewers, they are making a go at a business that has been dormant for years. The fruits of their labor were realized when Mass Whole Ale was brewed by Wormtown Brewery, the first 'local' beer brewed in Massachusetts in well over half a century.

The other half of the equation is hops. With the assistance from the Cooperative Extension of North Carolina, many hop farms are springing up across Western North Carolina. Both French Broad and Pisgah have brewed beer using fresh hops from local producers, and while small, the farms are growing in number, size and yield. One of the biggest innovations in locally produced hops is happening at Echoview Farms in Weaverville. Fresh hops need to be used within a couple of weeks of harvest. But dried hops are what enable brewers to make beer year round, and Echoview has invested in an oast, which is basically a hop kiln that dries the hops slowly to retain the flavors necessary for great beer. In addition to drying hops, Echoview hopes to invest in equipment that will turn the hops into pellets, which is the preferred hop medium for most breweries.

So how long will it be until we have a truly local beer? Well, that depends on you Western North Carolina. We already have pioneers that are willing to invest in making local ingredients necessary for beer. With hops, we are well on our way, and thanks to the fine local bakers in our region, farmers have been convinced that they can use some of their precious acreage for grain production. That only leaves one thing. Is there a maltster in the house?


  1. I'm biased, but I think this is a great post. I hope lots of people read it!

  2. Glad to see my dormant rss feed come back to life! great article too...

  3. Very interesting! I enjoy learning new things every day! Keep it up!

  4. What? Worcester would get a cool little brewery the year after I leave town. Also, it's a small world that I read this news in an Asheville beer blog. Sweet.

  5. The trend seems to definitely be going towards more local beers. Nice post!