If, in an alternate world, you'd bought stock in Kent Falls Brewing Co. the first time you read about the small, Connecticut based brewer here on CTBites, you'd be rich by now. The brewery isn't actually public in the financial sense, but it will welcome the public to its farm in Kent, Conn. for the first time on June 11. Kent Falls beer has previously only been available on tap, in bottles at a few shops, and at single farmer's market. All that changes this summer, and anyone up for a drive to the NW corner will be able to buy it bottled at the source, Saturdays from 11a.m.-5p.m., with a focus on special releases like brewery-only IPAs and barrel aged beers. A special bottle release is planned for the grand opening on the 11th.
The drive to Kent may seem slightly daunting if you live along the coast in Fairfield County and you can only see it as a series of route suggestions on a screen. The trip, though - once your view slips from the realm of blue lines and red arrows, and out into the forested hills, fields, and wetlands - is captivating.Connecticut can seem like an unbreakable chainlink of cities when viewed from a window on I-95, but this is a different perspective altogether. My car's navigation kicked me from Rt.7 to Rt. 202 and off onto a road which was could only be told apart from a steep, narrow, footpath on the Appalachian trail by a thin layer of tarmac, and thence onto one which lacked even this distinction. The descents, on loose dirt and gravel, held one's attention. (You may want to take Sawyer Hill Rd. instead.) Everywhere, though, was beauty. Colonial homes whose chimneys abutted the road faced land which fell away in green pastures where ancient stone walls and low, red barns divided the landscape, and kept the cattle from the orchards. I was looking at the earth which feeds and inspires Kent Falls beer.
It took me three tries for my phone to connect with that of Barry Lebendz, one of the brewery's co-owners. He answered and waved to me from the brewery door, fifteen feet away.
A Connection To The Land
"We came out here from New York for the first time in August of 2011," he told me in the brewhouse. "There were two houses, a pond, a barn, like five cows, and an orchard. This was the first place we saw, and from the first minute, we knew this was it. We didn't even look anywhere else."
Look past the rows of newly planted leafy greens and the slow motion high wire act being performed by the climbing hop bines, and the orchard was just visible beyond a field where yellow and purple wildflowers grew hip high from end to end.
At first, the plan was to use the old dairy barn for brewing. The plans to refurbish the barn ended up totaling twice the cost of a new building, so ground was broken for the current brewhouse in the summer of 2014. The new use for the old barn has shifted to power production, thanks in part to a 30 year solar power grant from the USDA rural economic development fund.
"After that we decided we needed to make sure the barn would actually stand for thirty years," said Lebendz. Amid hammering and sawing, he mentioned how the paneling would represent a 60% savings in on-grid power usage, and pointed out the sections of (now extinct) American Chestnut they would remove from the barn's structure and repurpose elsewhere. The front of the barn is now the farm's store, where eggs, meat, and other produce are sold.
The farm is separate from the brewery, but everyone works together. The farm's tractor leaves the field to load beer into the brewery's van. Spent grain from brewing is composted and worked back into the fields. Hops are estate grown, and a moveable pen populated by three month old pigs is being shifted around the hop field to do the weeding.
"We had Brewer's Gold and Cascades and few other varieties doing well," said Lebendz as we walked through the rows of bines. "But the Willamettes weren't growing well. We set the pigs here and they went right for the hop rhizomes before anything else. It was perfect."
In the summer, the farm's chickens are let into the hopyard, where they denude the area of Japanese beetles. These chickens live in open air tents which protect them from sun and predators, and are moved across the grass daily. A dreadlocked sheepdog kept wary eyes on us as his charges grazed in the shade of a huge tree. If Kent Falls beer is on your table, this is the farm where it's born.
The brewery gets its water from its own wells on the property. The water is sweet and largely free from any heavy minerals.
"It's a total blank slate," Lebendz told me. "We don't have to adjust it."
They did have to adjust the system to comply with state regulations, now that the public will be on-site. The water is still artesian, and is partially sent to the solar pre-heating shed which was only in the planning stages the first time I mentioned it here last May. Rows of black tubes heat the water to over 120º F, saving massive amounts of energy, and can either be sent directly to the brewery, or stored in insulated reservoirs inside the shed. We were both nearly knocked back by a searing wall of heat which rushed out past us when we opened the shed door. Outside in the fresh air again, and gasping, I suggested an unused portion under the roof might best be used as an employee sauna.
Bottle sales are planned to get visitors as close as possible to where their beer is made. The brewing floor is a hodgepodge of stainless steel tanks, and several 30bbl. fermenters take up most of the space. [A Barrel (bbl.) of beer = 31gallons. What we'd call a "full" keg purchased at a liquor store is half that amount.] Early on, the beer was fermented in these, and sent to a brite tank for storage before bottling; now the beer fermented in the 30bbl. tanks will be bottled directly from the fermenter, with one each for specific yeast strains, and the brite tank used for blending finished beers. Two 10bbl. tanks currently produce all the brewery's IPAs, and four additional tanks will arrive in the near future. A milk chiller from the land's days as the Fool's Farm Dairy sat in the shade outdoors, waiting the day when it will become the brewery's coolship.
A 20bbl. fermentation tank held a collaboration beer between Kent Falls and Burial Beer Co., of Asheville, NC. The beer is powered by distinctly bucolicBrettanomyces yeast, and will include Carolina golden rice, plus a dry "hop" of foraged flowers from Connecticut.
Racks of barrels dominated one external wall within the brew house. Names and dates were chalked on the wood, alongside brands from wineries, bourbon distilleries, and at least one which had contained peach brandy. Lebendz was very clear on one point: all barrel aged Kent Falls beers get blended.
When the brewery opens to the public, it will be for tours, farm store, and bottle sales exclusively. Full pours and on site consumption have never been part of the brewery's plan, and that's not going to change. Most of the people who work on at the brewery and on the farm live there, and their hours are long. There's also no way, short of helicopter, to get to the brewery without driving. Those narrow, country roads make for heavenly driving, but drinking first does not. On the positive side, sales have risen to an 18 bottle/person maximum allotment, up from the current 10 at the New Milford farmer's market.Farm to table beer is now a real possibility in Connecticut.
Kent Falls Brewing Co.; 33 Camps Rd., Kent; kentfallsbrewing.com