Beer, as I've said so many times on this site, is food. Beer is a farm you can drink. It's an agricultural product that comes to us from fields of grain and leafy green hop yards, even down to the yeast brewers culture and grow from the skins of fruit in orchards. The massive proliferation of breweries in Connecticut - many of them less than five years old - means a huge uptick in the need for all these natural products. I wanted to take a look at how the rise of craft beer is affecting the state of agriculture in the Constitution State, and how breweries and farms are working hand in hand to create and restore the growth of Connecticut beer. This will be an ongoing series as summer days get shorter and we approach harvest time, but I thought the best way to start would be with a place that brings agriculture and beer together, and I started with at Fox Farm Brewery.
Cruise through the green byway of Rt. 2 through Salmon River State Forest and down Rt. 11 almost to Devil's Hopyard State Park, and the village of Salem sits surrounded by a waving, aromatic ocean of green. Cows, because this is rural Connecticut, used to take residence at a dairy, where their neighbor was (and still is) Rachel Robinson, wife to Jackie. The dairy went the way of most of the state's agribusinesses, but the land, thankfully, was never scraped, leveled, and built up. Current owners Zack and Laura Adams bought it from a New York doctor, who was mainly using it to store things he bought at estate sales, and decided to put the land back to use. The first view as you enter Fox Farm is the grain silo which still stands next to the dairy barn, in fresh coats of white and red paint, which has become the brewery.
It's small brewery as of this writing, and is likely to stay that way. The distribution footprint of their beer - though it stretches from Salem to New Haven and Litchfield - numbers all of about eight locations, so your best bet if you're not in the county, is to take a trip there. Let me tell you: it's worth it.
The brewery building is a classic looking barn from the outside, which has been given a comprehensively modern redo in blonde wood which frames the gleaming stainless steel brewing equipment in the back. The tasting room inside is fairly spare, and offers full and half pours, growler fills, and cans to go. What is does not offer is a beer flight, or much in the way of seating. The positive side of the situation is you're pretty much forced to drink decent sized servings of their excellent beers on their equally excellent patio and grassy knoll while deciding which of the attendant visitors' dogs you want to meet first.
I did this while holding a glass of Fox Farm's Konfluenz dunkel doppelbock, the color of Coca Cola under a sticky tan head. The roasted malts give this lager a mocha coffee aroma, and the flavor is wealthy with chocolate, coffee, and biscuits, but it manages to be lighter than everything your other senses would suggest. It finishes light, clean, and dry, as lager yeast microbiology translated into the animal impulse of "More!" in my head. Slave to my impulses, the beer was gone almost before I could stop myself. Indulgent in the summer sun, I looked over the rows of berries growing just downhill from the tasting room, and got into a conversation with Pat Lloyd, Laura's brother and thus Zack's brother in law.
"Zach and I started homebrewing a long time before they bought this place, and we entered and won the Sam Adams Longshot competition for homebrewers," he told me, standing outside a new building destined to hold the brewery's expansion into barrel aging. "That was in 2012, and we made a west coast IPA we called Magnificent 7 for the seven kinds of hop varieties we put in there. Sam brewed and packaged a 500 barrel batch of our beer for winning, and paid for our trip to the Great American Beer Fest that year."
"The reception we got there was amazing, all these brewers from major breweries wanted to talk to us; I mean you're from Allagash and you want to talk to us?! There was a lot of validation there, and everyone we had held on this pedestal turned out to be really cool, humble people in person. That's when Zack I think got really serious about brewing, making two batches per week. They got this place and built here," he said, motioning to the house a short walk up the driveway. "And decided to make a business of it."
Fox Farm Brewery gets its malt and hops elsewhere right now. German malts make up most of the bills, but local purchases are made through Thrall Family maltsters and Valley Malt. Hops, Pat told me, likely won't be grown on site, so Fox Farm's focus has been on the grapes and bramble fruit they use in their beers.
"We've bought from Valley Malt," Zack told me. "And we've worked a lot with Spencer Thrall at Thrall Family Malt in Windsor. Some places are maltsters, where they just work with the harvested grain, but Spencer is a real farmer, too. We're able to get things like flaked spelt from him, which you can't really get anywhere. We used it in Winnow IPA, which uses the spelt along with wheat and barley, and we're just about to can it. We also used their malt and corn in an American lager we made called Sway."
Using their own produce is what allows Fox Farm to have a brewery in the first place, and Laura's family also owns Salem Valley Vineyard, which produces about 5,000lbs of grapes per year down the street, and now sees more of its yield used in their beers than is sold to wineries. Fox Farm's Near and Far IPA uses white grapes for the "near" part, and New Zealand hops for the far. Fresh grapes also find their way into Annata Belgian ale, while the raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries grown close enough to the brewery that visitors' children "sometimes treat it like a candy shop," according to Lloyd, are used wherever Zack's inspiration strikes. Cherry, plum, and apricot trees have also been planted, so the variety of estate-grown produce in Fox Farm's beers will continue to... um... grow.
"We're getting our feet wet growing crops which are candidates for use in refermentation and mixed fermentation beers," Zack says.
A personal favorite of mine from Fox Farm, their Våronna, is a kveik: a Baltic style of beer using miracle yeasts cultivated for, ohhh, a few thousand years in farmhouse breweries from Lithuania to Norway. Incredibly fast working and aromatic, kveik (say "kvike") just means "yeast," and is stored from batch to batch on a ring which looks almost like a wooden wreath. This wreath - first soaked from new in already fermenting beer - is used to inoculate the wort and then hung up to dry before it's used again. The yeast is happy to go dormant until it's needed again, and in this way farming families, over decades, end up developing their own house strain of yeast. Fox Farm Våronna, which means "spring field work" in Norwegian, uses bog myrtle grown on site. I called it this February, but look for kveik to be one of the biggest upcoming trends in American craft beer.
I let Pat get back to work in the tasting room, and grabbed a few more half pours, starting with Little Brook American blonde ale. Alright, so: they call it a blonde, but "American" in this instance seems to mean "generic haze presentation," because there's nothing blonde about this slightly greenish yellow milky beer. There is, however, a nice, dense head of tiny bubbles under a bright, piney, fresh cut grass hop aroma which is, in a word: fantastic. The beer is a nice mild at 4.6%, and eases it way through the glass with a softly fruity, yeasty flavor.
Fox Farm also makes a beautiful IPA called Allora, if you're looking, but my focus from the moment I stepped inside was their Freckled Fields farmhouse saison. You go to the farm, you drink the farmhouse ale, yeah? This one was truly blonde: crystal clear and honeyed in complexion. The nose is all raspberries and sharp lacto, and sweet and tart sensations splashed onto my tongue like I'd just bitten down on one of the little red beauties outside. Freckled Fields isn't quite chuggable as a Gatorade, but it's every bit as light and refreshing, and it's easy to picture drinking this beer on a hot, humid day, fieldwork or not. Malt shows up in this beer as your palate adjusts, but not in any amber waves of grain, just as a sort of underlying richness, smoothing out the edges of this nearly perfect mixed fermentation beer.
Floating Connecticut agricultural zoning made Fox Farm possible and put its land to work again, and more recent legislation has paved the way for small brewers to sell more of the beer they make at a time. The hike in the per-person sales limit from less than 2.5 gallons to up to 9 gallons means visitors can buy a few cases to take home with them.
"Before that passed, people would come from New Jersey and Massachusetts and I'd be like sorry, I can only sell you 19 cans," Lloyd said. "They'd end up leaving a disappointed - that's not even a case - and you don't want that. Lifting the limit was huge for us."
Asked what he thinks about brewing and cultivation in the state, Zack said "There are a lot more farms contributing to beer now. It's been a slow build, because brewers have ingredients we trust, and we're slow to adopt sometimes, but lately there's been some amazing product available to us from local growers."
Just as allowing a tasting room model and direct sales to consumers in the state legislature paved the way for a new wave of craft breweries starting in 2012, the breweries are helping bring land which may have fallen out of use, back into viable, thriving farms. I'll continue this series with looks at other farm breweries*, hop growers, maltsters, and everywhere else this investigation leads me over the coming months.
*Here's an earlier article on Kent Falls farm brewery
Visit Fox Farm Brewery Thursday-Friday 2-7pm, and Saturday-Sunday 11am-5pm; 62 Music Vale Rd., Salem, CT;https://www.foxfarmbeer.com/.