The first step in making an unexpected discovery is getting lost. Investigating the strengthening links between farming and brewing in Connecticut has led me down unfamiliar paths, both in terms of knowledge, and the kinds where I am worried about either running out of gas on country roads or stepping in something. The first piece in this series focused on a brewery that's also a farm, and my plan for this next piece was to show a farm growing hops for use in brewing. I picked a day, began at a farm stand, and found a brewery.
This is part two in Growing CTbeer, a look at how the rise of craft beer is affecting agriculture in the Constitution State, and how breweries and farms are working hand in hand to create and restore the growth of Connecticut beer.
The trailhead in spacetime for this entire series was the moment I met Alex DeFrancesco at The Gathering At The Bines brewfest this May at Two Roads in Stratford. Alex had a small table piled with whole and pelletized hops, all grown in Connecticut. I didn't know too many hop growers in the state, and grabbed a flyer. Four months later, I was looking for Alex across the street from his family's hopyard in Northford, trying to figure out where he was. I was waiting for him to call me back, eating an incredible plum I'd just bought at the farm stand (this from Blue Hills Farm in Wallingford), when the guy at the register looked at me.
"Oh, Alex? He's probably at the brewery."
"What brewery?" I sagged a little bit. With ninety-ish breweries in the state now, he could be anywhere.
"Just up the street. The house where they're doing construction."
"The house" turned out to be a quarter mile up the road, very clearly marked by a sign saying "Stewards Of The Land Brewery." I had lucked into being the very first visitor through its doors, and you, CTBites reader, are the first to find out. And you don't even have to step on a screw to do it.
DeFrancesco Farm was founded in 1907 in Northford, north of Branford. The farm is a reasonable trip from just about anywhere in state, and it's on the larger side, with 120 acres of row and cover crops under cultivation, 7 acres in greenhouses, and now, the only hop freeze drying and pelletizing facility in Connecticut. After some searching around what's well on its way to becoming an attractive tasting room at Stewards, I found Alex downstairs, mid-brew in his first test batches with his new equipment. Hoping to find a working farm story, I'd walked into a working brewery. I remarked on my surprise.
"We're trying to keep the old tavern life of New England, of this part of Connecticut, alive in the area," he told me. "This place has been here forever, and initially it was hard to get any permits because of the historic status, but it was really falling down, so they let us." Barn red with white trim on the outside, the bar inside the tasting room is faced with Connecticut's original agricultural product: field stones. Alex's plan is to make the tasting room at Stewards a community gathering place again, the way colonial taverns served their areas. BYO food and food trucks will both be part of the scene, and the beer made on site will largely only be sold there, with a small list of area restaurants joining the local footprint of distribution.
Alex has been home brewing for seven or eight years, he figures, between getting an advanced degree in agricultural science and working almost every day on his family's farm. He and brewer Dave Morgan (yes, the Dave Morgan who created Thimble Island Brewing Company in Branford with his roommates a few years back) were working over a gleaming stainless steel 3-barrel brewhouse which was gushing steam when I parachuted into their day.
I asked about the hops.
"Varieties like Simcoe, Mosaic, that kind of thing, are all trademarked organisms, and mostly don't leave Yakima. We focus on what we call grandfather varieties, Cascade, Crystal, Sterling, Tettnag." Alex visited the titanic hop growers of the Pacific northwest's heartland of bines, and returned to dedicate a portion of his family's ample acreage to hop cultivation. He was elected to be president of the Connecticut Hop Growers Association, and helped write the Connecticut farm brewery legislation which was signed into law in 2017.
DeFrancesco's climate controlled clean room for freezing and pelletizing hops is used by other growers in the state, including the Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station (CAES, circa 1875, was the first of its kind in the country). Science, agriculture, business, and brewing: all in one place.
"CAES has been essential in bringing hop growing back to Connecticut," Alex clarified. "Hops are one of the most difficult perennial crops to raise because of all the variables mother nature presents, and without Jim LaMondia hop growers and brewers would not have the resources for growing them as a cash crop."
Asked about plans for the brewery, Alex said his recipes started with him "just playing around - a little of this, a little of that, seeing how it turns out. A little like how I learned to cook from my grandmother. Italians, you know." He says with a shrug.
"We want everything here to be 100% Connecticut grown, though, and eventually 100% grown here on the farm." I note the Thrall malt bags stacked up in the brewhouse, and Alex nods his head. "Yeah, that's just it, fresh ingredients. The European malts are great, but some of that stuff sits in bags half a year before its sold and shipped here. The turnaround from Thrall is quick, and Rooster malt is so small we can get a lot of specialty stuff from them, like all my dark malts."
Alex pointed at plastic bins full of grains.
"We can get unmalted flaked grains grown in Connecticut on order. Ancient varieties - emmer, triticale," and said he'll grow cereal grains at DeFrancesco farm as cover crops in the winters. These will end up in the beer at Stewards Of The Land. "Barley, wheat, rye - we'll grow it all here and ship it out for malting. We just bought a combine harvester."
Clearly sizable investments have been made at the farm, from grain to hops to the brewery itself. That left just one more thing, the most important, most overlooked ingredient in beer, and the only one which doesn't grow on a farm, but falls on it. I asked about the water. The answer, like everything else that day, was more than I expected.
Here's how it works: the brewery works on its own well, with water pumped up, heated, boiled with grains into wort, then fed through a heat exchanger to be cooled off before entering a fermenter and yeast pitching. The heat exchanger cools the wort by radiating its energy into pipes of freshly pumped, cool, well water which, now warmed up itself, is passed into the brewery's hot water tank for the next boil, so neither the water nor the heat energy are wasted.
"We save everything," said Alex. "Don't waste a drop anywhere, it's great." Even the yeast varieties have been cultivated from the skins of crops from DeFrancesco land in some cases.
The farm doesn't have its own orchards, but Alex plans to use fruits from Blue Hills Farms in upcoming beers.
"Everything goes into beers these days, and we need to support each other to keep the land going, to take care of it."
"It's what 'Stewards Of The Land' really means, why we called it that," he told me. "I'm a fourth generation farmer, raising the fifth, and every year it gets harder to farm, and it seems fewer young people want to get into it. You see people doing this, like a brewery, needing to diversify just to make it. Beer, brewing - that's helping it happen."
DeFrancesco Farm Stand; 336 Forest Rd., Northford, 203 484 2028 (brewery opening fall 2019)