Behind the Barn Door: The Haw River Blog

filed under: Beer Culture, Sustainability
posted by: Ben Woodward

A Seed of an Idea: The Haw River Farmhand Exchange

This past February, the number of craft breweries in the United States hit an all-time record of 2286, the highest number since before Prohibition was enacted in 1920. And as of today, Haw River Farmhouse Ales is still on point to sell its first pint some time in 2013 (more on where we are in the process in a blog post we should finish up within the next couple days).

So why are we still planning to open our doors, knowing the new brewery just down the road could theoretically brew the same beer, using the same malt, hops, yeast and (essentially) the same water? What's going to make Haw River Farmhouse Ales stand out from the other 2300+ (and growing) breweries out there? How does a brand new brewery in today's market get shelf space for its bottles and a tap handle at the local pub?

The difference for future brewers to consider will be in what else goes into a glass of beer: how it gets into your glass, who it impacts along the way, and where your five bucks goes after the last drop has been savored.

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Over the past couple of years, we've had dozens of folks stop us around town here in Saxapahaw to say "Hey, can I grow some (fill in the blank with something delicious) for you?" Even I'm surprised at how willing neighbors out here in the country are to try their hands at growing ingredients for us—it's quite humbling, to be honest. And as much as we appreciate the willingness to help, it's sometimes a tough question to answer. Growing a few hop bines or an acre of barley isn't too difficult to do, but producing enough for commercial batches of beer, guaranteeing consistency and quality, and preparing ingredients properly to be used with the equipment most commercial breweries use... that's a different story, and still a daunting challenge for most small farmers.

But the last time someone asked us the question, it got us thinking: What if we actually brought together a small group of local farmers, gardeners, growers, cheese makers, picklers, coffee roasters, herbalists, and other local artisans, and made a true effort to work closely with them all as part of an official network of "Haw River Farmhouse Ales partners", taking an active role in helping them grow, prepare and receive market price for ingredients for use in our beer?

Farmhand Exchange logo

So we came up with an idea we're calling the Haw River Farmhand Exchange, and here's how we're planning for it to work. We could discuss growing or preparing specific ingredients we know we'll need for our recipes, like fresh figs, local honey, raspberries, pecans, chocolate or wine grapes (as well as hops, malted barley, wheat and other traditional components, of course) with local farmers and artisans who specialize in preparing such goods, as well as families or individuals who are interested in using a small section of their backyards to polish up their green thumbs, perhaps. We'd consider each of these artisan vendors "official partners" of Haw River Farmhouse Ales and work with them each as part of our internal team, sharing information and working in concert with one another. A set of loose requirements may be put in place, so as to maximize the impact of the program: Each of the partners would have to be located within, say, 100 miles of Saxapahaw, and there should be some sort of exchange from our end, if possible (like trading spent grain or other "brewery waste" we'll end up with anyway).

Map of NC, showing a 100 mile radius around Saxapahaw, NC

We could meet once or twice a year with each partner on our team, bringing in our local extension officer or other specialists to help enhance productivity or lend a hand. In some cases, we could even buy seeds or rhizomes to help folks get started (who could then collect additional seeds from grown produce, which could then help others get started and further grow the circle and its impact on the community) and as we helped everyone grow or raise the particular harvest of our ingredients, we'd pay market price for the quantity we'd need for each batch of beer. This way, we'd know beforehand how the crops/ingredients have performed that harvest period, what the yields are, and when exactly they're ready to harvest, so we can count on having them delivered for the freshest versions of scheduled batches. When a season approaches, we schedule the brew dates based on when folks think their crop is going to be ready to harvest, and we coordinate delivery at the height of freshness.

The Farmhand Exchange would be a great way to centralize a network within the community and share knowledge and goods with our neighbors, making our home that much more productive, while also solidifying a sustainable, reliable source for high-quality, locally grown ingredients for our business. And it'd be great, because we could even have a home gardener or two in there that grows a small bed of rosemary we know we'll need for our Wild Rye in Black Saison, for example, so the program could successfully span from small families to large farms and local small businesses.

Part of the concept would be to hopefully help stimulate discussions within other small communities regarding what products and ingredients may not currently, but could one day, be supplied to other manufacturers right from our own backyards. In that way, we're hoping to help other small businesses look a little harder at their own supply chains and ingredient sources, and help them transition from the age-old standards of ordering off a big refrigerated truck or palette of crates to placing a phone call to the farmer or artist down the street and starting a discussion about growing or creating something special, just for them. After all, there's really no great reason for the driver of a truck full of week-old raspberries grown hundreds of miles away to breeze past a half dozen local berry farms on the way to making a delivery to your loading dock. Those farms are owned and run by the same folks who you bump into at the grocery store, sit next to at church, or hear about during a conversation in line at your bank.

Will some of our ingredients cost more? Probably. But then again, so will some of our beer, to a degree, depending on what it's being compared to. You can buy a can of generic lager for about a buck, most of the time, but I'd venture to guess most of you reading this would happily pay two or three times that that for a pint of beer your local brewer made with his or her own hands, just like a burger from a locally-raised, grass-fed cow costs a couple bucks more than a Whopper. Our t-shirts are made from cotton grown here in North Carolina and printed by TS Designs in Burlington, about 20 miles from Saxapahaw. They cost us a few more dollars than a shirt that's been made in China, but it's worth it to us, and it seems to be worth it to the dozens of people who have so graciously purchased one at an event or on our website. We've also been speaking with a few local micro-maltsters who charge an few extra cents per pound for their small-batch malted grain. But the barley is grown here in NC, by farmers with real names who live just down the street and are a part of our community. And that means something.

We believe the future of craft beer doesn't start in the grain mill or the mash tun; it begins on the farm, where the real story starts. And we're hoping that our small size, our geographic location, and the fantastic community in which we've placed Haw River Farmhouse Ales will help bolster those real relationships, helping to make the beer we fill your glass with later this year an even better experience for you.

(Interested in being a future part of the Farmhand Exchange team by growing, roasting, crafting or otherwise creating something we may want to use in our beer? We're obviously still polishing the idea and details, but we've got a whole list of ingredients we'd love to be able to source locally [some admittedly more challenging than others], so shoot us a quick email, let us know what you have in mind, and we can chat about what we might be looking for!)