by Sally Colby
Although Brian Roberts spends his week working with high-tech science projects, he’s more than happy to talk about a different kind of science on weekends as he pours pints and growlers for customers who come to his Mad Science Brewing Company.
The brewery, which is one of just a few farm breweries in southern Frederick County, is on the premises of Thanksgiving Farm in Adamstown, MD. Robert’s wife, Louisa Zimmerman-Roberts, oversees the busy farm, farm market and full-service garden center as well as making sure fresh produce is ready for CSA members and farmers markets.
For quite a few years, Brian and Louisa worked together selling produce at farmers markets, but as their family grew, the couple decided that the logistics of managing three young children while helping market customers was too much. They decided that Roberts would stay home with the children on weekends. Roberts soon became bored, and when Louisa suggested that he needed a hobby, he started brewing beer.
“My real job is in drug and vaccine development,” said Roberts, comparing his weekday work to making beer. “Some of the vaccine work is cell culture or bacterial fermentation, and beer production is yeast fermentation and recipe development. It’s a natural fit between brewing and everything else I do.”
As he brewed at home, Roberts worked on tweaking his recipes. He also started to think about developing his home brews into more than a hobby. “Like most home brewers, everyone has aspirations that they can do this for a living,” he said. “Everything sort of came together, and in 2012, the General Assembly in Maryland passed the Farm Brewery License bill.” Because Mad Science Brewing is on the premises of Thanksgiving Farm and some of the ingredients are grown on the farm, Mad Science qualifies under the licensure requirements for a farm brewery.
Roberts had already been growing hops at home, so it made sense to move them to Thanksgiving Farm and expand there. “It started with one row, and now we have about a fifth of an acre,” he said. “I use them for dry hopping or late addition in the boil – the whirlpool. The water is cooling down for fermentation temperature and I can get more flavor and aromatics from the hops.” Roberts grows several varieties of hops including Cascade, Nugget, Centennial, Columbus, Zeus and Magnum. He plans to expand the current hop yard to provide more variety of fresh hops for his brews.
Roberts explains that hops start to emerge in spring when ground temperatures are in the mid 50s. “They’ll have shoots that we cut back,” said Roberts, adding that young hops are edible and taste like asparagus. He says there’s more of a difference in flavor, aromatics and bitterness when comparing east and west coast hops than there is within his own hop yard. “What I’ve found is that compared to what you’d get from Washington or Oregon, my Nugget have very different aromatic properties. Mine are very grapefruity and smell fantastic, where in the west, Nugget are grown as a bittering hop because they’re high in alpha acid and that’s what provides the bitterness in the boil.”
Powdery mildew and downy mildew are the biggest disease issues for hops growers, and one of the main reasons hops aren’t widely grown on the east coast. “New York used to be the hop-growing capital of the United States until they had a powdery mildew outbreak that wiped out most of the hops in the state,” said Roberts. “That’s when people in the northwest figured out that they had the perfect climate for growing hops.”
After hops are hand-harvested, the cones are placed on screens in one of the farm’s greenhouses with a fan underneath to air dry them.
As Roberts’ hops were growing, he continued to work with recipes and develop his plans for a brewery. Until Roberts has enough capital to invest in brewing equipment, a contract brewer uses Roberts’ recipes, grains, hops and fruits. Every recipe in production is the result of one of Roberts’ scaled-up home-brew recipes. Small batches, 10 barrels at a time, keep the brews flavorful and unique. Louisa noted that the small batches help maintain a personal touch to keep the flavor consistent and true to Roberts’ recipes.
Mad Science Brewing Company opened in April of 2015 and business has grown steadily. Much of the brewery’s business comes by way of social media and word-of-mouth. “People who come to the farm to pick up their CSA see the sign for the brewery and stop in,” said Roberts. “I also get some traffic from people who see the banners along the road and people driving home on their commute.”
Louisa says Thanksgiving Farm draws quite a few customers who are happy to find that they can stop in for a brew after selecting plants or picking up their CSA share. On tap is Virus, an American brown ale; Helles Belles, a Munich Helles, which Roberts describes as a Bavarian pilsner; Black Death, a holiday seasonal black IPA and Rye-Sin, a rye pale ale. Since Mad Science brews are made in small batches, customers are frequently treated to new recipes.
“Every week I try to do an infusion,” said Roberts, adding that he uses fruit grown on the farm for infusions. “Blue Belles had blueberries from the farm. When I used peaches, the name became Fuzzy Belles because peaches are fuzzy.” Roberts added a nitrogen tap this year, which gives each brew a different flavor profile and drinking experience.
As a Class 8 farm brewery, Roberts can obtain state permits to sell beer at festivals and farmers markets. “I can do off-premise sales at festivals, and can do 21 a year,” he said. “I’ve done five festivals this year, and have about six more this fall.”
Attending festivals on weekends means Mad Science Brewing can’t maintain hours at the Thanksgiving Farm location, but festivals generate a lot of business. “It’s cheaper than any other advertising,” said Roberts, adding that he either breaks even or makes more at a festival. “I get a lot of customers who saw us at a festival and want to come here to see what else we have.”
Mad Science Brewing Company is one of several stops on mini-brew tours, and food trucks and music help draw enthusiastic crowds. And soon, Roberts will be happy to offer tours of his onsite brewery while he talks about the science behind the brews.
Visit Mad Science Brewing Company on line at www.madsciencebrewing.com .
Farm brewery attracts visitors for science and fun
by Sally Colby