When talking about growing specialty crops for the local craft beverage market, hops, malting barley and wine grapes first come to mind. Not surprisingly, these are the three crops which have received the most attention, although cider apples have quickly claimed their rightful spot at the top of the craft beverage niche.
But there’s another extremely important ingredient essential to alcoholic beverages: yeast. While it isn’t exactly a crop you’re going to sow on the farm, its role in alcohol production serves as an illustration of just how much diversity craft beverage makers are seeking and how that search for character, identity and authenticity can translate to niche crop production.
Sweating the small stuff
These small microorganisms have been garnering more and more attention, with researchers and brewers alike seeking to use unique strains of yeast to impart a diversity of flavor and characteristics to their fermented beverages. Yeast can alter the flavor of the ingredients as well as add some flavor itself.
Yeasts can’t do their job without the nutrients they need, and if the fermentation environment isn’t conducive to helping yeast thrive, off flavors result. Temperature, pH, duration and vigor of the fermentation process are some important parameters to getting the results you want, without characteristics that you don’t. But the species and strain of yeasts matter, too.
Yeasts are everywhere, and environmental yeasts helped impart specific characteristics to a beverage maker’s products. “Commercial” yeasts — cultivated so that one group was identical to the next — began to rule the day once scientists began to understand what they do and how to “grow” them.
Using these tried and true commercially available yeasts and protecting against contamination from environmental yeast adds a known factor to the fermentation equation. But it doesn’t do much for the development of the true “terroir,” imparted from natural yeasts present in a given environment.
With an unending variety of yeasts available, why rely on the Saccharomyces species, which have become standards in the alcoholic beverage industry? Why not attempt to find other yeasts which work well and impart flavorful characteristics of their own?
Researchers at North Carolina State University collected yeast from pollinators and isolated strains which work well for brewing. By isolating these yeasts off the bees and wasps, and using a lot of chemistry, the scientists were able to identify several that were able to adapt to a variety of fermentation parameters to produce different, yet pleasing results.
These yeasts are Lachancea thermotolerans strains. The beer produced using these yeasts is characterized as being between a sour beer and an ale. The yeast strains are now commercially propagated by Lachancea, LLC, owned by Dr. John Sheppard and Dr. Anne A. Madden, the NCSU researchers. Already, several North Carolina brewers have been licensed to use these yeast strains in their products.
Beyond the basics
Growing malting barley, hops, grapes and cider apples specifically for the alcoholic craft beverage industry isn’t a one-size-fits-all deal. As regions re-emerge and develop their own local craft beverage economies, farmers are now in the equation as key to making local-centric, unique products. Wine regions are already well-established in many parts of the country, with the ‘taste of place’ being a major selling point. Farm breweries, cideries and distilleries are likely to capitalize on that ‘taste of place’ too.
With farm winery, brewery and distillery laws making on-farm or locally-sourced production a requirement in many states, the ties to region for a variety of alcoholic beverage production is in place, offering farmers the opportunity to plant crops suited both to the needs of craft beverage makers and to local growing conditions. As a result, crop biodiversity is increasing, old heirloom varieties are being re-introduced, new varieties are being developed and regional adapted cultivars of malting barley, hops, grapes and cider apples are once again populating area farms.
But craft beverage makers need other ingredients, too. What are some of those ingredients which the craft beverage industry, with its focus on local sourcing and regional branding, might be seeking?
Aside from barley, other grains are needed for brewing and distilling purposes. Rye, wheat, oats, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, rice and corn are some other grains which can play a prominent role in making alcoholic drinks. Challenges include seed sourcing, lack of disease and pest resistance, quality of the grain and proper storage for these grain crops, as with malting barley.
According to Jeffrey Trout of Poorman Farms in Waterloo, NY, other grain crops beyond malting barley also present opportunity and carry risk as the craft beverage industry expands and farmers diversify to meet market needs. Buckwheat has challenges with seed bed preparation and harvesting; wheat has a wider harvest window and is less likely to sprout than is barley; and corn typically requires more nitrogen and dry down than does malting barley. But all of these grains, if they meet quality parameters for the industry, bring in premium pricing.
There are plenty of crop opportunities beyond grains. Beekeepers can get into the market selling their honey for mead or flavoring. Many other crops can be distilled: potatoes or apples for vodka; juniper berries in gin; and fruit juices for brandy or fruit wines. Pear varieties suited to making perry are perhaps the next big fruit for craft beverage production.
Beyond this, other ingredients can be added for flavor in liqueurs. Ginger, mint, berries, herbs, a wide array of various botanical products, elderberry, black current, tart cherry, basil, sarsaparilla root, citrus fruits, maple sap or syrup and even vegetables — carrots, jalapenos, tomatoes, cucumbers — all have their place in the local craft beverage movement, offering farmers the opportunity for new market streams.
While many of these crops don’t require any unique production beyond the usual and don’t require special handling for the craft beverage market, they can help establish the farm-to-bar movement as a truly local one. Whether you want to jump on the craft beverage market in a big way, growing the in-demand malting grain crops, cider apples, grapes or hops, or are seeking new markets niches for herbs, fruits or vegetables that you already grow, alcoholic beverage production on the craft scale may offer a refreshingly new local food opportunity.