by Hope Holland
If you look behind the definition of microbrewery, you will find some very busy and creative people, especially those who grow the hops which eventually become a part of their beer. Beer is arguably the most ancient of fermented drinks. It arrived very shortly after farmers began growing grains instead of merely gathering them and it has been a drink of endless regional variation ever since.
In Maryland, between Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm in Frederick County and Ruhlman Brewery on Creeping Creek Farm in neighboring Carroll County, there are 17 distinct and different versions of ale, stout, porter and bitter. Each has its own taste and enthusiastic group of followers. The Milkhouse Brewery also offers Homestead Hefe Weizen which is explained as a German style brew made with Maryland Brewers Gold hops, Pilsner and Wheat malts and Hefe Weizen yeast, while Ruhlman Brewery has created its own recipe for Rebel Rye, made with ingredients which would have been available in the south during the Civil War, which include rye and molasses. This brew was made to order for the local historic mill, Union Mills Homestead, created at the request of mill owner Dave Shriver, and the rye used in this creation was ground at the historic mill.
All of this leads to growing hops and making specialty beers. This is the outreach by farmers to include the local communities into the idea farming is part of their lives. Microbrews may be one of the most successful ways to actualize the concept of ‘think globally, buy locally’.
Both of the above-mentioned farms are still actively being farmed and both of them are wholly involved with the business of growing the hops they use in the completion of their product.
Hop production, because of the growing pattern of the plant itself, can be done on a relatively small piece of land. Both Henry Ruhlman of Creeping Creek Farm and Tom Barse of Stillpoint Farm use only an acre of their land to grow all of the hops they use in the production of their beers. Once planted all a farmer has to do is to control the number of shoots from the rhizome in order to protect the health of the crop and support it’s approximately 20-foot vertical growth pattern.
As with most of the things a farmer does, neither of these things are particularly easy. Henry Ruhlman, who does all of his hop farming in the more laborious way, says it takes about 1,000 hours in the spring checking the plants, creating the supporting superstructure it demands and cutting back the vines to the three strongest sprouts. He says picking the hops is another 500 or so hours and then “putting the crop to bed in the fall” is another 500 hours of work. This is done on Creeping Creek with a small force of family and friends and a garden tractor and wagon. However, this allows him to grow nearly 2,000 hop bines on his one acre plot as they can be planted much closer than those on a farm which uses more mechanized ways.
On Stillpoint Farm, Tom Barse uses more a mechanized way to support his hop field and it means he will grow about 1,000 bines per acre. One method he uses to keep down any unwanted growth of weeds or mildew on his bines is provided by turning a half dozen of his herd of 30 or so Leicester Longwool sheep into the fenced hop patch to clear away any unwanted developments at the base of the bines.
According to Barse, “The sheep eat everything but don’t touch the bines themselves. I’ll take all the help that those sheep want to offer. Hops grow so fast that you can almost see them grow…they shoot up almost a foot a day!”
Barse concentrates his brewing around two main types of hops, while Ruhlman regularly grows six types of hops and is experimenting with a seventh type. Ruhlman’s establishment has some outdoor seating near the pub house itself but is finding it necessary to build an outdoor pavilion to accommodate more patrons, possibly because of the concerts he offers or the 6,000 foot long Disc Golf Course on the farm.
Barse’s brewery offers indoor seating, an outdoor pavilion complete with tables and umbrellas as well as an indoor pavilion to handle the overflow during concerts or when 30 or 40 bicyclists drop by. He actively encourages parents to bring their children to visit and romp across the adjoining open field while the adults enjoy a pint of his beer.
In both cases the breweries are prohibited by Maryland state law from serving food. This is something the Maryland brewers are actively working on changing but they are opposed by the retail and wholesale food and beverage industry.
In order to provide some form of finger food, Ruhlman has nearby sub and pizza shops which happily deliver when called and Barse relies on a selection of gourmet cheeses and sausages to offer his clients. Both ways are within the strictures of existing laws.
What it comes down to is this is a new form of entertainment and farming outreach which will have to make its way in an established world. With the success of the brewing farm effort it will change. Right now, Ruhlman’s beverages are to be found in many of the local restaurants and pubs in the nearby towns as well as farther afield — Washington D.C. is one of his sales points and has an enthusiastic microbrewery interest — and they are in demand at clubs which have asked him to brew a specific beer for their own use.
Barse has a regular and growing client base at his Milkhouse Brewery between the bicycle groups and the nearby towns. He is also supporting the introduction of his beers at the very large Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival as well as at several of the Saturday Fairs in points within the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and as well in a large number of neighboring counties.
One of the most interesting things about both of these men is how they got their start in the brewing of beer. Barse said, “When I was 18 my father brought me back my first brewing kit from a trip he made to England. I was fascinated by it and when I was older and saw the microbrewery idea catching on around here I realized that this was something that I could do.  Now I’m hooked on the idea and the lifestyle that goes with it.”
Ruhlman’s introduction to the idea of microbrewery had a variation, as he explains, “When I was a kid on the farm it was my job to slop the hogs. The little piglets couldn’t get all of the slop out of the corners of their feeders and it would turn and have to be dug out. I couldn’t stand the smell of any of the larger manufactured commercial beers because that is exactly what they smelled like to me. But one day when we were done working my grown son had a couple of microbrewery beers and he had me try one. I really liked it. So for my birthday he bought me a brewing kit. I made a couple of runs with that brewing kit and I was hooked! It all started with that and it has just sort of grown from there.”
Two very different men, two very different farms but the same beginning. It seems beer is still something which is close to its roots in the farming community and it may be one of the better forms of outreach to the nearby urban community which needs to recognize farmers as part of their lives, too.