Sitting down for a meal and deconstructing where everything on your plate came from is something many Bellingham residents are guilty of. What can we say? We love buying locally and knowing exactly where our food is from. It’s easy to look at a plate of huevos rancheros and be satisfied knowing that the tortillas were made in house, the eggs came from Ferndale, maybe the vegetables from the Community Food Co-op.
It’s a little harder to stare into a pint of beer and do the same. For one, you can’t physically see or separate the components; yeast, hops, grain and water. But as we know, each pint of craft beer offers a certain taste, aroma and mouthfeel based on those ingredients.
Lucky for us who love to buy local in Bellingham, there is an abundance of opportunity to support local farmers when it comes to what goes into our favorite beers.
Sustainable Connections works with nearly every brewery in Bellingham. They have a membership program that most breweries are apart of, where they connect brewers with local suppliers, whether it be beef farmers for the burgers at Aslan, or the hop farmers for any variety of local brewers. Essentially, Sustainable Connections acts as a matchmaker between farmers and brewers.
[connections made through SC] is for local farmers and local brewers to get together and talk about what farmers are growing and what brewers need, and to see if they can match up a bit more to meet each others needs… so farmers aren’t growing things and crossing their fingers.” Sara Southerland, Food and Farming Program Manager for Sustainable Connections.
The relationships built between farmers and growers are mutually beneficial. Hop farmers grow hops for a specific brewer, instead of hoping they’ll make a big sale.
There’s always room to grow as far as buying and sourcing locally in the Bellingham brew scene, however.
“It’s [sourcing locally] just starting in a big way. I think that people are asking, farm to table is becoming farm to pint, what’s going into their beer.” Southerland said.
Southerland highlighted the several breweries that are doing their own hop harvests, such as Fairhaven Stones Throw and Atwood Ales.
In fact, Atwood Ales just had a hop harvest party and invited brew community members to help be a part of their fresh hop beer. Atwood is not only a brewery, but a farm that in part supports themselves, taking sourcing locally to a whole new level.
Garden Path Fermentation’s new space (image courtesy of Garden Path Fermentation)
Atwood Ales is a perfect example of the growing farm brewery trend. They are hyper local, growing nearly all of their ingredients on their farms. Farmhouse breweries are also better insulated against market downturns because they are less subject to an increased price in hops and other products (fruit, herbs, etc) that come from sourcing goods from outside their local food network.
“beer, wine, cider, and mead solely from our own crops and other locally grown products.” – Garden Path fermentation
“We’re focusing on what grows well here, featuring that, and telling that story. Eating local and drinking local beer is a lot about relationships. How did this get to my glass?” Southerland said. “It’s special to think about, enjoying a pint and knowing the farmer that grew the fruit or the hops that are in this beer.”
A Local Grain Story
If you’ve drank enough Bellingham beer in your day, there’s a very high chance you’ve had the pleasure of drinking something made with malt from Skagit Valley Malting. Located just 30 minutes down I-5 from Bellingham, SVM is tucked into the middle of a rural beer hub. You can find the Skagit Valley College brew school and Chuckanut’s South Nut Taproom all within a stone’s throw of the SVM headquarters.
This year, Aslan Brewing Co. committed to a relationship with SVM, who is currently providing all of their pilsner malt for the Classic lager. Supplying for Aslan is a large scale project. Luckily, SVM has technology that is large enough to support a brewery of Aslan’s capacity, while still making custom malts by having a batch size that is small enough to experiment and make malts specific to a brewer’s needs.
There is an enormous amount of work and planning that goes into a batch of malt, especially an organic one like the one Hedlin Farms, a farmer that grows for SVM, produced for Aslan.
Aslan’s grain silo
“We have enough materials and we do enough customization, that I’m pretty confident that every brewery in Bellingham can be fully committed to using Skagit Valley Malting and still be able to tell their own story.” Adam Foy, SVM’s Business Development Manager said.
This is because they can enter at different points and request different malt styles because of SVM’s flexibility regarding customization.
Using SVM doesn’t necessarily make a brewery unique, instead it’s their story within the malt they have made at SVM that helps them create a one-of-a-kind beer and tell their unique story.
Ben Buccarelli, head brewer and co-owner of Menace Brewing in Bellingham, uses SVM in his S.M.A.S.H. series, meaning single malt and single hop beer.
“S.M.A.S.H. is the most consistent way that we interact with them, it’s 100% SVM in this beer. It not only gives me a really good idea of what it’s like, but also the consumer a really clean picture of what the grain tastes like. It’s as much for the consumer as it is for me.” Buccarelli said.
Buccarelli takes full advantage of the malt quality that SVM offers, as well as the personal relationships they build with brewers. He can call and talk about substituting ingredient A in a beer, and SVM brings him enough of the malt made with that adjustment to do a pilot batch and see what he likes about it, allowing for ideal customization.
Clearly, Bellingham breweries can benefit from committing to SVM, as can the environment, since brewers would avoid international shipping from countries like Germany.
“It’s about thinking of us as more than just a novelty purchase. We really are setup to be the full support system for them. We can and we do supply large amounts of grain for different breweries, and are able to become the base malt for a brewery.” Foy said of the capacity they’re able to support an entire city worth of craft beer.
Part of what truly localizes SVM is the fact that they don’t connect with grain brokers or public grain elevators. Farmers are contracted directly with SVM and grow grain specifically for them.
According to CEO Dave Green, SVM has a very personal relationship with their farmers, since they only work with a handful in Skagit Valley. Growers and maltsters operate as a partnership, and growers are always willing to experiment and grow new test plots and new varieties.
Because of these relationships with their farmers and their size, SVM is living in the best of both worlds. Large enough to support a thriving brew scene, small enough to make malts that taste like everything from your morning pieces of toast to the honey you put on it.
Using SVM also has economic benefits for brewers. Because of the single vessel malt system, brewers actually end up saving money because they are using less malt in the end.
“Because it’s a single vessel, you get a lot more uniformity in the malt, making it more efficient to brew. If a brewery is set up at 80% efficiency, there ends up being a 10% increase in efficiency [using SVM], meaning you’re using less malt. It goes back to quality and uniformity.” Conner Hagen, sales and marketing intern.
SVM offers uniformity throughout a batch while offering a certain amount of room for experimentation.
“The core of the message is that we have the ability to fully support them. But, we have the unique opportunity to be individualists. It’s not all going to be the same and it doesn’t have to all be the same.” Foy said. “If the concept is providing for everybody, we want to let them know that this malthouse has a strikingly aggressive open door policy. Anybody who’s within a hundred mile radius of us, should be here as much as they can.”
SVM continues to provide hands-on access for brewers to work with maltsters as well as educational opportunities for entire brewery teams, including brew and bar staff.
“A brewer or decision maker has been down here but there’s no reason not to bring the whole team.” Green said, pushing the idea of educating an entire brewery on SVM’s mission of becoming the local go-to maltsters.
Buccarelli is looking forward to what SVM has to offer the brew community in the future for Menace and other Bellingham breweries alike.
“I think what SVM is doing is going to bring a lot to the industry and make it easier for brewers to source locally.” Buccarelli said. “It’ll create us [in the Pacific Northwest] a regional identity. From a brewer’s standpoint that’s really exciting.”
The craft beer movement jettisoned the buy local movement to another level and breathed life into communities and the businesses supporting them. But there’s more to come. Further shrinking the footprint of brewery buying habits and buying local products are the next steps of forward progress in the craft beer movement. It’s an evolution that will continue to strengthen communities, farmers and brewers alike.