Anyone drinking in the Twin Cities the last few years will have noticed that we've been in the midst of a craft- and micro-brew boom, but that boom is taking a new and fascinating twist: Brewers are heading back to the farm! Or heading to the farm in the first place. But either way you cut it, farmhouse breweries are starting to exist around the Twin Cities, which is news.
A little primer: Farmhouse breweries have a long and fabled history, though it's mostly in Belgium, the Netherlands, and England, where small breweries were as common a part of a working farm as a cider-press. They were this common because beer played a large part in the nutritional life of a northern farmer, on two counts.
First, beer is an efficient way to get nutrition out of "small grains" like barley, oats, and rye, that grow well in northern climates. (You really only need two things, grain and water, to make beer; the yeast will float down out of the sky, and hops only came in after the 1500s.) It's second great strength was that beer was an efficient way to get safe drinking water; pre-industrial drinking-water was often full of lively and dangerous things, but beer was safe, because it was first cooked and because alcohol is a natural anti-bacterial. If you were a healthy and well loved child in a Flemish village in 1300 you'd likely have drank as much beer as water.
Now, climatologically, all the things necessary to make beer, like small grains, hops, and water, can be grown in our part of the world, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Iowa — they simply haven't been lately. Why not? That's what a couple of brewers got to wondering.
Dan Pond is a Hamline engineering graduate who was sick of his job, and so called up Chicago brewer Goose Island and asked if they needed any process engineers. He soon found himself a jack-of-all-trades at the brewery, working as a brewer, but also engineering the bottle packaging line and working in the cellar. When he and his wife decided to start having children they returned to Minnesota, and Pond started experimenting with growing and malting barley on his father-in-law's former dairy farm in Rollingstone. He bought some used dairy equipment, and, ta-da! Olvalde Farm and Brewing Company was born. He makes very small batch beer using historical northern-European recipes, and bottles his ale in 750 milliliter bottles, like wine. His first ale, Auroch's Horn, is yeasty, tangy, bittersweet, and to this critic's mind, utterly captivating.
Meanwhile, west of Menomonie, Dave's Brewfarm is one of the only federally licensed breweries in the entire country where the brewer is allowed to live on the premises — owner David Anderson knows this because he actually had to petition the federal government to get permission to build his dream brewery. Which he got!
Dave's Brewfarm is a one-man operation in which Dave Anderson brews beer, bottles it, drives it to stores, and pulls the taps in the tasting room on the weekend. Speaking of which, you can go there! For $10 you get a flight of his eight beers of the moment, and a chance to hang-out, if you bring your own picnic or grill you can picnic or grill, and he encourages people to hike on his 35 acres, play frisbee, or whatever you like.
Anderson calls his farmhouse brewery his LaBrewatory, a laboratory where he brews, but I think it's almost more of a brew-a-think-tank, as he tells me his primary use of his brewfarm is to build community and get feedback from customers on his beers, when he has a crowd favorite he brings it to a bigger brewery to actually brew. His Matacabras, for instance, is brewed in a larger scale than one man could do, Anderson contracts it out to Sand Creek brewing, and then picks it up and distributes it himself. I find this Matacabras to be fascinating and delicious, with a floral and spicy nose, but a deep yet lively presence. Each of these are great beers to seek out this fall, and stand with the best of the best of local microbrews. But is there a future for farmhouse breweries around the Twin Cities? I think yes. If you're a farmer who has space for hops and a hankering to try some fields under barley, or if you're a brewer who yearns for 40 acres and some peace and quiet there's a whole metropolis full of thirsty craft-brew drinkers in the Cities who are willing to help you realize your dream.
Olvalde's ales are available in some 50 liquor and beer shops throughout the Twin Cities, Rochester, and Winona; there's a nifty beer locator on Olvalde's website.
Dave's Brewfarm beers are available in liquor stores from Menomonie, Wisconsin to the Twin Cities, and at the farm itself. Anderson typically hosts tap-room tasting two weekends a month; he tells me the next one will be this Saturday, September 10th, and Sunday, September 11th, from 3 to 7 p.m. He plans to keep the tap-room open all winter long.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly, and a five time James Beard Award winner.