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Grain to Glass: How a Small Farm Is Producing Truly Estate-Grown Beer

A few months back, just as he had done for the five previous seasons, John Branding went to his field in Virginia, adjacent to his brewhouse, planted the grain that would soon grow, be harvested and later turned into beer. Branding, who owns Wheatland Spring Brewery with wife Bonnie, calls the enterprise an “estate brewery” that practices regenerative agriculture to grow grains and uses renewable energy to brew.

Grain is a crucial ingredient to making beer, but most breweries in the United States rely on large commercial grain suppliers to make ales and lagers. A small—but growing—number use grains grown on small farms in at least some of their beers.

There are reasons that most brewers rely on commercial growers.

“Practicing regenerative agriculture involves more manual labor than you can imagine, it’s extraordinarily expensive, rife with risk and the only roadmap is the one we’re scribbling as we go,” says Branding. “It’s also extraordinarily rewarding. It’s deeply fulfilling to play a role in re-localizing our food and drink—and doing it in a way that we feel good about. Our money stays small and local: 95% of our ingredient spend goes to small businesses, and most of those ingredients come from our region.”

It also means that the brewery can grow specialty grains that go well beyond the traditional commercial offerings. Branding recently brewed a beer with experimental barley, with water welled from the property and a yeast native to the farm. “This beer can only exist here because of our intention, ingredients and methods,” he says.

The beers produced by Wheatland Spring are excellent, and the rich flavor of the grains shines through each sip, as if boldly painted by stunning colors. There is a soul to the beers that is immediately felt, and it’s a call back to earlier European brewing. The farming helps the brewery stand out among competitors and puts a focus on agriculture at a time consumers want to know where their food comes from.

Whether more breweries in the United States will follow suit is hard to say. Some already grow their own hops, or have other beer-adjunct crops, but few take the soil-to-mash-tun approach with grain.

“We say often that we’re ‘growing a new tradition’ and understand we’re not taking the easy, convenient or expedient path. We accept fully what feels like, at times, a Sisyphean task. We keep repeating the mantra: it’s all about the beer and not about the beer at all.”

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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