A Story in Every Sip: Vermont Farmers Tap into Local Craft Beer Industry

(Narrated by Anson Tebbetts)

It’s a refreshing reward at the end of a long day.

Vermont beer: special, served with a story, Rooted in Vermont.

Andrew Peterson came to Vermont with a desire to start a brewery.

“I wanted to use local ingredients, so I started to figure out what that meant in Vermont and there wasn’t local ingredients, so I tried to figure out how to do it,” said Peterson.

He realized one main ingredient was missing.

“Started playing around with malts in the kitchen, eventually it turned into a larger project,” said Peterson.

Since Vermont boasts the most breweries in the U.S. per capita, Peterson thought instead of trying to compete with them, why not just supply them.

“Let them do the brewing and let me do the malting,” said Peterson, Peterson Quality Malt. “The existing malting facility is in an old hay barn on my property and we’ve grown three times in there and it just can’t get any bigger.

Hops play a star role in the brewing process, but malt is the backbone of every beer. You can make a beer without hops, but not without malt.

It starts with local farmers in the field…

“We just started a little cash crop this year and we started with 50 acres of barley,” said Shawn Gingue, Waterford. “We felt that this would be a more sustainable crop to grow in our area, and we also though it would be kind of cool to part of the local beer movement too.

The Gingue Farm started milking cows in 1953. In 2015, the family sold the cows, but that didn’t mean they stopped farming.

“We decided to try something different, so now we board heifers, we sell hay, we got the grain crops now, we also do farm events too,” said Gingue

A farmer willing to try something new, just what Peterson was looking for.

“We have farmers around the state, some of them organic, some of them conventional and we’re slowly working with more and more farms to grow more acres so that we can serve a high percentage of the breweries in Vermont,” said Peterson.

Centuries ago, Vermont was covered in fields of gold. New England was once the bread basket of the United States and growing grains was a large part of Vermont’s agricultural heritage, as shown by the shocks of wheat on the state flag and in the hands of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture perched atop the Statehouse.

But when the expansion started out West, grain production in Vermont rapidly declined.

However, in the last decade…

“We’ve started to see an increase in grain production as new local food markets have opened new opportunities for farmers to grow grain,” said Dr. Heather Darby, UVM Extension.

Heather Darby and the UVM Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Team has been collaborating with the Northern Grain Growers Association to rebuild the grain industry.

“It’s exciting to be able to see a growing emerging grain market here in Northern Vermont, it does grow well, it’s kind of outside the box but 100 years ago everyone grew their own grains whether it was oats, or wheat or barley,” said Seth Johnson, Morningstar Farm in Glover.

Seth Johnson is known as the “bean guy.” He grows certified organic beans and other grains on his farm in Glover, just 30 minutes down the road from the Gingue Farm in Waterford.

His new piece of equipment, purchased in Illinois, can harvest all types of grains here in the Green Mountain State.

“We felt a little more comfortable investing the money if we knew we had some custom work to keep it busy, this is our first field that we’re trying it out on, so we’re really excited to be working the Shawn Gingue and his family on this project,” said Seth.

Once harvested, the barley seed heads to Peterson’s facility in Monkton to begin the malting process.

“There’s 3 steps, soaking germinating and kilning,” said Peterson.

The goal is come out with a seed that has a lot of sugar content and enzymes a brewer can use. 

As a maltster, sometimes you have to get creative…

“If you’re looking at our soak tanks, those are maple sap collection tanks. Everybody in the country who’s doing this kind of finds what they can find locally and repurposes it. I saw those sap tanks on the side of the road and said, ‘that’s perfect.’”

Lots of variables make malts taste very different - the soil, the weather, the variety, all come into play.

Quality is key…

“UVM Extension has a cereal grain testing laboratory, it’s one of the only public testing labs on the East coast, so it’s utilized by farmers and researchers from all over the country, it’s a pretty special place that we have here in Vermont, we offer grain analysis specific to barley for malting, so if farmers are growing for the malt industry, then they’re able to send in their grain and we can test it and evaluate it,” said Dr. Darby.

With more brewers looking for high-quality Vermont malt, Peterson’s operation is in the process of expanding.

“We’ve rented all this space, you’re looking behind us at Nordic Farm in Charlotte. The brand-new bin down there is going to be storing 1,000 tons of barley, the barn back there is going to be the new malt house, so we’ll be increasing our production size significantly,” said Peterson.

From starting in an old hay barn to bringing an iconic dairy farm back to life, Peterson’s mission has stayed the same.

“We want to be able to support Vermont’s agricultural system and help it move forward in the 21st Century, it’s supporting a local farmer, it’s growing the economy,” said Peterson “There’s barley that’s being grown in Vermont, when you’re driving down the road and you see these fields, we want you not just to be looking and saying, 'hey that’s a beautiful field, Vermont’s a great place, we want you to look and say oh, that’s actually barley that’s going to go into beer or whiskey.'”

It’s farmers, producers, researchers and brewers all working together to make every sip count.