Wendell Berry has said that eating is an agricultural act, but what about drinking beer? A thirst for fermented beverages may have inspired the world’s first farmers to plant crops some 13,000 years ago, yet today beer is rarely part of the larger conversation about where our food comes from.
A handful of California craft brewers are starting to tap into that primitive connection. Taking up the motto “Beer is agriculture,” Almanac Beer Co. works directly with local farmers to source specialty ingredients for their seasonal brews. “For most people, beer is what shows up in the bottle or can,” says Almanac brewer Damien Fagan. “We’re trying to create a foundation that beer is rooted deeply in agriculture.”
Fagan founded Almanac with fellow brewer and Beer & Nosh blogger Jesse Friedman last year, after they met in a home-brewing club, where they traded brewing experiments. (“I’d show up with a fig beer or a puréed turnip beer. Not always great ideas,” Fagan admits.) The two instantly bonded over their interest in San Francisco’s farm-to-table food culture. “We saw a real opening to think and talk about the brewing process using that same vocabulary and ideology,” says Friedman.
No stranger to farmers markets, Friedman launched SodaCraft last summer, offering naturally carbonated sodas using fresh produce from his fellow vendors at the Ferry Plaza. He has since sold the business to turn his attention to Almanac, where his sourcing and brewing ethos remains the same. “Both businesses were born out of the idea that you can take farmers market produce and make something special out of it,” says Friedman.
From the Farm to the Barrel
While the term terroir is usually reserved for fine wines, Almanac has found creative ways to “infuse a sense of time and place in each brew,” as Friedman says, by integrating fresh produce into the mash. Since last summer, Almanac has collaborated with Sebastopol Berry Farm, Twin Girls Farm, Hamada Farms, Marshall’s Farm Natural Honey, and most recently, Heirloom Organic Gardens. For each of their beers, made in small batches and released seasonally, Friedman and Fagan meet with the farmer, tour their farm, and feature it prominently on the bottle’s label and Almanac’s website.
Like the Farmers’ Almanac, each brew serves as a record of the season. The Autumn Farmhouse Pale Ale celebrated the last of Twin Girls Farm’s fall plums, while the Winter Wit preserved the end of December at Hamada Farms, with a mix of Cara Cara, navel, and new blood oranges. “If we’d brewed two weeks earlier or later, the mix of oranges would have been different,” Friedman notes.
Their most recent release, Bière de Mars (March beer), is a French-style farmhouse ale highlighting baby fennel from Heirloom Organic Gardens. While fennel might sound like an unexpected choice for beer, farmer Grant Brians thought it made a lot of sense when Almanac approached him. “The flavors in fennel are carried in an oil and slightly alkaline base,” he explains. “It’s perfect to mix into the brewing process.”
The goal with each brew is to provide a distinct but subtle accent that does not dominate the flavor profile, but adds depth and pairs well with seasonal dishes. “We want the ingredient to be an integrated part of the beer,” Friedman insists. “It should not be a fennel cocktail.”
How’s the finished result? “It’s good!” says Brians. “I’m generally a wine drinker, but I enjoy full-bodied and well-balanced flavors in beers. And it was nice to taste the end result of our collaboration.”
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