Local Beer, Local Ingredients

Field to Glass

A focus on local beer has long been important to the new wave of breweries in Canada, the US and across the world.

Since the early days of craft beer in the 1980s and 90s, serving craft beer has been a way for smaller operations to stand out by appealing to their neighbours and fellow residents to rally around and support their local brewery.

This idea of community support has gained even bigger traction with the rise of the tasting room model, where customers can buy fresh beer to drink by the glass on site. Many of these local breweries are now assuming the role of community hubs—in the manner of the traditional English public house—particularly in smaller, more remote towns and cities where loyalty to local businesses is strong.

With the community angle covered, many craft breweries are now turning their attention to sourcing ingredients locally. It’s a point of occasional pain to many brewers—most of whom are highly conscious of ecological and sustainability issues—that they work in an industry that traditionally has a large carbon footprint.

A lot of water and energy are used in every batch of beer. There is also a significant amount of by-product in used (or “spent”) grains. Many breweries have attempted to assuage this by, for example, using water- and heat-capture systems and shipping off their spent grains to local farmers to be used as feed. However, ingredients are often still delivered by truck or plane—whether it’s hops from the US or Australia, malted barley from the prairies, or even specialty malts from Europe.

This is changing, slowly. In response to demand for more hop-forward beers at breweries, more localized hop farm operations are opening up and moving online. (There’s usually a three-year wait until the crop is deemed worthy, which shows how much potential people see in hop farming.)

Whereas once their entire crop went to big breweries, established farms are now growing new varieties of hops for smaller craft breweries. The demand for local hops gets especially frenzied around harvest time. During this time, many breweries brew vibrant “fresh-hop” beers with freshly-picked hop cones.

A lot of premium-grade barley is, of course, already grown and malted in Canada. Brewers are keen on diversity though, and still feel the need to import grain for certain styles—for example, German and English beers that use malts particular to those countries.

Even so, experiments with growing heirloom varieties that are very similar to those in the Old World are proving fruitful. It’s in locally produced grain that the idea of terroir in beer gathers strength, with soil and climate having an effect on eventual flavour. Furthermore, looking at the bellwether of the US, it’s notable how more small-scale malting operations are coming online to serve the demand for rare or new kinds of malted grain. Malting is a specialized skill as much as brewing is, and it’s almost certain we’ll see growth in the number of artisanal maltsters in Canada over the next few years as brewers continue to demand local product.

The most difficult local ingredient to harness effectively is wild yeast, yet more innovative brewers are giving it a go by emulating centuries-old techniques. Simply put, this involves exposing the unfinished beer to the air—broad, shallow, open tanks known as coolships are the favoured vessel, giving maximum exposure to the elements—so that it can be inoculated by airborne yeasts. It’s by no means a perfect science—and a risky one as the chances of spoilage are high—but the risks can be worth it. Wild yeasts are capable of adding new layers of aroma and flavour as well as another layer of local terroir.

Merging many of these ideas of locality is the concept of the farm brewery, where much of what is produced goes into the beer. Towering trellises of hops are a common sight at these operations, with entire harvests going into seasonal beers every year. Grain is a trickier prospect to grow onsite, due to the sheer amount of land required for a sufficient yield. However, many other ingredients grown on the farms, such as orchard fruit, berries, and honey often find their way into seasonal beer releases. For customers at least, it’s the clearest, most evocative embodiment of the “field-to-glass” ethos that more breweries are striving for.