Crafting Business with Breweries

Break into a new market by selling your produce to local brewers and cider makers.

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by James Priest
Craft brewers go out of their way to find locally-grown ingredients for their beers.

Farmers have a long list of potential markets for their produce — restaurants, wholesalers, farmers markets, and retail produce outlets are just a few common selling options. However, a novel market is emerging, offering a new source of revenue: local breweries and cideries.

An Expanding Craft

Local breweries seem to be popping up everywhere nowadays, but this wasn’t always true. Although more than 4,000 breweries existed in the United States in the early 1870s, this number steadily declined over the next century until breweries in the country had all but disappeared.

A main contributing factor was the National Prohibition Act. In effect from 1920 into the early ’30s, Prohibition forced breweries to stop producing alcohol except for near beers (that is, beer containing little to no alcohol). The damage done to breweries lasted until the early 1990s, when brewery numbers began to spike. Even with this revival, it’s only been in the last decade that the number of craft brewers has jumped dramatically. Today, according to the National Brewers Association, there are well over 6,000 breweries in the country. Craft breweries — independent breweries not associated with any multinational corporations — comprise the overwhelming percentage of these new businesses.

Bartender filling up with craft beer a pint glass

Craft brewers are at the forefront of using myriad local ingredients; they’re limited only by their imagination in a quest to create unique and flavorful brews. Beers have been created using ingredients as disparate as oysters, beets, sweet potatoes, and rosemary. Brewing beer isn’t just about hops anymore — boundary-breaking ingredients set craft brewers apart from the rest, and farmers are in the perfect position to supply the fundamental crops.

Make Your Word Heard

Brewers are enthusiastic about their ingredients, and they want to buy local; it builds community, facilitates beneficial relationships, and frequently results in higher quality produce. Most brewers are also willing to go outside their immediate area for quality ingredients that aren’t available locally. For local growers, this means getting your name out there and building relationships with these brewers. No one will buy from you if they don’t know you exist.

Cameron Stark, a cider maker at Jersey Cider Works, emphasizes the importance of grooming relationships between growers and brewers. “Let us know you exist. Tell us what you grow, and maybe even more importantly, ask us what we might need you to grow. Instead of growing the same crops as every other farmer, have a sit down with the buyers and ask, ‘What do you need?'”

Similarly, James Priest, owner of The Referend Bier Blendery, works extensively with local growers, and values these relationships. “Local growers care to put in the time to make something worthwhile. Usually they’re small, independent operations, even frequently backyard growers, where the care and attention and inherent love of the place is that much more apparent.” In addition, these relationships are frequently more flexible and can be more responsive to the brewer. “We occasionally have specific needs that differ from what’s popular in the market. I can’t go to Costco and get perfectly overripe raspberries, but I can work with a local grower to achieve that end.”

Though many brewers prefer local fare, the quality of the ingredients is usually of the greatest importance to them. This opens up additional opportunities for growers who don’t feel the need to be bound to local markets. “We’re somewhat limited by quantity when working with certain locally-grown fruits,” says Priest. “Dark juiced sour cherries, for example, ‘Balaton,’ ‘Danube,’ and ‘North Star,’ are extremely hard to source in any real quantity in New Jersey, but the Hudson Valley and Central Pennsylvania are flush with them.”

Will Meyers of Cambridge Brewing Co. also searches for ingredients outside his immediate area. “My primary goal is to have the best fruit, herbs, and ingredients possible to express in my beer. My secondary goal is to source as locally as possible. My ability to work with local growers is determined more by the seasonality of the harvests, and whether I’m in a position to use a fruit when it’s ripe.”

Breaking into the Market

It’s best to know who might be buying your product before harvest time approaches, or, better yet, before you plant. That’s why you need to contact local brewers and let them know you’re interested in meeting their needs.

How do you find brewers? The Brewers Association is a national organization promoting the interests of craft breweries. The Brewers Association website allows you to search for breweries by state and by county, and differentiates between microbreweries, brewpubs, large breweries, and regional breweries. Every state has its own brewers guilds. These organizations represent the interests of brewers in that location, and connect the community with the national organization. This is a great place to begin your search for nearby breweries that might be interested in your produce.

When I identify a brewer I believe has promise, I send an email explaining who I am and what I grow. If I don’t receive a response after a few days, I follow up with a phone call. If the brewer still doesn’t respond, I know it’s time to look elsewhere. Some brewers are more interested in trying local produce than others, so don’t be discouraged if your offers are ignored.

If, on the other hand, a brewer responds to your queries, let them know what you’re currently growing, and ask if they need something that isn’t available locally. I’ve always had great interest in my fruits and berries, but brewers are open to all types of produce.

In contrast with local wineries, which frequently need large amounts of product, local breweries are much more flexible about produce quantities.

Brew quantities differ substantially across breweries, and sometimes even within a single brewery. According to the head brewer at Lone Eagle Brewing, Alex Franko, most breweries make batches ranging from 3 barrels up to 50 barrels. Generally, about 25 pounds of product, suitable for about a 5-barrel brew, is the lowest number a brewery can use. However, a more common low end for products to be used as main ingredients is around 50 pounds. I’ve personally sold smaller quantities of accent products, such as elderflowers, to breweries.

The Right Price

Pricing is always a difficult decision: How do you determine a price that allows the customer to position their product competitively, and earns both you and the brewer a reasonable profit? Growers should keep in mind that brewers need to meet their production costs. Still, most brewers are glad to pay a premium for your product, especially if you have a well-established relationship with them. The ability to move relatively large amounts of produce at reasonable prices is a win-win situation for both partners in this relationship. Personally, I charge brewers somewhere between my usual wholesale price and my retail price.

Perfect Timing

One important consideration for brewers is a grower’s ability to be flexible in delivery. David Bronstein, owner of Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing, often fights the battle between space, preparation, and timing. “It’s hard for brewers to make sure they have tank space, yeast, and all their brewing arrangements ready at the exact time the local harvest is ready.” Even larger breweries face the same issue; Gene Muller, head brewer of Flying Fish, echoes this sentiment. “We brew approximately 100 kegs — or 1,800 cases — at a time, so it’s really expensive for us to gear up new packaging and get wholesalers on board to distribute. Ideally, we want a crop that’s in a stable format — frozen, pureed, and so on. We can use fresh product, but it takes a bit more work.”

peaches in bubbling liquid in silver tank

I’ve had my own experiences successfully selling frozen produce to brewers. Last season, I wasn’t able to bring my fresh raspberries to brewery customers at harvest time. Instead, I froze them. I was able to sell this product later at a good price when the customers were ready.

One season, I was blessed with a particularly robust aronia berry harvest in August. At the time, many of my regular customers were flooded with fresh produce and didn’t have the storage space or demand to warrant purchasing more berries. By freezing my crop, I was able to address their needs at a later date that was more convenient for them. I was also able to beat out competition because I had access to these berries when fresh produce was no longer readily available. This highlights the value of growing and offering a crop that doesn’t need to be used immediately.

With the inevitable continued growth of local craft breweries and cideries, it’s a smart move to establish relationships with these businesses. In this exchange, farmers guarantee a buyer for their produce by growing specifically ordered crops, and brewers get top-quality ingredients while supporting local growers. Such teamwork is worth grabbing a cold beer and celebrating with an elated, “Cheers!”

Michael Brown owns Pitspone Farm, a small-acreage farm and nursery focusing on less-common berries. He sells to a variety of restaurants, food, and beverage companies in New Jersey.