Randy Marriner and his wife, Mary, bought the Manor Hill Farm in Ellicott City in 2011, thinking the 54-acre expanse would be a nice place to live while raising angus beef and growing vegetables to use at their nearby restaurant, the Victoria Gastro Pub. They never imagined they would fill two acres with towering trellises for growing hops, or convert an old barn-cum-garage into a brew house filled with gleaming stainless-steel fermenters.
They hadn’t planned on hiring Ben Little, an award-winning brewer and veteran of Flying Dog, to help them create Sour Mojito, a sour blond ale brewed with key limes and dried wintergreen that became the highest-rated beer at the 2015 Maryland Craft Beer Festival.
And they certainly didn’t think they’d be sending their beers to bars as far afield as the District and Baltimore, which they’ll be doing as of July 6.
“I’d never made beer before,” Randy says, standing in his new brewery. “I’ve consumed a hell of a lot of it.”
The spur for the Marriners to move from farming to brewing — in line with a growing national trend — was a 2012 state law that created the farm brewery manufacturer’s license. Also known as a Class 8 license, it allows its holders to, among other things, brew up to 15,000 barrels of beer a year, as long as that beer is made with Maryland agricultural products, such as hops or barley.
Randy didn’t know anything about the farm brewery bill at the time: He was busy championing a law that would allow his craft-beer bar with 24 taps to sell refillable growlers of beer for customers to take home. The real impetus came when Mary read a magazine article about Colorado’s acclaimed Oskar Blues brewery and its 50-acre farm, which brews beer, raises animals and grows vegetables to supply a pair of restaurants. “She kept hitting me in the arm and saying, ‘This is us! This is us!’ ”
That’s when Manor Hill Brewing was born, with the slogan “Family-owned, farm-brewed.”
Anyone who has been to a trendy restaurant in the past five years has certainly been made aware of the virtues of “farm-to-table”: the idea that diners can and should know which farm their carrots or kale came from, or whether their free-range organic chicken had friends. It’s a valuable, if mockable, ideal. But as that label becomes passe, a growing number of brewers are trumpeting “farm-to-glass” beers, creating IPAs and sour ales with products grown in neighboring fields.
The Marriners’ story is one that’s becoming more common throughout the Free State, according to Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland. “It’s on the increase,” he says, adding that his office is fielding more calls about “taking a family farm and finding new ways to make use of it,” such as turning it into a farm brewery or farm distillery. “The state has a keen interest in using its alcohol laws as a means to preserve family farms. You’re not just helping a new industry; you’re preserving lands and creating jobs in the rural economy.”
A few small breweries sprang up in the wake of the 2012 legislation, including Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm in Mount Airy and Ruhlman Brewing in Carroll County. But interest truly heated up last year, when the statehouse modified the Class 8 license to allow farm brewers to become wholesalers and sell their products directly to bars and restaurants rather than go through a distributor.
Beneficiaries of the new rules include Red Shedman Farm Brewery & Hop Yard, which opened at the Linganore Winecellars in Frederick County in November and now distributes to restaurants and liquor stores in seven counties, and Manor Hill Brewing, which poured its first beers at Victoria in March. Atticks knows of “at least four more in the planning stages,” including the Brookeville Beer Farm, the first farm brewery in Montgomery County, which aims to be brewing in September.
Virginia passed a similar law in 2014, easing the path for farm breweries to open on land zoned for agricultural purposes, because the act of brewing beer is considered manufacturing. Old 690 Brewing in Purcellville was one of the first breweries to take advantage of the new rules, with 300 hop plants in the ground before its opening last August. There are more in the works; the most prominent was to be Farmworks Brewery in Lucketts, run by Flying Dog, but the brewery canceled those plans last month.
Nationally, the number of farm breweries is “certainly growing, mostly buoyed by the increasing number of states offering farm brewery licenses,” says Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, a nationwide craft-beer trade group. (The group does not yet break out farm breweries from other craft breweries and so does not have definitive statistics on their growth.)
An early adopter in the farm brewing category was Oregon’s Rogue Ales, which bought its first farm in 2008 and now owns two. At first, President Brett Joyce says, they bought farms to supply their own hops and avoid price fluctuations that were rife in the industry. “We loved it so much that, 12 months into it, we thought, ‘Why can’t we do barley? Why can’t we grow grain?’ Then we started planting other crops,” such as pumpkins, he says. Those crops allowed brewers to experiment with new products, such as pumpkin beer, and “we wouldn’t have done that before we had the farm,” Joyce says.
Usually eight or nine beers are brewed each year, using only products from the farm and sold under the Rogue Farms label. More important, the Rogue farms now supply about 15 percent of the barley and 40 to 45 percent of the hops for all beers in the Rogue Ales line. “It’s enough that we’re serious about it,” Joyce says, adding that “if there’s a disaster, we can still get the hops we need.”
That is an important point: While some people see “farm brewery” and assume that it means all the ingredients come from the same farm, that’s not the case with most Maryland breweries. “The difficulty of building that [one-farm] business model is weather, diseases and pests, which doesn’t always sync up with the reality of the craft beer market, especially when you get into the supply side with restaurants,” explains Atticks of the Brewer’s Association of Maryland. “We’ve had two very rough winters. The crops suffer.” Compounding the problem is a lack of malt houses, which prepare the grain for brewing. There’s only one in the state at the moment, in Frederick County, though more are planned.
At Manor Hill, the Marriners put in 2,800 Chinook, Cascade, Centennial and Nugget hop plants and will use those and vegetables and herbs from the Victoria Gastro Pub garden. (Brewer Ben Little is looking forward to making a sour beer with blackberries aged in a rye barrel with Brettanomyces yeast.) They’re negotiating with Maryland farmers to supply other ingredients, in order to keep their beers as local as possible. The water comes from a hand-dug 65-foot-deep well on the property. Randy Marriner says that Alda Hopkins Clark, the mother of longtime state Sen. James A. Clark Jr., who lived on a neighboring farm, claimed that the well’s water “makes the best iced tea in Howard County.”
For now, anyone looking to try the flagship Manor Hill IPA — well made, with a burst of tropical fruit in the nose and balanced by resiny pine notes in the finish — will have to head to the Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, where four of the two dozen taps will be dedicated to Manor Hill beers. Marriner does not plan to open a public tasting room or offer tours of Manor Hill Brewing, for reasons of access: The farm is at the end of a long, narrow road, and to have visitors frequently driving down “would destroy the character” of the rural area, he says. “And I live here. . . . We figure our restaurants will be our tasting rooms,” referring to Victoria Gastro Pub and Food Plenty, which is set to open in Clarksville in 2016.
That’s the biggest thing that sets Manor Hill apart from other farm breweries. Old 690 offers tours, food trucks, live music and weekly trivia nights. Ruhlman has a disc golf course adjacent to the tasting room. Rogue president Joyce boasts that “we’ve created a beer version of a winery: Come to our farm, see our hops, smell them, taste them.” Marriner says that he’s not opposed to the burgeoning field of what’s known as agri-tourism, but that it’s just not a good fit for Manor Hill. He does concede there that might be “very specific, controlled kinds of events” at the farm.
Manor Hill is on target to produce about 2,000 barrels of beer this year, which is an average amount for a new brewery and it’s slightly more than DC Brau produced in its first year. Next year, Marriner says, he plans to expand the number of fermenters and bring in a mobile canning unit to produce six-packs of the brewery’s flagships. By next month, a limited number of kegs will begin finding their way to bars throughout Maryland and in the District. A series of launch parties is in the works.
“It’s good for the local economy, it’s good for the environment,” Marriner says. “This is a family-owned, true-to-ourselves operation. We can do what we want to do.”
Manor Hill Brewing (not open to the public): www.manorhillbrewing.com.
Victoria Gastro Pub: 8201 Snowden River Pkwy., Columbia. 410-750-1880. victoriagastropub.com.