Walk into any bar or bottle shop across America these days and the healthy selection of local craft beer is evidence that the artisanal food movement has reached the tap. Now, a new wave of sustainable microbreweries are showing that craft beer can be environmentally friendly as well. Some of those microbreweries are in Maryland, scattered throughout the rolling farmlands of the Piedmont plateau and the Eastern Shore. With fertile acreage for barley, oats and hops—plus a rich history of communitarian values—it’s easy to see why.
“Sustainable brewing supports local jobs and local farmers,” said Lisa Challenger, director of Worcester County Tourism. “A large portion of every sale of local craft beer stays in the community, so it’s big business for small towns.”
D.C.-area residents know rural Maryland well from summertime shore visits and autumnal hiking expeditions, but the burgeoning beer scene offers a reason to visit year round. FeBREWary—Maryland’s month-long celebration of local craft beer—provides an up-close opportunity to see how these sustainable local brewers are taking the importance of community to heart.
The journey from farm to tap
Less than 10 miles inland from the Ocean City boardwalk, the area around Berlin, Md., is replete with farms and steeped in old-school agricultural traditions. That made sustainability an easy call for Bryan Brushmiller, owner of Burley Oak Brewing Company in Worcester County. “Being a sustainable brewery in this town is just doing what we do here,” Brushmiller said. “We utilize local ingredients because the products are just better, and it helps your neighbor.”
The Burley Oak team. (Burley Oak Brewing Company)
After Brushmiller was laid off from his job in 2009, he took up homebrewing and soon encountered an opportunity: What to do with the spent grain left over from the brewing process? Rather than see it go to waste, he decided to feed it to his chickens. “Even back then,” he said, “my thoughts were, ‘How do I utilize my byproducts? How do I not waste anything?’”
Two years later, a local farmer and soil scientist named Brooks Clayville proposed working with Brushmiller to grow and harvest a barley that would be well-suited to the local climate and could be malted for brewing. After lots of trial and error, they found the perfect strain—a pale barley that forms the basis for Burley Oak’s Homegrown Session IPA, one of approximately 450 beers the brewery has produced since 2011. Burley Oak has no flagship beer, instead taking advantage of close relationships with farmers and a new 3,000-square-foot “Funk Factory” to continually concoct fresh experimentations (they were years ahead of the sour beer trend). Visitors sample a rotating selection at the lively on-site taproom, set in an all-wood 19th century cooperage, and can enjoy local live music, art unveilings and other events on a regular basis.
The spent grain from all that experimentation? It goes to farmers as feed. That local-first mindset can yield pleasant opportunities, like the time a farmer brought over a large batch of blueberry blossom honey for Burley Oak to brew with. “That epitomizes what we do,” Brushmiller said. “We can support a local farmer, make something distinctive, and it will be a quality beer because it’s local and fresh.”
Old-fashioned flavors on a working farm
“I had farming in my blood,” said Tom Barse, proprietor of Mount Airy’s Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm, which he operates alongside his wife, Carolann McConaughy. Barse’s grandparents grew up on tobacco and sheep farms on the St. Mary’s Peninsula in Maryland and in County Galway, Ireland, and his parents bought farmland in Preston County, W.Va.
After Barse took a detour to law school, he and McConaughy purchased the verdant 47-acre Stillpoint Farm. They devised a multifaceted, sustainable agricultural operation on a small scale, raising a rare breed of sheep, harvesting high-quality horse hay, keeping bees, and brewing beer—a passion Barse had pursued as a homebrewer since 1972.
Barse calls Milkhouse an “old-fashioned” brewery, which means you won’t find any double chocolate habanero stouts on tap. “We make plain beers with local ingredients so that you can taste what those ingredients are all about,” he said. The Cascade and Chinook hops used in many of Milkhouse’s beers are grown in Stillpoint’s hopyard, and Barse sources most of the other grains, fruits, herbs and honey from local farmers. He ferments wild yeast in the farm’s old milking parlor, and he is working with a local maltster to create new regional flavors.
Head of brewer tasting a cereal mash. This beer was put into those wine barrels. (Milkhouse Brewery)
Visitors can try Barse’s “all Maryland” beers in the brewery’s tasting room, before or after touring the farm. “By our customers seeing that working farms are still very much alive in our area, we can continue to educate people on the importance of agriculture in our day-to-day lives and brews,” said Sarah Healey, Milkhouse’s general manager.
Barse’s law degree came in handy in 2012, when he was instrumental in passing Maryland’s farm brewery law, which created a license that permits the on-site consumption of any beer made with an agricultural product from the farm. It has transformed small farm breweries into destinations for locals and tourists, and it has helped bootstrapped operations become self-sustaining. Milkhouse was the first brewery to receive the new license; Barse estimates that on a pleasant Saturday in June, as many as 200 people will come by to sip on brews like the Dollyhyde Farmhouse Ale (refreshing, with a touch of spice) and the Homestead Hefeweizen (malty, with mild banana notes). During FeBREWary, Milkhouse will debut the City Slicker Sour Farmhouse, a collaboration with Olde Mother Brewing that utilizes an experimental grain from the University of Maryland Agriculture Extension office.
An eco-friendly outpost on the Eastern Shore
Education is central to the mission of many sustainable breweries in Maryland, a calling that Jason and Beth Hearn—the founders of Tall Tales Brewing Company in Parsonsburg—take seriously. “We want to ensure that when people visit, they know where their fresh ingredients come from,” Jason Hearn said. “It’s part of their community, and it helps us be responsible as a business and as neighbors.”
Tall Tales came about when the Hearnses were looking to reutilize the headquarters of their landscaping business, a skill set that proved handy for the eco-friendly construction of the brewery: Large windows save on heating and air, while rain gardens conserve water.
The Hearnses wanted to make exceptional beer (and food) in an ecologically responsible way. They began sending residual yeast and grains to hog and cattle farmers. They developed a sophisticated water reuse system that allows them to recycle all of the brewery’s wastewater and rainwater catchment back into the crops on site. And they installed a state-of-the-art brewing system and commercial kitchen, which cranks out brick-oven pizzas to pair with mythically named beers like Sasquatch Imperial Stout and Paul Bunyan Belgian Strong Ale.
Inside of Tall Tales Brewery. (Tall Tales Brewery)
Tall Tales wants to serve as an example for other small breweries in the area, proving that it’s possible to make great beer, be environmentally responsible, and turn a profit. They host live music most Fridays and Saturdays, as well as group functions, charity events and even weddings. For FeBREWary, they’re participating in the Love on Tap Shore Craft Beer Fest, alongside other local breweries.
“We view ourselves as an important part of the community,” Beth Hearn said. “When they come here, our neighbors know that we’re trying to take care of the environment—not just for us, but for years to come.”