Maryland farmers try beer production

Henry Ruhlman looks at hops plants at his family farm, where they are growing hops and making craft brew beers.

Maryland's burgeoning agritourism industry is offering consumers yet another product to satisfy their hunger — or thirst, in this case — for locally grown goods. Recently enacted legislation has generated a flurry of hops growing, barley malting and beer brewing at several farms.

Henry Ruhlman brewed beer for himself for about six years and now has opened a retail venture at his Creeping Creek Farms in northern Carroll County, using a key ingredient he grows right there. He started with 24 hops plants three years ago and has expanded the crop to more than 1,600 vines.

"It is more than enough to get me launched in the business," he said.

The law, which took effect July 1, allows Maryland farmers to produce up to 15,000 barrels of beer in a calendar year. Farm-based brewers must feature home-grown barley, hops or fruits in their beer. The brewers may sell their beer for consumption both on and off the farm, offering a boost not only to the farmers but to the state's burgeoning craft beer industry.

"If you build a brewery on your farm and use products grown there, the state will allow you to sell the beer at the farm," said Lou Berman, trade practice manager for the state comptroller's office. "It is another aspect of the growing agritourism trend."

Several other farm brewery operations are in the works, including at least five in Frederick County, said Berman, who oversees much of the state's farm brewery licensing.

At Creeping Creek, Ruhlman built a 1,120-square-foot, air-conditioned building to house his brewing equipment and converted a garage into a retail store. With his two sons and other family members, he began harvesting the hops in mid-July, then brewed and bottled the beer. The family mowed the hayfield near the road to make parking spaces for visitors.

A party was held Saturday to mark the debut of Ruhlman Brewery's four ales — a stout, a pale ale, a red ale and an India pale ale.

Hops are a good start for the operation, said Greg Clabaugh, a Frederick County dairy and grain farmer, who built Amber Fields Malting and Brewing Co. at his Keymar farm. But, he said, a real Maryland beer must be made from locally grown and malted grain — "the meat of any beer."

"Amber Fields is the only operating malthouse in the state," said Clabaugh, whose farm has been in his family for 175 years. "Our malt is the only malt that can produce a true Maryland beer."

His wife, Loree, said their goal was to bring goods from the "field to the table" — and to educate consumers.

"We are raising the grain and have a malthouse and will eventually have a tasting room," she said. "The public can be so disconnected from the farms. Maybe this can help connect us."

The brewery has allowed the couple to expand farming operations and provides a sustainable income, Greg Clabaugh said.

"Hopefully, by diversifying our operation, we can stay competitive for generations to come," he said.

Farm breweries give farmers flexibility and the ability to make more money, Berman said.

"It will supplement farm income, and it may mean they earn the income that can keep the farm in the family," he said. "And, as far as labor goes, it beats the heck out of growing soybeans and corn."

Bob Kratochvil, an agronomist at the University of Maryland, said one farm can handle an entire beer-making operation. Hops, which are typically raised in the Pacific Northwest, have been growing well at the university's research farm in Hagerstown, he said, adding that the kind of barley needed for malting is also doing well here — "and [is] already producing good beer."

"This is the fastest-growing portion of the brewing industry," Kratochvil said of craft beer production. "They won't be putting Budweiser or Coors out of business any time soon, but this locally grown product will appeal to a lot of people. Beer aficionados will try these new brews."

The Maryland Department of Agriculture, which each year measures the public's preference for local products, found in its most recent poll that 74 percent of state residents want to buy locally — and that includes beer, said Mark Powell, a spokesman for the department.

"The demand is here," he said. "If you can develop a quality local beer, produced from Maryland crops … it will work."

Kratochvil has worked closely with the Clabaughs and Tom Flores, also the master brewer at Brewer's Alley in Frederick, as they built Amber Fields Malting and Brewing Co.

The venture started several years ago with a casual question from Flores to Clabaugh: "Can you grow barley?" Clabaugh could and did, and after much experimenting he learned to produce beer.

"I learned from every mistake and just got better and bigger," Clabaugh said. "About a year ago, I felt that I had perfected the malting process."

The company introduced Amber Fields Best Bitter last year — the first commercially produced beer in Maryland to use locally grown and malted grain in 100 years, he said.

"This is a whole new industry for farmers," Clabaugh said. "I was making $600 an acre from soybeans. I can make about $6,500 an acre taking barley to brewery."

He hopes to tackle hops next, a crop the Ruhlmans have found manageable but somewhat labor-intensive. The perennial plants take a few years to establish themselves, and vines can grow up to 25 feet long and need something to climb, Ruhlman said.

"Hops bitter the beer, give it flavor and act as a natural preservative," Ruhlman said. "The more hops the brewer uses, the more preserved the beer is."

He plucked a cone-shaped flower from a hops vine and crushed it to reveal a yellow, citrus-scented powder known as lupin. He has also made homes for bees and bats: The bees not only produce honey but pollinate the plants, and the bats eat mosquitoes and other insects.

Ruhlman expects to move beyond hops into barley. A neighboring farmer has promised 400 bushels of barley so Ruhlman can try malting. His sons Matt and Dan are on board.

"Beer production is a marriage of science and art," Dan Ruhlman said.

His brother demurred.

"It is more the combination of persistence and hard work," Matt Ruhlman said.

Clabaugh said beer offers an advantage: "It's much more recession-proof than the roller-coaster ride of income we get from other farm products."