Farm To Pint

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA

2016 was a disaster for the Massachusetts dairy industry. Our skies sparkled crystal blue nearly all summer, as fields that grow pasture for cows were left barren by the most extreme drought in half a century. For Phil Stevens, paterfamilias of Carter & Stevens farm in Barre, that was only one of the factors making it one of the worst years for dairy farmers in the past few decades. He also had to contend with low nation-ally set milk prices, as well as only one local company that buys milk, meaning no competition for the milk produced by the 150 dairy cows he and his family raise on their thousand acres of pasture.

As a result, Phil said, it cost the family more to produce milk than they could get for it on the wholesale market, at 15 cents a pint. Molly DuBois, Phil’s daughter and one of three co-owners of the farm, says that’s lower than what her grandfather got. The family lost money on all wholesale dairy sales. They do manage to earn a profit on the raw milk and ice cream they sell out of the on-site farm store, but not enough to make up the difference.

Phil says it was a tough year for all local dairy farmers. “I believe we’re going to lose half the dairy farms in Massachusetts this year.”

Kip Graham, executive director for Worcester County for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, isn’t convinced the situation is quite that dire, but he agrees that this summer has hurt Massachusetts’s remaining dairy farmers. Of all the farmers he knows, Phil and his family are among the most creative in finding ways to survive: “Carter & Stevens is outstanding in adding value and bringing experiences that people want. They’re just tirelessly working on making improvements and creating other businesses. Barre’s not a big town, but they’re bringing people into Barre in the thou-sands. It’s great to see the success that they’re having.”

Phil and his children built a farm store to sell vegetables, meat, raw milk and ice cream. They launched a popular weekend barbecue. They’ve built a children’s playground. They now regularly host competitive obstacle races in the summer. (Four members of the clan even competed on NBC’s reality competition Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge this past summer, but didn’t win the $250,000 prize.) All of this tempts visitors to the farm and cultivates additional sources of income.

And this year, in order to save the dairy farm, Phil Stevens and his family launched a brewery.

A 10,000-pound stone cow stands guard at the entrance to the brewery—Molly says it’s likely the largest stone cow in the world—carved by Phil and local stone artist Jason Benoit. She’s named Heavy Cream. (“What kind of milk do you get from a stone cow?” jokes Molly). And she’s given her name to their newest venture: Stone Cow Brewery.

A number of threads wove together to make the brewery possible. The barbecue had originally been conceived as a way to lure visitors to buy more ice cream, and thus milk, and it was thriving. So, the family thought, what about offering visitors a pint? They’d been home brewing for a few years already. Some of the land could be turned to barley, rye and hops. They could do it all: grow the ingredients, brew the beer, sell it on-site. In fact, they’d be the only farm in the region thus far growing the ingredients as well as brewing the beer.

And then, a musician who plays at their weekly barbecues told them about a Waltham brewery that was going out of business. The equipment “was going to be auctioned off —and it just all of a sudden instantly clicked,” said Phil’s wife, Erin. They found out about the auction on a Wednesday night in July 2012, and by 8:30 the next morning they showed up to buy the whole system.

Back in 2011, a fire started in the Carter & Stevens barn, kindled by a tossed Roman candle. It burned about 15,000 bales of hay. It burned so hot it melted the siding of a nearby house, and it took local firefighters 12 hours to put it out. The family lost the barn, farm equipment, even a ’67 Camaro painstakingly restored by Phil and his daughter Nellie. Their kind neighbors to the north offered them an unused, dilapidated 1840s farmhouse to use as a new barn. The family disassembled it, hauled it back to Barre, and rebuilt it, with its original 60-foot-long centuries-old chestnut beams.

“We didn’t even know what we were moving it for, just that we wanted a barn to replace what burned. It didn’t seem like a farm without a barn. We didn’t even have insurance to do this, we did it all on our own,” said Phil. They thought maybe the barn would be a function hall. Today, it houses the tables for the brewery, with a wide porch overlooking the fields.

In a strange twist, Sean DuBois, Molly’s husband and co-owner of the brewery, says that after they built their new barn and named the brewery, they discovered by looking at an old map that the barn once served as a dairy barn owned by the Stone family. “So the Stones would have milked their cows in Stone cow barn,” which now serves as Stone Cow Brewery, said Sean.

The family is now growing about 10 acres of barley, from which they’ve been able to harvest about a ton of grain. The barley is part of an experiment they’re conducting with the University of Massachusetts and the USDA to determine which growing methods produce the best barley for malting. They’ve also planted 10 acres of rye that they’ll harvest next spring. (While their own grains are still growing, they’re also using local grains from area farms.) To harvest the grain, they’ve had to borrow a neighbor’s combine.

But there isn’t easily accessible hops-picking equipment in New England, given the small scale of hops farming here. The flowers, which are creeping up the sides of the barn and curling up strings attached to wires between telephone poles by the roadside, have to be picked by hand. So the family decided, next year, to hold a hops-picking festival. Visitors can sit at the table, drink some beer and pick the flowers off the vines.

The town was supportive, and the clan obtained all the necessary licensing and permits. DuBois and Matt Zarif, married to Nellie, manage the brewery. They hired Chris Courtney, who’s been working with beer since the mid 1990s, to serve as brewmaster.

In August this year, they opened the brewery’s doors to the public. 

A pint served with an expansive vista of rolling hills and ambling cows could provide enough of a destination in itself for local tourists, but the alcohol and scenery alone likely won’t satisfy finicky beer aficionados in the long run. 

So, how’s the beer? I can honestly say it’s delicious. The Farmhouse Ale is light and crisp—it’s Phil’s favorite, with a low alcohol content intended for farm workers to enjoy throughout the day, so he can toss one back and return to work. Their IPA has a citrusy bite. The Sundae Stout is brewed with Taza cocoa, local wild cherries and vanilla beans, and far from the sweetness the name implies, this dark beer has delightfully complex notes of bitter and fruit. They’re even experimenting with sours, a more recent entry in the local craft brew scene, fermented with different yeast strains than typical lagers or IPAs. Sours are among my favorite beers these days; theirs, the Farmer’s Daughter, was brewed on a mash of grapes as well and is tart and refreshing.

Stone Cow Brewery doesn’t sell to local stores, and they have no ambitions to do so at the moment. There’s too much competition on stores’ shelves. “I think getting people out here and pouring as much beer through the taps is what’s going to make this place succeed,” said Matt.

The success of the brewery isn’t a foregone conclusion, despite the captivating view and tasty brew. There are eight family members making their living on the farm, plus 30 employees hired to help run both the farm and the brewery. Managing those eight personalities and at times clashing visions for the farm can be difficult. Phil said one of the biggest challenges is keeping everyone happy.

“It is incredibly hard, and we have six families trying to make their living off this farm,” said Molly. “It's a dance, and we're trying to figure out how to dance. But we all realize that the main thing is that this land is something that we're here to take care of, and have for the next generation.”

“We want to keep doing what we love,” she said, “which is farming and keeping the cows. We’ve branched into other areas to save the dairy, and the dairy side has allowed what we do to exist here as well.” The view, she says, wouldn't exist without the cows. The animals also eat spent grains and bed down in chaff from the harvest.

So far, though, they’ve enjoyed an auspicious foray into the world of craft beer. Visitors from Connecticut and Rhode Island have scribbled their names and addresses in the guest-book. At a harvest festival in early October, the farm buzzed with as many as 4,000 visitors in one weekend.

They plan to do more, too: offer brick-oven pizza with mozzarella made from their milk, rent out the barn for weddings. They hope visitors will stop by the farm store and pick up an ice cream for the way home, maybe some vegetables, frozen beef or a gallon of milk. So far, that hasn’t happened as frequently as they’d like. While they sold about 1,000 gallons of beer at the harvest festival, they didn’t sell much milk. Maybe 50 gallons.

Still, they won’t let the cows go. “The dairy farm is the center, the heart of the farm,” Molly said. So if you’re heading for a drive in the hills west of Boston, the Carter & Stevens farm is a great place to bring the family for a weekend barbecue, as well as a few pints or a growler of beer. And while you’re there, you might want to pick up some milk.

 

CYNTHIA GRABER is co-host of Gastropod, a podcast about the science and history of food, and has also written for magazines including Wired, Fast Company, the New Republic and many others.