Words by John Gettings - Photographs by Adam Detour
Although more accustomed to cornfields in Iowathan corn mazes in Ipswich, the combine harvester taking down what’s left of the corn walls at Marini Farms this bright late-autumn day looks well-suited for the job. So does the brewer behind the wheel.
Ipswich Ale Brewery president Rob Martin might be the only beer maker in the country who owns his own combine. Though not as big as its Midwestern cousins, it’s a four-ton symbol of Martin’s commitment to growing and harvesting locally grown ingredients. And with a top speed of 12 miles per hour, it might be the only thing that can slow him down.
He discovered a new malt house in western Massachusetts about 18 months ago, which was converting raw barley into the brew-ready ingredient at the heart of a beer’s body, color, and flavor. Since then, Martin has been leasing fields from longtime Ipswich farmers and planting hops and grains for a line of limited-edition brews. At least half the ingredients in each batch of the brewery’s “5-Mile” line must be grown in Massachusetts, and at least one ingredient must have been grown within a five-mile radius of the Ipswich-based brewery.
Last November, that one ingredient was corn. Martin harvested more than 9,000 pounds of it with his combine. It was processed at the brewery and six months later could be tasted in the third beer in the series, a smooth, amber maibock (strong lager) called the 5-Mile Corn Bock. And just like the series’ first two beers—the 5-Mile Stock Ale, released last October, and the 5-Mile Pumpernickel-Rye Porter, released in January—the entire 350-case batch would eventually sell out.
The early success of the 5-Mile line could be clearing a path for the country’s more than 2,000 craft breweries, which now make up more than 5% of the total United States beer market. After years of success focusing on their flagship regional brews, Martin predicts that craft brewers will spend the next decade zooming in on more local, seasonal ingredients. But if they’re to make zip-code brewing a reality, they’ll first need to learn how to build relationships with their local growers.
Martin is a former Ipswich Ale Brewery employee who bought the company in 1999. He blends the fearless spirit of a home brewer with the seemingly tireless work ethic one sees in every successful small-business owner. He’s clearly in love with his work, and he’s especially enamored by this latest fling into farming. He’s quick to pull the trigger on a laugh whenever he retells a self-effacing story about one of his farming setbacks, but despite all of his claims that he has no idea what he’s doing, it seems he clearly does.
Martin has always been interested in farming and keeps dairy goats at his home in Topsfield. He’s been growing hops at the brewery for years, including some indigenous hops he discovered on a run through the woods inIpswich. He admits that the concept was never lost on him to grow his own ingredients, but malting barley was the issue. That couldn’t be achieved locally until Valley Malt, in South Hadley, opened in 2010. “It made a huge difference,” he says. “As soon as I found that out, maybe three or four months after they opened up, I said, ‘Hey this works now. Now we can pull this whole thing together.’”
And so he was off.
From brewery door to barn door it’s less than four miles to Marini Farms, where Michael Marini’s family has been farming since the 1920s. Eight months before harvesting his corn maze, Martin visited Marini to talk about planting hops, which add bitterness to beer, balancing the sweetness of the grain malt.
Marini, 33, says, right away he knew it was a good idea. But hops are a perennial crop, which means he’d have to give up a plot of his land for at least three years before their climbing vines would flower and could be harvested. And although it’s a crop he knew could flourish inNew England, he had zero experience growing it. Plus all his fields on the home farm were already tied up in lease agreements involving crops he knew how to grow, and with farmers—not brewers—he’d dealt with for years.
Marini and Martin talked next to an unused hillside behind the farm stand that years ago was Marini’s apple orchard. That day it was an overgrown tangle of brush and pipes, and the only spot Marini could offer. Beneath the mess, Martin saw a three-acre, south-facing field with built-in irrigation and room for about 15 rows of hops.
“And it happened fast,” says Marini. “He was here every day doing the grunt work, from the planting to taking care of the crop after. He was truly, truly committed. People are always coming up to the farm with ideas and different things and we haven’t done them,” he says. “But I took a chance with [Martin]. And you can see he’s doing it right.”
Martin and a few others from the brewery worked daily on that field and Martin eventually got six varieties of hops in the ground—on his 44th birthday. Today, a year and a half later, about 850 plants, mostly the Cascade andColumbusvarieties, have begun to climb trellises in the field now called “Yard 44.” Next, Martin and his crew will have to devise a plan for harvesting, which has to be done by hand.
Marini isn’t charging Martin to lease the land, which could run $300 a year,; instead Martin will showcase the farm’s logo on the label of every bottle featuring ingredients from the farm. He’s made similar arrangements with his other growing partners and it’s one that has energized Marini. “We’re always trying to do new things and keep everything fresh,” Marini says. “My ultimate goal is to keep doing what I’m doing and keep the family farm going. If there’s a new idea to help do that, then I’m on board.”
For craft breweries in New England, a majority of the ingredients in their trademark beers are shipped fromCanada, the Midwest or thePacific Northwest. The malted barley used in Ipswich Ale, the brewery’s flagship beer since 1991, is imported fromCanadaand costs 28 cents a pound, including delivery. The grains grown and malted inSouth Hadleyfor the 5-Mile beers cost $1 a pound. But if Martin could grow his own grains, malting them would only cost half that. Nevertheless, spending more than double or triple on ingredients isn’t a business decision many craft breweries can make right now, but for Ipswich Ale Brewery the time is right.
Martin has overseen remarkable growth since taking over 13 years ago. In 2011, sales reached $5 million, which is more than 20 times higher than when he bought the company. Their volume reached an all-time high of 22,000 barrels last year, and a much-anticipated new brewery/brewpub being built in downtownIpswichwill open early next year. “We’re in a great time in our life as a brewery,” he says. “We’re big enough to do it, but we’re also small enough to do it.”
What he means is smaller craft breweries that might be set up for the 30-barrel batches thatIpswichbrews for the 5-Mile line likely wouldn’t have the time, money, or staffing to plant and harvest their own grains. While the larger well-known craft breweries in this state, featuring minimum batches of at least 100 barrels, would have the resources, but they would struggle to reliably harvest enough grains locally to make it a sustainable piece of their business, let alone a profitable one.
Martin isn’t talking about profits yet. The 5-Mile beers are being sold in 22-ounce bottles for about $5 each in select liquor stores on the North Shore and in Boston. There’s no distributor. The brewery is selling it themselves: one sales person, one truck. But if the sell-out trend continues, he’s got a new model most brewers would envy. “It’s important to me, and that’s one of the reasons it’s going the way it’s going,” he says. “I’m committed to it, and we have the resources to do it.”
With hops underway at Marini Farms, Martin turned his attention to grains. He visited Andrea Stanley, 35, one half of the husband-wife team behind Valley Malt, who mentioned to Martin that she and her husband, Christian, were looking to buy a combine to harvest their nearly 60 acres of organic barley they’re growing with the help of local farmers. With that, she says, she saw a light go on, and Martin was off once again. Three weeks later he was in Pennsylvania kicking the tires on the used combine he’d eventually buy.
Valley Malt was working with more than 20 craft brewers from Massachusetts and New York at the time, but Stanley says dealing with Martin was different. “He was really excited about the farming side of things,” she explains. “Whereas I think other brewers are excited about supporting farms, they’re not necessarily interested in soil samples and variety selections. Rob, in a way, is a farmer at heart and this kind of side project is personally motivating. I think it’s really fun for him.”
If not the farming, certainly driving the combine is fun for Martin. And once he had the proper harvesting equipment, he could reach out to another Ipswich farmer, Ted Raymond. He worked out an agreement with Raymond to lease about 10 acres of Maplecroft Farms (owned by Buttonwood Trust and controlled by the Raymond family) a sprawling 250-acre farm along Route 133 that the Raymond family has been farming for 70 years. Martin and his team sprung into action, planting winter wheat, rye, and barley about three miles from the brewery.
But instead of using a seed drill, which drives seeds into the soil, they planted with a broadcast seeder, spreading seeds on top of the soil, like grass seed. When it came time to harvest in the spring, Martin realized that some Ipswich geese (locavores, no doubt) appreciated the oversight. “They could see the wheat seeds on the ground and they ate every single seed,” says Martin through a slightly pained smile. “The barley took, but with no snow (last winter) it had no cover and the geese ate it—ate it to the ground.”
The rye, the smallest of the seeds, went unnoticed and did quite well, eventually appearing in the series’ fourth beer, the 5-Mile Rye-Saison, released in July. Similar to a summer I.P.A., it features juniper berries, resulting in a dry, spicy, and slightly tart beer.
“Overall, I’ve been really happy with the beers,” says Dan Lipke, 40, the brewery’s head brewer the last six years. “The first thing I notice is that the quality of the ingredients is fantastic. The local stuff that we’ve gathered is really high quality.”
It’s Lipke’s job to create recipes for the 5-Mile beers using the ingredients that Martin shows up with at the back door. This month, he says, he’ll celebrate the fall harvest season with the fifth beer in the series, the 5-Mile Harvest Ale. It will feature “a massive amount” of hops from Yard 44, according to Lipke. And from listening to this former Vermont home brewer describe the canister, or “hops torpedo,” he and his team built to hold all the hops during the brewing process, one gets a sense that the customers aren’t the only ones excited about these locavore libations.
“One of the great things about home-brewing—and this project—is that it’s very creative. A home brewer isn’t trying to make the same beer over and over again. You’re saying ‘How do we want to experiment?’ ‘What do we have on hand?’ and ‘Where do we go from there?’”
Martin just added a plow and a harrow to his arsenal, which means now he’s one tractor away from, in his words, “being fully set up.” Set up for what, exactly? He’s not sure, but he’s got beer lovers, locavores, and his employees pretty excited about that.
“There’s a little bit of an unknown with all of this.” says Lipke. “The mass-produced stuff is of great quality, but it’s the same quality stuff every time. Once you get into smaller-batch stuff there’s a bit more unpredictability, which in the end adds to the excitement. Predictability is almost boring at this point.”
John Gettings is a freelance writer and book editor living in Danvers. He helps people discover North Shore farm stands, farmers markets, CSAs, and more on his blog, NorthShoreLocavore.com He can be reached at email@example.com.