Thursday, July 10, 2008

If you plant ice you're gonna harvest wind

That was one of my first favorite Robert Hunter lyrics, a flowery twist on the old, cautionary "you reap what you sow" saying.  Twenty years after first hearing it, I can't help but notice that it has come to define much of what we do here.  It is an especially apt way to describe our philosophy on sourcing ingredients.  We strive to find the best ingredients for everything we make, whether in the brewery or the kitchen.  Economic reality sometimes dictates that we can't always get what we want, but our decision-making process over potential products always involves a lot of questions about who, where, and how.  Not only do we seek to avoid planting ice, but we ask it of all of those upstream from us.

This process leads to a complex series of victories, compromises, and trade-offs in our quest for both the delicious and the sustainable.  Take our malted barley, for example.  We praise the virtues of local beer, reducing beer and food miles, etc.  But no one grows malting barley anywhere within 500 or maybe even 1000 miles of Haight and Masonic.  Even worse, no one in North America is growing heirloom varieties like Maris Otter or Golden Promise, two of our favorites.  And, even if that weren't the case, there are not, on this continent, any commercial floor malting facilities in which to turn that barley into beautiful malt.

So, we look overseas to the UK, where committed farmers choose to plant lower-yielding, more fragile, heirloom varieties, like Maris Otter.  Some of these farmers sell their barley to one of the five or six remaining commercial floor maltings in Great Britain.  Floor malting is very labor and space intensive compared to modern methods but produces amazing results.  

We buy most of our malt from such a place.  Thomas Fawcett & Son's has been making malt in the same Castleford, Yorkshire location since the 1780's.  It is managed today by the sixth and seventh generation members of the Fawcett family to be involved since operations began.  Though they have modernized over the years, the heart of their operation continues to be a floor facility in which they carefully produce some of the finest Maris Otter malt around.  

We buy this malt, considerably more expensive than mass-produced alternatives, and use it as the base of most of our beers.  We get it through a local wholesaler, Certified Foods, operated by a man named Joe Vanderliet, because he listens to his customers and knows we and a handful of other breweries will deal with rising freight costs, overseas shipping delays, and other frustrations in order to make the kind of beer we love.

These personal connections, with Joe at Certified, with John Fawcett at the maltings, and our trust in John's careful sourcing from farmers near him, add to our satisfaction when using this malt.  To me, these factors mitigate my frustration of having to buy a key ingredient from people 6,000 miles from my brewery.  I recognize that I am still lucky to work with people whose values are so well aligned with mine.

And I can't wait to someday get over to Castleford and visit the place where this special malt is made for us, as well as some of the farmers who grow it.  I visited our previous floor malt supplier, Beeston, of Nottinghamshire, in 2000, and it was an amazing experience to tour the facility, walk on the floor, and have a pint of cask bitter with some of the malting crew in the pub across the street (brewed with Beeston Maris Otter at a nearby brewery).  Sadly, they closed a couple of years later, suffering the fate of many traditional family businesses that can't make ends meet in this modern world.

We continue to look for new ways to develop deeper connections to our ingredients, too.  One of our neighborhood customer's father grows Maris Otter at his farm, Branthill, near Wells-next-to-the-Sea in Norfolk.  He has it malted at one of the other remaining floor maltings 10 miles down the road, and sells it mostly to local breweries.  But the ocean-facing microclimate and loam over chalk soil of this part of northern Norfolk produces some of the best Maris Otter in the UK and we're trying to get our hands on some of it.  Teddy Maufe has visited Magnolia with his son, Zac, and, despite the long journey for his malt, we would be thrilled to be able to turn this personal connection into a good English bitter.

Life might be easier if we could give ourselves some arbitrary rules and guidelines but at the end of the day, the best way to serve our creative muses is to look at everything on a case-by-case basis.  We can't promise to be 100% organic or 100% local or really, 100% anything, because we don't think it's that simple.  This is true in the kitchen, as well, though we are blessed with one of the best food production regions in the world within a 100 mile radius, so Brandon fares much better at sourcing locally.  Freshness, too, dictates that we buy most of our food from closer to home. 

Kitchen or brewery, we get out of this what we put in.  The more attention we pay to who makes our ingredients, the better we can satisfy our vision for quality and character in our food and beer.  And your choice to embrace this philosophy with us and share in its rewards makes it all possible.  So, thanks.

1 comment:

Dan B said...

Roll away the dew, Dave. Thanks for hanging out with me last Friday when I came by to do a little 'research'...and you're right, the fries are MUCH better hot!