Friday, June 3, 2016

The Session: The Backbone


This month's iteration of The Session is being hosted by Carla, a.k.a. The Beer Babe, who encourages us to:
talk about those businesses in the beer world that aren’t breweries. What are the roles that they can play? What opportunities still exist for new niche roles to be developed? What can local/state/regional governments do to encourage this kind of diversity of businesses around an industry?
Here in Central Virginia he have a plethora of beer allied industries that seem to have popped up from nowhere with the continued increase in brewery numbers (of the 30 odd breweries within 50 miles of my house, only 6 existed when I moved here in 2009), but I want to focus on one in particular, and forgive me if this is an overly obvious allied industies to look at.

Virginia is at heart an agrarian state, once upon a time it was the Kent of the Colonies, a veritable Eden of Humulus Lupulus, but eventually that industry headed out west. Slowly though hop gardens are again becoming a thing in Virginia, with about 25 acres planted in 2014. Much of the renaissance can be put down to small brewpubs planting a half acre or so of hops in the vicinity of their facility - if you have ever been to Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton you'll know exactly what I have in mind.

As I said though, hop growing is, well, um, growing again here in Virginia. The Old Dominion Hops Co-op is a group of 185 farmers in Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland growing varieties like Cascade, Chinook, Brewers Gold, and Goldings for use by small breweries. Some members of the co-op grow on as little of a third of an acre (that's 1375m2 for the metric folks) while at the bigger end of things there are those with 2.5 acres and multiple varieties.

As I said, Virginia is an agrarian state, despite the urban sprawl of Northern Virginia, and while we don't have the expanses of the Mid West flowing with waves of grain, barley is an important crop in the Commonwealth. In 2014, about 20000 acres were planted with barley, producing somewhere in the region of 72 million pounds of grain. Admittedly much of this production goes to cattle feed, but with the growth of beer has come a growth in local artisan malting companies, such as Wood's Mill Malt House, Big Trouble, and even Copper Fox Distillery, who malt their own grain for their whiskey and sell small amounts on to brewers.

I am sure there are sexier allied industries, the tour givers, the distributors, the conference organisers, the other assorted hangers on, but it is the farmers and maltsters providing the raw ingredients to the teams doing the work for the rock star brewers, who are the unsung heroes of the brewing world. I for one am glad to see these industries coming back to life in Virginia, so that one day we may actually be able to buy a distinctively Virginian local beer.

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