Nowadays, there seems to be a million ways to classify where and how your beer is made—microbrew, craft, nanobrew, homebrew, etc.

One Central Tennessee farmer was not quite convinced his “local” brew was coming from just around the corner. Brandon Whitt is a farmer just outside of Nashville. He and his family produce corn, soybeans, wheat, grain sorghum, sunflowers, cereal rye, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, a variety of vegetables and “you pick” flowers. The farm also raises pigs. Some might think their farm is at max capacity. But after a trip to his local brewery Brandon decided it may be time to add one more crop—barley.

Brandon took a few minutes away from his busy schedule to share why he decided to enter the world of local beer and how his focus is on the community, not turning a profit.

What made you interested in growing barley for beer?
We’re always trying to look for out-of-the-box opportunities. One day, I was meeting with a local brewery to discuss a partnership centered on our pork products. After the meeting, they gave me a tour of their whole operation. During the tour, I didn’t see anything that was produced in our home state, and it bothered me. Here I am at a brewery that calls itself a ‘local brewery’ and the only thing local are the employees and the water. To be fair, they didn’t have another option, but it did not feel right to me.
Why wasn’t this brewery using local products?
Well, they didn’t have a choice. All they know is that if they place an order for barley, it will show up at their door—and that’s where the idea came from. I wanted to supply them with local barley for their local beer.
So you decided you wanted to grow barley for them—what was next?
We went back a few weeks after our first meeting and began our research. We looked into the potential varieties we could plant, researched what malting facilities we could work with and asked ourselves what the industry really needed. Once we conducted this research, I connected with a local professor working on a fermentation degree program, and we’ve been collaborating ever since. We’ve planted a nice area of acreage at our farm to grow barley.
Have you grown barley before?
We planted barley on our farm about 20 years ago, but that was more for feed and hay production. The process and techniques for growing barley for beer, or anything that is a food-grade product, is focused on quality over quantity, so that makes it a little different this time around. Research and data are driving a much better product, helping us grow something that can flourish on our land.
What are some of the challenges?
Our biggest issue is the humidity and the rainfall in our area. Most of the traditional barley varieties are grown in areas that see 8 inches of rain per year. We get 56 inches per year. Modern agriculture tools and techniques are helping us identify what varieties will flourish in our environment and how to set them up for success. For example, we can pinpoint areas of our farm with the right soil and drainage amounts to help us grow the most successful crop.
Once the barley is harvested, how do you prepare it for the brewery?
At that point, we know we have good quality in the grain we’re growing. We work with the local brewery to decide what type of malt they are looking for, so we work with the right malting facility, and send it off. The whole program requires a lot of research and communication with our partners. It’s one thing to grow the grain—it’s an entire new ballgame when we get it ready for brewing.
Is the local brewery excited to have a locally sourced product?
Yes! We’re currently working with one of the largest local breweries in Nashville. We started by selling them raw wheat for their wheat beer, and according to their team, sales have jumped about 20 percent with the locally grown wheat label.
What are you most excited about?
This has great market potential and keeps our dollars right here in Nashville. For me, it’s not about turning a profit, but building and serving our community. The money will benefit our community and our state so much more than the breweries outsourcing from Wyoming, the Dakotas or even Germany. We’re keeping the business in our backyard. This opportunity may not have been feasible 15 to 20 years ago, but thanks to research, land grant universities and the market for local products, we’ve been able to make it happen. Monetary value aside—if I can take this population at my fingertips, this 25-mile radius of me, and teach them about agriculture and how it matters, even in a fast-developing community, then I consider that a successful opportunity.

Brandon expects beer produced with his farm’s barley to be ready for tasting in August 2017.

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