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Locally Brewed, Environmentally Conscious: Sustainable Brewing in Maryland

Local brewers are experimenting with "fresh from the farm" ingredients to improve quality and reduce expenses.

by Sydney Carte, Capital News Service

Sitting in Hampstead there is a farm, like its neighbors, that has a rolling field and bright red barn. But the field has no corn or livestock. Instead, it is freshly harvested and waiting for new hop vines to grow. This is Creeping Creek Farm, the site of Ruhlman Brewing Company.

Incorporating fresh from the farm ingredients in brewing is good for the environment, great for beer flavor and excellent for alleviating expenses. Maryland brewers are catching on to the benefits of sustainable brewing and even branching out beyond the farm to try other sustainable practices. But it's not always easy.

For starters, maintaining a sustainable brewery is not a solo endeavor. Local communities frequently collaborate with breweries. Burley Oak Brewing Company in Berlin, near Ocean City, recently began a hop-sharing program. Local residents received hop rhizomes (a clipping of the hop flower used in brewing) and grew them over the summer. This fall, the community will harvest the hops and deliver them to Burley Oak for the brewing of a community hop beer.

"Our specific location in the state of Maryland is very beneficial to us because we're surrounded by agriculture and brewing is a very agricultural industry," said Bryan Brushmiller, Burley Oak Brewing Company owner and brewer.

It's not all about the environment though. For Burley Oak, the local community is a major motivator for implementing sustainable brewing practices.

"The people who really support us, who sustain our business, are local people," Burley Oak head brewer Sean Saffcaf said. "So we want to make sure we do as much with them as possible."

Ruhlman Brewing craves community interaction. The farm brewery encourages visitors with tastings on the weekend and its challenging disc golf course.

"I have one man who brings his son," Ruhlman said. "He's been out here four times, every weekend since he found the place. He loves it. He comes out and every time he comes he brings another one of his son's friends with them, and then they bring their fathers. So he's actually growing this. The community really is behind me."

Additionally, sustainable brewing can benefit the business. Brushmiller describes it as basic economics: when local farmers and vendors sell to the brewery their profits increase, which puts more money in their pocket to purchase more beer.

It all starts on the farm. Hops, an essential ingredient in the brewing process, thrive in the soil and climate of Maryland and help local farmers diversify their crops.

For Adam Frey, a farmer from northern Mt. Airy, hops were the perfect addition to his farm. "We decided to start growing hops because right now hops are kind of hot, but at the same time the entire intention was to open a farm brewery," said Frey, who is in the process of acquiring a Class 8 Farm Brewing License.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed Senate Bill 579 in May to establish the Class 8 license. It requires the use of Maryland-grown ingredients, either hops, grain, fruit or a combination of the three. No minimum percentage of local ingredients is specified and the brewery does not have to be on an actual farm. Production is limited to 15,000 barrels per year. Growlers, cases and kegs can be sold to carry away, and up-to six ounces of beer per brand can be sold for on-site imbibing.

Growing or sourcing local hops is a smart choice, but not the only one. Additional ingredients can come directly from Maryland farms. Ruhlman plans to make a pumpkin beer for fall with the pumpkins from his little patch. Ruhlman also has a persimmon tree nestled in the heart of his property that might be used to brew a persimmon beer in the future.

Barley, another agricultural product vital to the brewing process, can be grown in Maryland. Using home grown or locally sourced ingredients eliminates transportation costs.

"We're not paying shipping costs to ship grain from the Midwest," said Brushmiller, who sources hops and grains from local farmers in Berlin. "We have to think -- to have sustainable practices and be responsible -- about the fact that it always burns a lot of oil to move large amounts across the country."

After the brewing process, the grains become spent. "Most of all, what breweries do, is find a source for their waste: specifically, the thousands of pounds of spent grain used in the brewing process," Brushmiller said. "We, like every other brewery, can give to local farmers to feed their cattle." Heavy Seas, a local Maryland beer company, also donates their spent grain to local farmers.

Sustainable brewing does not stop with agricultural products. Water, a critical element in the brewing process, can be reclaimed and reused. Water reclamation is incredibly important, according to Saffcaf.

"What we do is we reclaim the water we use to an extent. We reclaim anything that's not used for cleaning purposes, so nothing that's picking up any chemicals," Saffcaf said. "All of the water that we use can be heated, boiled and then used back in the brewing process again."

Even the mechanics of brewing can be tweaked to help the environment. There are advanced modern technologies to transform the naturally wasteful brewing process into something sustainable.

But Ruhlman said these technologies are often unaffordable for small brewers.

A heat recovery system is expensive, but it saves energy. These systems, when added to standard brewing equipment, capture the heat that is used and return it to the process.

"Maryland is an up-and-coming scene in brewing. I know there are some of the larger brewers that are using sustainable practices, like the Flying Dogs and the Heavy Seas and what not," said Safcaff. "I'm sure they're pushing for the types of sustainable brewing practices and things that will be helpful to the brewing climate in Maryland."

Read more about Maryland brewing at this interactive website http://cnsmaryland.org/interactives/breweries/index.html

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