The Cultivated Beer

Far from the Tree — A Fruitful Relationship Between Farmers and Brewers

The love affair between brewers and hop farmers is well documented. This time of year, it’s hard to go a day without seeing a brewer bathing their face with fresh hops in the Yakima Valley or opening up a package of their latest brewer’s cut for a fresh IPA. Last month, we shared a story about Elk Mountain hop farm in Idaho that captures this relationship beautifully. 

The harvest season extends beyond the Pacific Northwest, however, and well past the lupulin-packed cones that have overtaken the nation’s collective palate. Fruit farmers here in the Midwest are helping to create bold new beers that not only challenge taste buds, but the perception of beer itself.

Family-owned and operated for over 80 years, Mick Klug Farm sits on a little more than 150 acres in St. Joseph, Michigan. Nestled in the southwest corner of the state, it’s about 10 miles from Lake Michigan and 20 from the Indiana border. More importantly, it’s only two hours from Chicago, and breweries like Goose Island Beer Company, to whom they’ve been providing fruit for almost a decade. The brewers at Goose Island use the fruits — raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, cherries, and peaches — in part of their expansive barrel-aging program. And they don’t use them merely for the flavor, but for the wild yeast and bacteria needed to create the complex, tart, and sour beers that are becoming a huge part of their portfolio.

“It started out, the Lincoln Park brewery would do small batches of things using our fruit,” explains Abby Klug-Schilling, the third-generation owner of the farm. “Greg and his crew would just come to the market and say, ‘What’s in season? We’ll try this.’” The Greg she’s referring to is Greg Hall, son of Goose Island founder, John Hall. “I just remember my dad [Mick] saying, ‘That’s kind of weird, don’t you think? Do you think it’s going to work?’” It worked. What Hall started as an experiment has grown, and now accounts for over 10% of the farm’s business.

“The opportunity to wholesale, in bigger quantities, to someone like Goose Island, was exciting to us from a business standpoint,” said Klug-Schilling. “But it was also just really neat to see a totally different use of our produce. It never crossed our minds to reach out to a brewery.”

These days, Abby is in regular contact with the brewery, more specifically, Chris Anderson, Goose Island’s supply chain manager. “Chris starts getting me numbers in the winter and we go from there.” From that point until harvest, she and Anderson communicate about quantity, quality, timing, and delivery. “Some of the things we’ve changed over time to make it easier for us, logistically,” she explains. “When we first started out, it was very hard to figure out how we were going to get them fresh fruit in the volumes that they wanted.”

Because Mother Nature can be fickle and harvest times can vary, one of those logistic solutions involves keeping the fruit in cold storage. “Then, when they’re ready for it,” says Abby, “they take the whole batch at one time.” 

The word “batch” might be a bit misleading here. “We order tons now, not pounds,” explains Head Cellarman, Brian Taylor. “But we have a strict schedule to follow each year on what fruit is delivered when. We work in our schedule depending on what season it is and what fruit is ready for harvest.” Brian’s job at Goose Island involves coordinating the schedules not only for brewing the beers, but adding the fruit to the barrels, and maturing them on a consistent basis. When he first started, things weren’t that complicated. They got four wine barrels from California and they used them to construct a beer around whatever fruit Greg would bring them from the market. “That’s how Juliet came about,” recalls Taylor. “We brewed it over at the pub and put it in the wine barrels underneath the restaurant and left it alone for eight months.”

What started with that one beer and four barrels has blossomed into a lineup of seven Vintage Ales — Juliet, Lolita, Madame Rose, Sofie, Matilda, Gillian, and Halia — and a collection of over 2,500 wine barrels (not to mention some 3,500 Bourbon barrels and two foudres).
“We just bought a warehouse down the street from the brewery: 130,000 square feet. We’re in the process now of moving all the barrels over. When it’s done, we’ll tanker-truck the beer down the block and do all the barrel work over there.” explains Taylor. Things have certainly come a long way in Taylor’s mind: “I remember when we hit 40 barrels and this small group of us was flipping out, like, ‘Oh my God, there’s no room.’ Now we have an entire warehouse full of nothing but barrels.”

The Goose Island barrel program has serious numbers. Their production ranks among elite breweries like Russian River, Firestone Walker, The Bruery, and New Belgium. “No one is ahead of us in wood barrel numbers. Others might produce a higher volume, but they’re not using single oak barrels,” explains Brian. Their technique is a little different, too. “Some people like to add the fruit later in the process to get more of the fruit flavor. We’d rather add it early and get more of the wild yeast and bacteria characteristics. That’s the most important part: what comes on the actual fruit.” 

Where the fruit comes from is just as important — different regions are home to distinct microbes. When the fruit is added to the barrels it imparts those unique qualities, not only to that specific beer, but into all the subsequent beer that enters that barrel because it gets embedded in the wood. This results in a very tangible example of terroir, and helps shape the entire flavor profile of Goose Island’s barrel-aged beer. It also creates a vintage mindset similar to that of wine, as flavors shift and mature from year to year.

That vintage quality in the age of more adventurous beer palates has helped to make the sour line some of Goose Island’s most sought after beers. But that wasn’t always the case. Brian explains, “When we first brought out Juliet, the sales people were like, ‘What is this? We can’t sell rancid beer.’ But people weren’t drinking this stuff in 2007 when we started. Luckily, Greg was really into it and he forced them to sell it.” Greg didn’t stop there. He pushed his sales team to get the beers into restaurants, like that of longtime friend — and renowned chef — Paul Kahan. Chefs have long been part of the craft resurgence in Chicago, pushing brewers to develop beers with a culinary mindset. “Paul’s the one that told me, ‘More acid, less hops,’ and it worked,” Greg says. Not surprisingly, Goose’s vintage ales can be found in a number of Paul’s restaurants, including The Publican, just down the street from Goose Island’s production facility.

Goose Island and Paul Kahan are planning to extend their relationship even further next year, when they collaborate on a beer for the first time. The plan is for the beer to be featured prominently at food festivals — like Cochon or Heritage BBQ — to highlight the pairing aspects of the beer, and to show how the right beer can enhance the food it’s consumed with. Paul is also working with Goose to try to change the minds and palates of his diners and turn them on to beer, not only as a valid tableside alternative to wine, but a sophisticated beverage that deserves a place at the table on its own merits entirely.

Recently, Taylor and Kahan lent their time and expertise to develop a five-course food and beer pairing for an Outstanding In The Field event at Seedling Farm, another Goose collaborator just a short drive up the coast from Mick Klug in South Haven, Michigan. The setting was more than appropriate for the event; Chef Kahan sources much of his fresh produce from the farm, and Seedling was a partner of Goose Island’s in the early days of their fruit experiments. 

Each course featured a dish with at least one farm-grown ingredient, prepared by Paul and his team of chefs, along with a beer from the vintage line. Before guests sat down in the field at the 200-person table, however, they had the chance to tour the farm with its owner, Peter Klein. “We used to say that what we do is, we grow fruit. I’m not sure that’s 100% true anymore. We grow a lot of fruit,” Klein shouted to the crowd from his bushel box.

In addition to the few dozen varieties of fruits and vegetables they tend, Seedling also grows some 26 varieties of apples. And that’s great news for Greg Hall. After leaving Goose Island in 2011, Hall started Virtue Cider — located in nearby Fennville, MI— hoping to take the flavor profiles he started at Goose Island in a different direction. Most of the ciders that Hall and cider maker Ryan Burk are creating, rely on Michigan’s apple crops of the future of their business. As new start-ups like Virtue begin working with farms, both sides of the relationship are betting on the success of the other, requiring flexibility, adaptability, and tenacity between them, to create a mutually beneficial future. Market conditions for beer and cider can fluctuate as much as the weather, making it difficult to predict both sales and yields. But the long-term opportunities means that everyone’s still happy to take the chance. 

One of Virtue’s ciders, made exclusively with Seedling Farm apples, was featured alongside the vintage ales during the farm dinner, and directly incorporated by Chef Kahan into a paella with snail sausage. Many of the diners discussed, or outright argued, whether the cider or beer paired better with the dish. It was a perfect example of the confluence of agriculture and brewing and cooking and collaboration.

Working with them has been one of the best relationships we have. They’re just such a breath of fresh air.

In that moment, it was easy to see why Abby Klug-Schilling takes such pride in her craft these days, and was inspired to continue the family operation. “We were able to try all the beers for the first time this year at the market,” she said. “We were just so proud, and amazed — seeing it go from the tree, as a plant, and working with Goose Island, and getting the fruit processed, to the end product. I don’t have any children yet, but I was like a proud parent already. Who knew all this work would turn out to be such a unique, amazing product.”

The relationship is mutually beneficial. Just as Goose Island’s profile and prowess has grown, so has Mick Klug Farm’s. As a result of the increased demand, Abby and her husband have been able to purchase new equipment — and another farm. The new equipment allows them to process the fruit for the brewery, and other customers, taking out a middle-man and leading to even closer ties and increased revenue. They’ve even taken on a few new — albeit smaller — brewery clients, working with the likes of Moody Tongue Brewing Company and Dark Horse Brewery. Even so, it’s unlikely anyone will compete with her affection for Goose Island. “Working with them has been one of the best relationships we have. They’re just such a breath of fresh air.”

GBH_Fruit_36.jpg

As craft beer continues to extend its reach and influence beyond the niche market, partnerships like that of Goose Island and Mick Klug become even more important. Not only to have a reliable supplier, but to have a true partner. One that takes just as much pride in their craft, and the final product. And one that is willing to do whatever they can to help tinker, and experiment, and explore the edges of what beer can be.

The Cultivated Beer™

GBH goes to the source in this new series, starting with hop farms, and soon venturing in to the grain, fruit, and even the water that goes in to your beer. As the industry grows, these become more than ingredients, they become relationships. And that's how you cultivate a beer.

See more Cultivated Beer™ stories