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Beer in the Market: Why Small-Scale Brewers in Massachusetts are Fighting for Farmers Markets

IT’S SUNDAY MORNING, AND STEVE ALLMAN IS AT HIS BREWERY LOADING 10 CASES OF 22 OZ. BEER BOTTLES INTO HIS CAR. Several styles of beer, including an American Pale Ale, a German-style Dunkel Weizen, and an espresso-oatmeal Stout are carefully placed in cardboard boxes and slid into the back of his van. And off he goes.

His single-barrel brewery, Canterbury Aleworks, is defined as a “nanobrewery” and has a tasting room that is open to the public. It’s a warm, cozy space – about 720 square feet with Celtic knick-knacks, a stone fireplace, tables and chairs, and a thick mahogany bar.

But today the tasting room won’t open until about 2:30 p.m., when Allman returns from the farmers market. But he’s not going to buy fresh baked bread, homemade fudge, or locally foraged mushrooms. He’s going to sell beer.

Canterbury Aleworks is the only brewery selling at the weekend winter market. His indoor booth is located next to a raw milk vendor, looks like a bar, and is draped with strands of decorative plastic green hops. A chalkboard lists the beers available for purchase, and bottles are displayed on the bar top.

In New Hampshire, where Canterbury Aleworks is located, selling beer at farmers markets is legal. It’s also legal in Vermont and Maine. The other New England states – Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts – aren’t so lucky. But legislators in those states are working to change that.

With more people opting to buy organic and source food locally, nanobrewers throughout New England, many of whom prefer to use local ingredients in their beer, feel connected to the locavore movement.

Annette Lee and Nicole Carrier, owners of Throwback Brewery in North Hampton, New Hampshire, regularly sell at the farmers market in Exeter. Several of their beers, such as the Meadow’s Mirth Fennel Flower Stout and Be Still My Bleeding Heart Stout were made in direct collaboration with farmer Josh Jennings, owner of Meadow’s Mirth Farm in nearby Stratham.

As an Exeter farmers market organizer who works directly with nanobreweries like Throwback, Jennings knows the significance of a small-scale brewers’ ability to sell at a local market.

“For a small business like a nanobrewery, being able to sell at farmers markets could make a huge difference for their business, and the variety of product is good for the market too. It’s a win-win,” said Jennings.

In Massachusetts, the symbiotic relationship between local farmers and brewers is evident in nanobreweries like Night Shift, located in Everett. The brewery is known for flavorful beers made with ingredients that are often found at farmers markets.

“We work with farms and use funky, weird ingredients in our beers that you’ll see being sold at farmers markets: habanero peppers, lemon grass, ginger…all sorts of stuff like that,” said Michael Oxton, co-owner of Night Shift. “I think the whole idea of a farmers market is to think local, buy local, and sustainability. And that’s completely what we’re trying to do.”

Nanobrewer Chris Tkach, co-owner of Idle Hands Craft Ales, also located in Everett, shares a similar sentiment.

“I think it would be very advantageous for us to be able to sell at farmers markets,” said Tkach. “It would really help us connect with customers that we’re targeting – people who focus on sourcing their food, beverages, and other needs from local producers such as ourselves.”

Having only been legal in New Hampshire since the summer of 2012, Allman has already taken full advantage of the opportunity to sell Canterbury Aleworks’ beer at the Tilton farmers market.

“I had done markets before as a farmer, but I didn’t know what to expect at the market with this product [beer],” said Allman. “On the first day in January I brought four cases, and I was sold out by 11 in the morning.”

The weekend market earns Allman about $640 during the two days its open. His ability to sell beer at local farmers markets is a major source of income for his brewery. It also allows him the unique ability to interact directly with his customers in an environment that promotes local businesses.

“I really enjoy selling at farmers markets,” said Allman. “It’s interesting for me to get feedback. It builds my confidence, and gives me a good reason to go back and make more beer. The fact that I can sell it directly to people and get that retail dollar is definitely a plus.”

SMALL-SCALE BREWERS MAKING AND SELLING BEER TO LOCALS ISN’T A NEW PHENOMENON; small-scale brewers’ preference toward using local ingredients is.

American brewers in the 1800s didn’t revel in using fresh herbs, hops, or barely sourced from local farmers to flavor their beer. In fact, the more hops and barley a brewer could claim to have imported from Europe – the center of the beer-making world – the better.

“Brewers attached to the locavore movement is a new thing,” said Maureen Ogle, author of “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer,” published in 2006. “A brewer would not have cared about sourcing ingredients locally. They would have been looking for the highest quality product.” Back then, that typically meant from overseas.

Nowadays, produce from regional farmers is often organic, and some consumers consider it healthier and higher quality than national conglomerate suppliers. Shoppers at farmers markets who seek these foods to eat are also seeking them in the beer they drink.

Valley Malt, a farm and malt house in Hadley, Mass. responded to the growing demand for locally produced beer in 2009.

“My husband and I wanted to help local beers. Not just beers that were brewed locally, but beers that were brewed using local ingredients,” said Andrea Stanley, co-owner of Valley Malt. “We realized that growing grains and starting a malt house would be a step in that direction. We got really excited about the idea. It seemed like a very traditional craft and nobody was really doing it.”

Valley Malt supplies several New England breweries with malt including Throwback, Idle Hands, and Night Shift as well as the Cambridge Brewing Company, and Rising Tide in Portland, Maine.

“At the end of the day I can drink a beer that I helped to be a part of. It’s work that really feels good to be doing,” said Stanley.

BEFORE PROHIBITION, THERE WERE FEW LAWS IN PLACE GOVERNING THE PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION OF ALCOHOL. As long as the federal government got its tax money, which alcohol provided a lot of, brewers were mostly let alone. This of course changed drastically once the 18thamendment passed into law in 1920, which banned the production, sale, and distribution of alcohol.

Due in part to the lack of laws prior to prohibition, when the amendment was repealed in 1933 there was major concern over how alcohol would be regulated. While there are federal regulations, states were given the power to decide how alcohol was going to be managed within their borders.

Most states adopted a three-tier system: alcohol producers sell to a wholesaler, who sells to a retailer, who then sells to customers. Eighteen states including Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine are also control states, where the state itself sells some or all alcoholic beverages.

Kevin Bloom, director of the New Hampshire Brewer’s Guild, described state’s liquor laws as being “a tangled mess.” The brewer-turned-lobbyist doesn’t believe that the three-tier system works for small-scale brewers.

“The three-tier system was designed so it’s easier to collect taxes,” said Bloom. “It’s the way the law was written to keep brewers, wholesalers, and retailers separate. But when brewpubs started popping up in 1995, it changed everything. Brewpubs are a combination of all three tiers. We could finally say that this is what it looks like without the three-tier system, and it proved to everyone that it works pretty well.”

One of the problems with the three-tier system for small-scale brewers in Massachusetts lies in distribution. Beer producers holding a manufacturer of malt beverages license are not able to self-distribute, and are forced to sign a contract with a distributor. Current franchise laws in the state make it difficult, if not impossible, for a brewer to break contract or change distributors.

“The franchise laws basically marry you for life regardless of what the contract may state. Even if you have an ‘out’ in your contract, the distributor could still ‘own’ you,” explained Chris Tkach, nanobrewer and vice president of the Massachusetts Brewer’s Guild. “This is why the guild has been working so hard to reform the franchise laws.”

Like Tkach, most nanobrewers in Massachusetts hold a farm-brewer’s license. The license allows them to self-distribute to places such as restaurants, bars, and stores up to 50,000 gallons a year. The law states that all retail sales from the brewery must be made on the brewery’s premises – not at farmers markets.

IF SENATE BILL 97 PASSES INTO LAW, BREWERS IN MASSACHUSETTS WILL BE ALLOWED TO SELL BEER AT FARMERS MARKETS. The bill’s language mimics that of bill S 2582 that passed Aug. 5, 2010, which currently allows farm wineries to sell wine at farmers markets.

In 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture publicized data collected from farmers markets and wineries across the state. Farm wineries said that sales increased 66 percent since being allowed to sell at farmers markets. 82 percent said they had an increased number of visitors to their wineries, and 94 percent reported increased recognition for their product due to exposure at farmers markets.

With the marked success of wineries at farmers markets, many supporters of Senate Bill 97 believe that craft beer will follow suit.

“Massachusetts has the fortunate luxury to see the work done before us in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. All reports from markets in those states yield nearly 100 percent positive comments, and they’re all positive relative to the effects of beer on the market, community, agricultural sector, and the enhancement of those businesses,” said Jeff Cole, executive director of the Massachusetts Farmers Market organization.

Bill S 2582 drafted by Sen. (D, Acton, Mass.) James Eldridge, originally included the sale of beer at farmers markets. The sale of alcohol at farmers markets was an entirely new concept, and the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, or the ABCC, was hesitant.

“The ABCC wanted to embrace the idea slowly, so we agreed to just do farm wineries three years ago,” said Senator Eldridge. “It’s been a great success, so this session I filed basically the same bill, but for craft beer.”

At the time, the topic of debate was what constituted a local beer. The ABCC wanted local beer to be comprised of 50 percent locally sourced ingredients. Brewers voiced a strong opposition, claiming that essential brewing ingredients such as barley and hops were difficult to grow year-round, thus making them unable to sustain the 50 percent local requirement. Because an agreement wasn’t reached, craft beer was excluded all together.

“Brewers in Massachusetts strive to support other local businesses, including agriculture, and do use ingredients such as pumpkins, maple syrup, and cranberries,” said Michelle Sullivan, board member and chair of government affairs at the Massachusetts Brewer’s Guild. “When it comes to any specific criteria, that can become tricky as the type of an ingredient needed often isn’t available here – especially hops and malt.”

This time around, the bill includes the opportunity for an advisory committee, which would allow for an on-going discussion of the percentage issue. The committee would be comprised of farmers, craft brewers, government officials, and members of the ABCC, with the goal of eventually coming up with a definition and for local beer.

“It’s a tough issue,” said Eldridge. “What’s the balance? 50 percent? Higher? Lower? The advisory committee will develop the standard for what will be considered a local beer. We want local beer to encourage local jobs and local agriculture. It’s a balancing act, and I know the ABCC is focused on that as well.”

Connecticut and Rhode Island have similar legislation in the works. In Rhode Island, it’s Senate bill 585 and in Connecticut, bill 217. Both bills would allow state-made beer to be sold at farmers markets.

Senate bill 97 has been filed in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and is currently awaiting a public hearing in the Committee of Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.

Although Senate bill 97 hasn’t yet passed into law, The Boston Public Market Association already has plans to include local beer vendors at its newly proposed $15 million year-round market site, set to open in 2014. The indoor farmers market will take up the ground floor inside the MBTA orange line Haymarket T stop building. Renovation plans include a 345-square-foot stall space for one lucky brewer.

Mimi Hall, the operations manager at Boston Public Market Association, wants to support brewers at the market the same way they promote other local businesses.

“There’s a lot of great regional beer in Massachusetts. We’re really excited to include that as just another product from what we can produce agriculturally here in New England,” said Hall. “We really hope to promote it, showcase it, and create a platform for education about the product and where it comes from.”

Cole believes the general attitude among other market organizers in Massachusetts is positive.

“The markets that already sell wine say it works very well, and are looking forward to including beer if and when the legislation is passed,” said Cole.

Back in New Hampshire, customers at the Tilton farmers market approach the Canterbury Aleworks booth. Some chat with the brewer, while others casually read beer bottle labels. Bottles are purchased and stuffed into canvas shopping bags alongside local produce and fresh pastries.

Concord resident and hobby home-brewer, Brian Nothnagel, is a regular at the weekend market and bought two bottles of Canterbury Aleworks beer – a Bavarian style Hefe Weizen and a German Kolsch.

“I’ve always been interested in craft beer,” said Nothnagel. “It’s great to support something local, especially in New Hampshire where they’re trying to help out small beer manufacturers.”

“At a farmers market you can really talk to the person who makes the beer,” he added. “They’re usually happy and excited to talk to you about it. You can’t call up Anheuser Busch and talk to the brewer about the beer. It’s that comradery you get from brewers who sell at the markets that makes it for me.”

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