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PHOTO: Miguel Rivas
Craft beer is worldwide phenomenon, but its roots are very much ingrained at a local level. Independent breweries help serve the needs of the immediate community, and sourcing from local farms keeps the beer-making process sustainable. Based in Queens, New York City, Big Alice Brewing is a craft beer enterprise that’s at the forefront of pioneering hyperlocal and sustainable brewing practices, not least by committing to becoming something known as a New York State Farm Brewery.
Taking time out from his hops duties, head brewer Jon Kielty spoke to us about forging relationships with small farms, how beer and bees can help each other, and the benefits of using native ingredients in their brews.
What’s a New York State Farm Brewery?
Big Alice is certified as a New York State Farm Brewery. “It’s geared toward boosting agriculture, and it incentivizes brewers to source local New York state ingredients,” says Kielty. Originally, being a New York State Farm Brewery meant that 20 percent of your hops and 20 percent of your malt had to be grown within the state–but from 2019 those numbers were increased to 60 percent. (Starting in 2024, the requirement will be 90 percent of ingredients.)
100 Percent Local Ingredients
Last year, Big Alice highlighted the potential of craft breweries working with local farms by producing a beer entirely from home state ingredients. “We brewed a 100 percent New York state barrel-aged version of our popular jalapeño rye,” says Kielty. “We sourced grain from New York Craft Malt, hops from New York Hop Guild, and jalapeño peppers from Samascott Orchards. After fermentation we aged it in rye whiskey barrels from Long Island Spirits.”
Showing the success of sourcing locally, the brew in question took the gold award in its category at 2019’s New York State Craft Beer Competition.
Beet and Carrot Beers
Tapping into the brewery’s strong relationships with New York farms, Kielty says Big Alice is particularly proud of the beet pilsner and carrot and ginger tart farmhouse brews it has created with produce from Alewife Farm in Kingston.
Brewing With Bees
Brewing with honey is another promising way for craft breweries and farmers to collaborate. “We work with local master beekeeper Tom Wilk of Wilk Apiary to source New York honey for our beers,” says Kielty. He adds that Big Alice Brewing’s honey wit brew took gold in the National Honey Board Honey Beer Competition.
A couple of times a year, Big Alice Brewing produces a limited amount of beers that spotlight honey grown on a rooftop just two blocks from the brewery—and Kielty himself can sometimes be seen assisting with honey harvesting. The rooftop hives are an opportunity that came about because of Big Alice’s relationship with the nearby Hellgate Farm.
When Big Alice Brewing Met Hellgate Farm
“Hellgate Farm is a local urban rooftop garden located just blocks from our brewery,” says Kielty, highlighting the way craft beer and farming connections can expand to form a tight network: “I believe we were first linked up with them through our beekeeper, Wilk Apiary. Our first collaboration with Hellgate was giving them spent grain, which they used for compost when building out their planters on the rooftop.”
Since then, Big Alice and Hellgate’s relationship has graduated to the brewery producing small batch cask beers using seasonal ingredients. Plans are afoot to produce a barrel-aged jalapeño rye beer that exclusively uses Hellgate’s rooftop peppers.
The Future of Craft Beer and Local Farms
Kielty says sourcing local ingredients is becoming more important in the craft beer world. He says fostering “long lasting personal relationships” helps bring about “a better understanding of where our ingredients come from.”
Earlier this year during hop harvest, Kielty and another Big Alice brewer, Dominic Sims, went upstate to visit the farms they source their hops from, which includes Chimney Bluffs Hoppery and Pedersen Farms. “To walk through the hop yards picking from the bines as you talk to the farmer, you gain a much more meaningful connection to the ingredients you are using and what it took for them to get to you,” says Kielty. “With that comes a higher respect and understanding that is often overlooked.”
Follow Big Alice’s craft beer and local farming adventures on Instagram.