Over the past decade, Americans have focused more on keeping things local and supporting the little guys and farmers that make a community stronger. You see it in the rise and popularity of farmers’ markets and you certainly see it when you go out to eat with many restaurants touting “farm-to-table” and their use of local ingredients. But, in terms of our beer here in CT, the ingredients that go into each ale or stout aren’t always local. On a recent trip to Oregon we discovered that nearly 80% of all hops grown here in America come from the Beaver State. Yeast often finds its way to breweries across states or even across continents, and malts and barleys are often shipped from hundreds of miles away. But, that’s all about to change here in Connecticut as Kent Falls Brewing Company has just become licensed and has begun brewing.
CT’s newest brewery will not only feature the local ingredients that we just listed, but will also be cultivating a large portion of them right from their own farm in Kent. It would almost seem like a forbidding omen to purchase a dairy farm called Fools Day Farm, but that’s exactly what Barry Labendz and co. did. No, he won’t be crying over spilled milk, but if some of his and brewmaster Derek Dellinger’s farmhouse ales, saisons, and inspired brews spill out we’re sure that everyone will shed many a tear.
Well, enough from us, let’s hear from owner and brewer Barry Labendz. We talked with him recently about the start of Kent Falls Brewing, his use of farm-grown ingredients, their beer production expansion plans, where you’ll be able to find Kent Falls beer, their love of all things local, and their opening plans.
At what moment did you realize that you wanted to start a brewery?
I was 26 living in NYC and recently out of a job at a bank due to the financial crisis looking for what I really wanted to do next (basically I was 26). Looking for something more tangible, social, and in line with my passions, I began putting a business plan together with some close friends but was rightfully intimidated by the amount of money it would take and the challenges of doing something like that in the city (as opposed to a former dairy farm haha… ohhh hindsight).
I ended up back in finance and by this time opening a brewery had become a full fledged drive of mine, something I talked about with many friends and continued to think about the hows, when, and wheres. At the same time, a close friend through ultimate frisbee became interested in opening up a farm and we began to connect the ideas. In the fall of 2011 I came to check out what was Fools Day Farm, a retired dairy farm in Kent Hollow and the vision very quickly crystalized and Kent Falls Brewing was unofficially born.
I’ve always been inspired by how a brewery is able to make their beer differ so distinctly in taste and “character” from that of another brewery despite having almost exactly the same ingredients. Each beer is and should be the product of people’s personal tastes, brewing, business and philosophies. As an opinionated and passionate person, what better way to express yourself? And beer is a lot more enjoyable than politics! So maybe it’s not exactly a “moment” of when I realized I wanted to start a brewery, but that’s the reason.
We know that are using local yeast and malts, you’re growing your own hops, and grains, but what do you have growing in your greenhouse and will some of those items possibly end up in your beer?
Of course . . . that is where we propagate our hop plants! Aside from that though, the greenhouses are much more for growing vegetables destined to our farmers’ market/on farm sales/farmers bellies, than fruits for brewing. We have two greenhouses on the farm. Right now, one is the winter home to all of our egg layers. The other is full of raised beds that we grow a variety of vegetables in—currently being used for bok choi, radishes, winter greens and salad mixes. In the spring we’ll plant tomatoes, hot peppers, sweet peppers, and herbs, but until we perfect our tomato beer, it’s an area of the farm that focuses on a different end product. We’re always open to suggestions though!
We also see that you plan to expand into a 5000 bbl system, but what will you most likely be starting off with?
We purchased a 15 bbl brewhouse and three 30 bbl fermentation tanks. We actually just moved and are in the process of repurposing the old milk chiller into a 7 bbl open fermentation/fruit tank/cool ship. There are lot of cool projects we can do with that. We also have about 30 bbl worth of wine barrels that we will be putting into rotation from the get go. The target for production this year is to get close to/hover around 1000 bbl of beer. It was no small task to get this brewery running, so we do want to produce enough to distribute as well as age our beer.
What are your plans right now for distribution? Will you be brewery only, distribute to restaurants, have bottles or cans? What are your goals in terms of distribution?
I’m going to get very used to driving our farm’s pickup truck around the state. At the start, we’ll be self distributing our beer throughout the state with a big focus on Litchfield County since that is home. Unfortunately we are not going to be open to the public right away. There are still some zoning approvals and construction pieces necessary for that to take place, but we hope to continue moving toward that direction as soon as we can.
I am really excited to start doing beer dinners as we aren’t old enough to do vertical tastings of our beers yet but we can offer a full menu of ingredients to a chef from our farm for him to put together! We raise chickens, have eggs, and will be bringing in 12 pigs as well. The first batches will primarily be kegged with limited bottling. Since the volumes of each may vary by batch, we’ll be announcing more specific distribution plans with each release through our social media and website. Communication is a strong focus of ours since the brewery is not going to have a taproom, I want people to know what is coming out and where they can get it. I answer every e-mail the brewery receives personally (though, understandably, not always immediately) and want to do as much as possible to connect with and make KFBC a great part of the CT beer community, because it is a great place to be!
Why is it so important for you to use local ingredients in your beer?
Local to me is as much about the personal relationships and economy as it is the freshness and quality of the ingredients. My grandparents moved to this country without the equivalent of a high school diploma and raised my father by opening up a small bakery. No massive expansion, just one good business in a small town. They got their break when the large bakery of their day’s drivers went on strike and the breads/cakes couldn’t be delivered. Every customer that went into their store that day became customers for life. Growing up in that town, from the time I was a child, I knew the people that purchased the bakery from them, the butcher across the street, the ice cream man next door, the farmer down the road and so on. If they moved to this country today, they’d have a much harder time doing that. So going local first and foremost supports the local economy and makes for a thriving community. This goes back a bit to the moment I wanted to start a brewery—it’s one of the most community and food centered businesses you can have. First and foremost our goal is to make great beer. But how we do that is very important to us as well.
Being able to know the people producing your food not only allows you to know where and how it was grown, it allows you to directly inspect the quality. I take this approach to all things, or at least I try to as best as possible. All of our contractors for the brewery were local. Our architect lives down the street, the general contractor built Kent Town Hall and the Fire Dept . . . I have been so impressed with their work, and am glad they are going to be close by to share in what their part of the craft can produce. So, when they go to a local bar, restaurant or package store, the farmer who grew our grain, the orchardist that grew our peaches, apricots and plums, the plumber that ran our glycol lines, and so on can take pride in telling their friends and family that they helped make that beer.
Buying commodity hops is usually a fairly cut and dry process. Select varieties and weights, pay for the goods and receive them without word of where the hops were grown, by what farm, what lot, what plants and so on. When you are a big brewery you get to do lot selection (which is awesome) – choosing from specific bales of hops from specific farms to get only those hops and their characteristics you desire. Producing at our scale, we will never get to have that experience. Unless, it is grown locally and I have a personal relationship with the farmer. I’m really proud of the fact that there are about 12 acres of hops planned on being planted at different farms in Litchfield County this upcoming spring. And I cannot wait til they are mature enough to brew with.
And, the dreaded question, do you have a tentative opening date? :)
We’ll be brewing beer the first batch this week [the week of 2/2]! So beer should be available in March!