Dan Barber and Grimm Ales Collaborate to Brew an Ode to Field Rotations

The brewers and chef talk beer, crop rotation, their mutual connection to a local grain farmer and more.

Grimm Artisanal Ales produces some of the most interesting, creative and exciting beers of the moment.

The proprietors and brewers Joe and Lauren Grimm explore a host of styles—some of which they are considered to be among the architects of (!)—with great success.

These include soft, juicy, aromatically awesome canned IPAs (Tesseract), which induce hashtags like #juicebomb and send the most fervid of beer loons on a frenzied search with each limited release; beautifully bright dry-hopped sours (Lucky Cloud), which are often aged in oak and fruited (Rainbow Dome) for added complexity; and robust imperial stouts (Double Negative), which won consecutive awards at the world’s largest commercial beer competition, the Great American Beer Festival, in 2014 and 2015.

The Grimms don’t own a brewery—at least they have yet to open their highly anticipated production facility and tasting room in East Williamsburg. But that story is for another time. As for now, the couple is still part of the growing movement of gypsy brewers who rent unused brewery space to create their beers on a larger scale.

Before the Grimms produce a commercial batch (typically 30 barrels, or a tad more than 900 gallons), they develop recipes like they did as homebrewers through small test batches of five gallons in the kitchen of their Gowanus apartment. This is where I met them recently to talk about one of their latest releases called “Field Rotation.” It’s a collaboration with the team at Blue Hill and described on the label as “an ode to crop rotation.”

As the Grimms and I shared a bottle of Field Rotation (go here to find a bottle near you), we called chef Dan Barber for a quick chat:

Edible Brooklyn: Before we get into the beer, let’s talk about crop rotation and what that practice exactly is. Dan, a few years back in both an op-ed for the New York Times and in your book, The Third Plate, you recounted meeting a grain farmer named Klaas Martens. The encounter was a culinary epiphany for you. 
Dan Barber: It was. So, to your first question, crop rotation is essentially a recipe; an ecological recipe for the most delicious tasting food that farmers can grow. Think about a field of wheat. If you grow wheat on that same field year after year, you’ll quickly deplete the soil. It’s equivalent to continually withdrawing money without ever making deposits, but in the form of nutrients. Now the way conventional farmers deal with this depleting is by adding inputs like chemical fertilizers. But if you’re an organic farmer, you learn to diversify, rotating in a sequence of different crops to maintain the health of the soil and ensure the quality of your harvests. And that’s what crop rotation is.

Now, we work with Klaas, a brilliant grain farmer who, to prepare the soil for his wheat, plants a whole series of other soil-supporting grains, legumes and cover crops like rye, barley, millet, beans, buckwheat, cowpeas and clover. Each crop performs a very specific function: The beans give the soil nitrogen, the barley builds soil structure and so on. If that sounds complicated and time-consuming for the farmer—it is. Which is why we need to create a culture that support those crops.

We serve a dish at the restaurant called “rotation risotto” that’s inspired by Klaas. It’s a rice-less risotto made with all his rotational crops—essentially everything but the wheat. Joe and Lauren came in for dinner not too long ago and ordered it, and they talked about applying the same ideas to a beer.

@bluehillfarm chefs harvesting, threshing and winnowing Nash Huber's rye on a hot summer morning @stonebarns

A video posted by Dan Barber (@chefdanbarber) on

EB: Grimms, what interested you in making a beer like Field Rotation?
Joe Grimm: We had already been using Klaas’s heirloom rye from his farm Lakeview Organic. He had been introduced to us by Andrea Stanley at Valley Malt, a small maltster in the Pioneer Valley. But when we happened upon Dan’s op-ed in the Times, we realized that the rye played a deeper role in the farm’s ecological cycle.

Lauren Grimm: As brewers, we’re uniquely positioned to put these grains from the down-cycle or rotational crops to good use, so we have the power to make a healthy impact on the larger food system. That’s ultimately why we approached Dan and the Blue Hill team to do this beer. We hope that doing this inspires more brewers to learn about the farming practices that result in the grains that we use to brew, many of which we used to make Field Rotation. And if the demand for the grains grows, more farmers will be incentivized to use healthy crop rotation practices because each part of the cycle has value. So we all benefit.

DB: You know, there’s so much thought behind what the Grimms do. It speaks to a curiosity and a willingness to experiment that you see in all great chefs. Brewers like them will continue to move things forward.

JG: Over the past few years, it feels like it’s become fashionable to malign grains. And something that we find especially exciting about you and Blue Hill is your courage in bucking that trend and really championing the culinary possibilities of grain. As brewers, we use malted wheat and barley daily so we feel like we know them all too well. But tasting the ways Blue Hill utilizes malt in various dishes to create unexpectedly explosive flavors has been eye opening.

DB: I’ll drink to that. [Laughs.]

EB: I know a beer! Now, in terms of style, Field Rotation is inspired by Berliner weisse. Why did you look to that particular style? Also, what ingredients in the recipe relate directly to crop rotation?
LG: Berliner weisse is our go-to style for a refreshing all-purpose table beer that retains some character and complexity. It’s not over-intoxicating, and it complements a range of foods. The acidity in the beer comes from a souring culture we maintain that includes several strains of lactobacillus. In order to maintain a raw sourdough grain quality in the beer, we left the wort unboiled. We also conditioned the beer on lightly toasted oak spirals for tannins and mouthfeel.

The grains in the beer—2-row barley, oats and rye—are important parts of the crop-rotation process, and were almost entirely sourced from New York State farms. The Danko rye grown at Oeschner Farms is especially exciting because it’s a rare variety of rye that’s known to be particularly plump, spicy and bready. We also steeped clover flowers, including clover harvested by the Stone Barns staff, and some hops we felt would complement the grassy, floral aromas of the clover flowers.

DB: The clover is a good example of crop rotation. Farmers often grow clover as a cover crop, mowing it down before maturity so they can enrich the soil for the next crop. Organic farmers do a lot of this, and for them it’s always a “sunk” cost. But suddenly we’ve created a culinary market for that clover. We buy just a portion of the crop; the rest remains in the field to benefit the soil. And, in the process, the farmer gets both the benefit of the fertility and also an added economic return. That’s pretty game-changing.

EB: The beer tastes great. There’s a light tartness with every sip that’s really refreshing. Are you happy with it?
LG: It’s a delight. You have that grapefruit-like tartness, a pleasant hoppy nose and some interesting honey-nectar notes from the clover. Of course the real motivation behind this beer is the range of rustic local grain flavors on the palate. The oats and rye lend a creamy quality to the mouthfeel.

DB: It’s so delicious. It has this beautiful whey-like acidity. In the restaurant, we’ve been pairing it with a bread course, so it’s sort of an ode to New York grains.

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Niko Krommydas has written for Tasting Table, BeerAdvocate, Munchies, and First We Feast. He is editor of Craft Beer New York, an app for the iPhone, and a columnist for Yankee Brew News. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.