Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Chickens and Funk: Plan Bee Farm Brewery is Growing (Slightly Bigger) and Growing (Everything)

Plan Bee Farm Brewery
When, like most extremely normal people, I'm dwelling on stories I haven't written yet weeks or months before I actually sit down and type anything out, I often latch onto some kind of 'hook' that seems like a good encapsulation of the story I want to tell. And so, for some time now, I figured I would open this feature by writing about how Evan Watson, brewmaster of Fishkill, NY's Plan Bee Farm Brewery, appears to be one of the nicest human beings you'll ever meet. I promise this isn't me showing my bias, because truthfully, I don't really know Evan all that well. No, it's just the take-away you'll have after chatting with him at a market on occasional weekends, and seeing him explain his beer and his brewery's mission to other curious shoppers, most of whom haven't the slightest idea what a beer produced by a tiny farm brewery with a local wild house yeast strain might be like. ("Is it a light beer?") Evan may be a bearded giant, but from making his acquaintance in the year-and-change since Plan Bee opened, I had decided that this incredibly humble, soft-spoken man is just a big old sweetie.

Evan is full of surprises, though. And given his quiet, down-playing nature, you won't learn these things easily, without some prying. That he was some kind of All-American football star way back in the day isn't that shocking. But try Googling his name and uncover his music career, which he will allude to only offhandedly, in the vaguest, most demure of terms. You will discover that he's incredibly talented in this realm as well — has, in fact, toured with some very big acts that I promise you've heard of — and you wonder: when in the world did he have time to start brewing? And at Captain Lawrence, no less, one of the Hudson Valley's greatest success stories, and undeniably the brewery with its best sour and barrel-aging program. Evan Watson has some impressive credentials.

And yet, right now, Plan Bee Farm Brewery consists of little more than a small shed behind the home of Evan and his wife Emily. (At least, that's how it would seem if you're thinking of a brewery in the traditional sense). Inside the shed are a couple micro barrels, one normal-size barrel of solera lambic, four Speidel fermentors, and one of the simplest brew-houses that I've ever seen. True, Plan Bee is only running a one barrel (32 gallon) system currently, leading to the rare situation where a professional brewer can drag his equipment out into the yard and clean it with a garden hose. Even for its size, Plan Bee keeps things basic: I've seen any number of homebrew set-ups more elaborate than this.

Plan Bee Farm Brewery


As anyone in the industry knows, 1 bbl per batch is not a lot of beer. Almost anyone, including those with a 1 bbl system themselves, will tell you that it's a wildly uneconomical business model in the long term. But Evan's ambitions are a bit outside the norm of most volume-oriented brewers. He describes the current brewery as a Petri dish. Plan Bee will grow, and likely soon, but volume will never be the focus. Evan told me he doesn't think he'll need anything larger than a 5 bbl brewhouse for the next phase. Not because Evan doesn't think he could sell more beer, but because he doesn't think he could produce more beer. The operation is unprecedented in the state of New York, as the only brewery to currently make every one of its beers with all-NY ingredients. Not only are the hops and barley grown in the Empire State — many of the hops, in fact, are grown right in Evan's yard — but his current house yeast strain was originally plucked from Muscadine grapes growing in his backyard as well, and developed through repeated brewing sessions. Plan Bee epitomizes the farm brewery model that this state, and many others, are now pushing so hard. And, in a curious way, Plan Bee demonstrates why the farm brewery license, as it stands, may pose harsh challenges for just about any other brewery.

Evan's plans to grow Plan Bee don't follow the usual growth pattern of a nano-brewery. He told me he's currently looking for a new property: "Ideally, 15-30 acres, dedicating most of it to grain growing, and probably just an acre of hops." Curiously, rather than growing significantly larger in volume, Evan plans to grow more... local. With a new location, and expanded farmland, he hopes that Plan Bee will source every ingredient, and every step of the process, from its own property. The new Plan Bee Farm Brewery, whenever it arrives, will be much more than a tasting room next to some tanks: there will be a larger apiary, a malthouse, hop-oast, small orchard, large garden, and more.


I have often wondered if the Farm Brewery Bill in New York is overly-ambitious. It seems pretty clear at this point that it is going to be a huge challenge to make it work as written, however wonderful of an effort in concept. I have debated with many people in the industry if, given the current capacity for growing malt and hops in the state, it's possible for the intended regulations to be sustainable in the timeframe allotted (60% NY-state ingredients by 2018). Just a couple small-to-medium size farm breweries would quickly eat up the entire state's projected resources, to say nothing of its existing resources. Brewers are all very much counting on this licensing intervention to inspire supply for the undeniable cliff of demand, which looms... close. We're counting on a mad rush of producers to fill what has been highlighted as a glaring void.

Way ahead of everyone else, though, Evan's sort of ambition is personal. I didn't get the sense that his plans have much to do with business or licensing or market differentiation at all. It's simply his vision for the brewery — and farm — he'd like to run. He's passionate about developing the terroir of beer in this way. I don't think Evan wants to brew "local" beer so that he can slap that word on the label. I think Evan simply wants to brew beer with things that he grew, that he knows, that he tended to at every step of the way. Because to him, that is the beer. Not the recipe. Not the equipment. Not whatever it is a janitor brewmaster does.

"Growing, developing, and processing your own ingredients allows for a nearly infinite possibilities," Evan tells me later. "Brewing is even more agriculturally based than wine-making, yet we've lost that connection in this country. If you went to a vineyard in Napa or Sonoma and they said they source their ingredients exclusively from other countries, you would laugh in their face. Almost every other brewery in this country is essentially ordering from the same catalog. I feel the ingredients I source myself can be fresher, less-handled, more distinct, and entirely proprietary."

This also sounds like a ludicrous amount of work.

Two buckets of fresh hops go into the kettle for "Hop Wild."


Evan tells me he has a habit of acquiring hobbies. He says he likes distilling things down to their essence, understanding what makes them tick. Just for the sake of knowing how things work, from what I can gather of his quiet musings as we add wet hops to the boil. So when he makes a beer, he wants to craft it through every step of the process. He's brewing a weird hybrid of a beer the day we chat, with two large buckets of wet Cascades from a local farmer, but rather than a standard IPA, he intends to pitch a "weird cocktail of every yeast and blend I had floating around." I have no idea what the result will be, but it sounds guaranteed to be fascinating. The hop cones are so large we spend a good half an hour breaking them into chunks to toss into the kettle. He tells me he "has a million ideas." He wants to make this new, future farm brewery wrapped around growth, around beer, and also music. A place people can go to absorb all these things. It's sounding like a pretty chill place.

Which, I would say, is a good idea considering his current situation: a brewery in his backyard, and a retail 'farmstand' in his front yard, open Saturday afternoons only. The only other place to find the beer? The local farmer's market, on Sundays. Bottles only, in each case. It's not like there's a whole lot to go around. If you're going to find Evan's beer, those are the options.

Plan Bee has released a number of well-received sour beers in recent weeks: Brass Tacks, a barrel-aged golden sour, and two fruit variations of that base beer: Amour, on strawberries, and Precious, on apricots. The Watsons are used to beer collectors and drinkers of all types hanging out around his property, but the line of cars out of his driveway at 9 o'clock in the morning for that recent release of Precious was a first. When Evan and Emily opened the farmstand to customers at noon, the beer sold out in under an hour. A few weeks later, Plan Bee released Comb, a blended sour. The line started before 8 am this time. Though twice as much beer was available for this batch, the Watsons lowered the bottle limited significantly from the previous release. The whole batch still sold out in the same amount of time.

Plan Bee Farm Brewery Mattrazzo


The small scale helps, and certainly, selling out a batch in 15 minutes isn't totally inconceivable when you're making such a small volume in the first place. But the beer is getting out there, popping up in states far away from Evan's little farmstand. A new location will have to cement Plan Bee's accessibility and aesthetic. His roots to the farmland, the wild yeast he favors, spices fresh from the garden. It'll have to be comfortable, as one would imagine such a place, I figure. It's a good problem to have, shared by many of today's best brewers, even if they started, at their smallest, still many times larger than Plan Bee. I'm quite excited by the prospects of this operation, especially given this feeling I get that Evan won't fail to deliver on his ambitions.

I ask him to describe what his ideal brewery would be, beyond just all the farming and creeping bines. There hangs a solitary acoustic guitar on the wall of the brew-shed, for when friends visit during a brew session. Out front, by the driveway, a hammock stretches between trees, bushes arched over the path that leads to the house, chickens racing across the yard. It is the kind of place that is, from the very first impression, extremely charming.

Evan starts telling me a bit about his former football career, of all things — and, not being much of a football person myself, I have no idea where this is going, or if I will understand whatever metaphor he's working at.

After games, he says, he would sit with his father at a pub in Ohio, and have dinner with big imperial pints from Great Lakes Brewing Co. He says he could recall nothing more satisfying after a game. It just felt right, after all that harsh physical exertion. I can relate to that.


Jumping back to the present, he says maybe he wants to learn how to paint. He has this vision for this massive, intricate piece of artwork that will be the focus of the new brewery space, the only piece of artwork in the taproom / hangout area.

"I want to learn how to paint in that old style of dark, romantic, classical oil paintings. And I want to have it be this big intricate mural painting of Vikings."

"Vikings?"

"Yeah. A Viking ship crashing ashore, spilling over with nude Nordic warriors. Pillaging a village. Decimating and decapitating their beach-bound opposition with giant broadswords. "

I'm laughing pretty hard at this point, not entirely sure if he's serious.

"And really vibrantly hued blood, just spraying everywhere. Blood-red paint is splattered all over the canvas... even on the gold frame itself. Some on the wall next to where it’s mounted. Really multi-dimensional."

Other ideas for how he can bring community involvement into the open-space, festive nature of the farm, this "cross-section of the Viking’s mythological Valhalla with a Mississipi Delta BBQ," include: "feats of strength" in the yard. In the hall, there will be only one enormous long wooden table, covered in animal skins, where drinkers can sit. Here I was expecting a pastoral utopia, some neo-farmer paradise subtly integrating the finest in New York brewing and environmentalism, and Evan has his mind set on smashing goblets on the ground at the end of a night, and, I don't know, throwing javelins at wild boars, probably. Okay, surprising, maybe, but it sounds pretty damn awesome. It will certainly be unique in the area, whatever ends up happening with Evan's plans.

"My family is from northern Scotland," he says, by way of explanation. His ancestors might quibble with the Viking-specific imagery, but I'm seeing some logic to it all. The beer as a reward after a hard day's labor, and connecting that tactile labor to the product it results in. Beer, as tied to the real and physical. Maybe it's just the misleadingly quirky name of the brewery and its elegant logo that threw me off from the start.

Why shouldn't farm brewing be gritty and blunt, anyway? There is certainly a violence inherent in farming, and maybe in brewing, too. As we clean out the mash tun and brew kettle in the yard with a hose, later, I ask Evan about a dried snakeskin hanging up on the fence at the vegetable garden.

"We've had, like, three different snakes attempt to invade the chicken coop this summer," Evan tells me. "The other week there was a huge snake that kept eating all the eggs before we could get to them. We were getting like six to eight eggs every morning before that."

One morning, he woke to Emily sounding the alarm: the snake was back, and it had, once again, eaten all the eggs. This time, Evan moved fast enough to catch it.

"I grabbed a flathead shovel and smashed the thing in half. There was blood, and yolk, just... spewing out of it."

Plan Bee Farm Brewery Evan Watson
So, to crush an enemy's skull, you would grab it like this...


Unlike most brewers catching wild local yeast strains, Evan never sent his off to a lab, or even tried to isolate one single strain himself. Not that he took this route based on some adherence to lofty principals of naturalism, but because he found there was no reason to.

"Brewers are so afraid of Brettanomyces and talk about it as if it's this unstoppable monster, but really, Saccharomyces is the hungriest, dominating, most competitive of yeasts," he says. "That's why basically all pure-culture brewer's strains ended up being Saccharomyces. It's what wins out in the end."

Evan has used a few commercial cultures in the past, mostly favoring Wyeast's 3711 French Saison, but he'll likely phase out commercial yeast entirely at this point. Four different wild cultures make up the majority of his repertoire now, all isolated from around the farm property: a peach tree yeast strain, strawberry yeast, Muscadine grape yeast, and a new culture of honey yeast that Evan is currently developing.

Wild yeast isn't known for its versatility, so it may seem like a lot of effort to turn these raw, feral critters into something clean and consistent enough to base all the brewery's beers around. It probably is, but Evan isn't averse to hard work, clearly. I remember Tachiniki, one of Evan's earliest beers fermented with a wild fruit culture (peach), from when I was first encountering Plan Bee at the farmer's market, and thought it was an interesting, if very raw experiment. Much like how you might expect a first generation wild yeast culture to taste, without much aging: very yeasty, phenolic, vaguely Belgian with a bit of weird grassy funky. Not knowing much about Evan at the time, other than that he had a background at Captain Lawrence, I wasn't sure how to gauge this quirky direction, but I loved that he was trying it. And as an experimental brewer who rarely releases the same thing twice, even though they are all bottled, I figured it was a fair guess that some very cool experiments would be coming down the line.

"I'm basically recreating history with this brewing process," Evan explains. By which he means, instead of sending it off to a lab, he just kept pitching his favorite Muscadine grape culture over and over, spending far more time and resources steering the yeast than most brewers would be willing to. But as the Saccharomyces in the culture out-competed Brettanomyces, Evan noticed that the pellicles stopped showing up. The hint of lactic tang from lingering stubborn bacteria got less pronounced. Through repeated top-cropping and re-pitching, Evan says the culture has become "incredibly clean." And after trying one of Plan Bee's recent farmhouse brews fermented with the stuff, he's right. It's nothing like the yeasty, phenolic culture that I tasted in Tachiniki a year ago. Sharing a recent batch of Farmstand Ale (#3) with friends, later, we decide this particular yeast tastes like nothing else we've encountered. It truly is unique to Evan's tiny operation — and it's fantastic.


When I talk to a lot of brewers — especially those in this new wave of nanobrewery openings — I can't quite figure out what their motivation is beyond "Making beer for a living sounds sweet"... and the results can be all over the place. Some brewers just want to make beer. Some brewers, perhaps, just want to drink beer. Some want to focus on a certain type of beer. Some want to make the most refined, precisely-calibrated beer. I don't think I've encountered another brewer with Evan's exact goals. Some of his beers may be a bit more raw than others, but that's part of what he's doing, and his small scale means, if you've bought the beer, then you've likely had some small connection to the man who made it. He will tell you whatever you want to know, and he will be frank.

"I've made some exceptional batches of beer, and I've made some mediocre batches of beer," he tells me. He's not being arrogant or self-deprecating, he's just observing.

If his recent releases are any indication, Plan Bee's output is sliding more and more into the 'exceptional' side of the spectrum. Evan clearly understands how to cultivate demand in the world of beer traders and roving bottle-sharers, but still seems a bit shocked, and perpetually flattered, by the sudden intensity of attention.

"When people started to come up to the stand and ask to buy a whole case, I would feel bad," Evan says. Due to the economics of small scale brewing and bottling, Plan Bee beers aren't particularly cheap. "At first I felt weird that people were spending so much on my beer. Each bottle of this one batch I brought to the farmer's market was $20, so for a whole case... you know? This one guy was trying to buy as much as he could, and I was like: 'Are you sure you want to buy all that beer, man? That's a lot of money.'"

You can't help but get the impression that Evan Watson is a really nice guy. Just... don't steal his eggs.


8 comments:

  1. This is really neat. You mentioned legislation in New York that will impact this and it got me wondering if something like this would be possible in my state (Indiana). Do you know of any good places to research said question?

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    1. NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo wrote this legislation into power, you can read more about it here: https://www.governor.ny.gov/press/07182012-craft-breweries

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  2. This is a great piece of writing. I found myself really pulled into his story and by the end rooting for Evan to succeed. Thanks for the story and keep us updated on his journey.

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  3. I greatly enjoyed reading about Evan's operation. Hope that I can make it to NY and snag some brews!

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  4. great writeup. can't wait to try your stuff at the Sour'd in Sept fest next weekend!

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  5. Great article! Very inspiring story!

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  6. had the chance to be out of those that got "shut out of Comb" this past Saturday and it still could not have been happier experience. Evan was the most humble host and you could tell he felt bad people didn't get to try his beer. He spends time to meet and greet everyone in line and let my kids run around his yard like it was my own. Huge Thank You.

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