The Brews of Summer is a series spotlighting the area’s best summer beers.
Today, our beer is Wheatland Spring’s Good Days to Come, a open-fermented citrus witbier.
On an overcast March morning, John and Bonnie Branding, owners of Wheatland Spring Farm + Brewery, and head brewer Austen Conn assembled in the corn crib – a century-old, two-story granary converted into a brewery with a “coolship loft” – and set about answering a simple, yet immensely complicated question: What now?
For months, the farm and brewery had been planning its inaugural Land Beer Fest, an anniversary gathering that would double as a mission statement, a celebration of “agriculture, beer, and the folks who make it possible.” In early June, likeminded breweries, who also grow or locally source most ingredients, would be traveling to the small, rural town of Waterford, Virginia from places like Oregon and North Carolina and Chincoteague Island. Joining them would be area farmers, craft maltsters, and a yeast purveyor – the people who grow grain, the people who kiln grain, and the people who provide the thing that turns grain-steeped water into beer. In a field where buckwheat currently rejuvenates the soil, each participant would set up a station and engage with festival attendees, explaining what they do and how they do it and why.
“We wanted to bring together all the people that play a role in getting beer from the farm to the bottle,” explains John. “Beer is an agricultural product, and the idea was to break down the walls that exist in the brewing process and put the agriculture front and center. It was supposed to be a manifestation of everything we’re trying to do here – demonstrating that a small farm can add a lot of value. In our case, it just happens to be beer.”
Suffice it to say, Land Beer Fest was not envisioned as your typical beer fest. As Bonnie wrote recently on social media, “It’s all about the beer… and not about the beer at all.” She was discussing this summer’s barley harvest, but the sentiment speaks to how Wheatland Spring views everything, its birthday party included.
Whatever Land Beer Fest would have been, though, changed irrevocably when COVID-19 descended upon the United States.
“Suddenly, it disappeared,” John continues. “We said, ‘Are we even going to be open in June?’ The world had gone pear-shaped.”
It would be a cliché if it wasn’t true: The mood within Wheatland Spring mirrored the weather outside the corn crib that day. Gloomy. Bereft of sunshine. “Super heavy.”
So, what now? All Conn and the Brandings could think to do was to try to introduce some light into world. Beer was their vehicle to do so.
Wheatland Spring’s beers are often “reverse engineered,” John tells me. The starting point is something the farm and brewery wants to express. Sometimes that’s a particular flavor; other times, it’s something less tangible – an emotion or an experience. That day, the trio conceived of three beers that would convey optimism, even in the face of the pandemic and what it had already wrought.
The IPA Fieldrise was meant to evoke the majestic sight of the sun’s ascent over Wheatland Spring’s 30 acres of land. “For us, finding wonder in the familiar today gives us promise for what’s to come tomorrow,” the farm and brewery later explained on its website.
Getaway, as its name implies, was designed to be transportive at a time when most were stuck inside their homes. In many ways a traditional gose, the sour ale would be brightened with additions of tangerine and gooseberry.
“We thought to ourselves, ‘What people want more than ever is to somehow get away, to get out and experience something else,’” explains John. “We figured we could offer that to somebody for a half hour in a can of beer – something that tastes like the tropics.”
And last came Good Days to Come, a wild farmhouse ale conditioned on a variety of citrus fruits.
“The name is a reference to that idea of enduring optimism,” John shares. “This beer was conceived at a time of collective darkness, but as dark as things can get, the light’s not far behind.”
Cans of Fieldrise and Getaway would see release in April and May, respectively, but Good Days to Come was designed to be a “longer format,” in John’s words. Dubbed a witbier by Wheatland Spring, the beer was open fermented in the brewery’s coolship, then allowed to continue fermenting in stainless steel, then conditioned on fruit peel and flesh, and then naturally conditioned in 750 mL bottles.
“It’s a more complicated beer,” says John. “There were more processes, more things going on, but it was meant to elicit the same response: You drink this, and it’s uplifting, and you feel good. The citrus is the direction we took on that – we felt it was very bright, and the effervescence of the beer would complement that. It was all about putting a smile on people’s faces.”
Wheatland Spring debuted Good Days to Come and its resplendent vibes on June 6, at what the farm brewery called Land Beer Fest Reimagined. In the preceding weeks, the Brandings had hosted a series of online Land Beer Fest Talks, still managing to shine a spotlight on those who had planned to travel to Waterford. The festival itself was, understandably, a somewhat intimate affair. Parties were seated at shaded picnic tables in Wheatland Spring’s biergarten or at “private barley gazebos” – that is, shaded picnic tables in mowed patches of field – where guest beers would be brought in and deposited more than six feet away by masked employees.
This was hardly what the Brandings had once envisioned, but Land Beer Fest hadn’t disappeared. Despite the pear-shaped world and all its turmoil, the event had actually happened – safely, thoughtfully, with intention. (It was the first – and, to date, only – beer event I have attended since quarantine began, and my risk-averse wife only agreed to go after Wheatland Spring responded to our inquiry about its bathroom set-up with 142 words of detailed explanation.)
That afternoon, Bonnie greeted guests to the farm and brewery with Good Days to Come, poured from a large bottle with a bright orange label into small plastic cups. It was a fitting way to start the event, not just because the weather was unseasonably warm and, in that moment, the 4.9% citrusy farmhouse ale tasted like the most refreshing shandy ever concocted. It was also because of what Wheatland Spring’s anniversary beer represented: one of its truest manifestations of “land beer,” made with wheat grown on the farm, water drawn from its well, and yeast captured in its field.
The concept of land beer is at the core of Wheatland Spring.
Land beer is what the Brandings call beer that reflects the soil, climate, and conditions that its ingredients were grown in – or what other components naturally exist there. Granted, every beer reflects the terroir of its ingredients to some degree, whether it’s brewed with Canadian malt or New Zealand hops or English ale yeast. But Wheatland Spring opened a year ago with the goal of making beer that reflects this particular farm, its neighbors’ agriculture, and the surrounding growing region. Its beer would reflect what this plot of earth tastes like.
The Brandings derived their “land beer” from the landbier of Germany, where the phrase translates to “country beer” and has historically referred to the “beer of the area.” In other words, it was and remains the local beer, often rustic, invariably brewed with ingredients grown nearby. Not coincidentally, it was in Germany that the dream of Wheatland Spring began to take shape.
About a dozen years ago, a yearlong fellowship with a German automobile company lured John and his then-girlfriend Bonnie to Berlin. That opportunity turned into full-time employment in Munich, Bavaria’s largest city and arguably the epicenter of the country’s storied beer culture. Here they found the birthplace of Helles, the originator of Reinheitsgebot, the savior of weissbier, the host of Oktoberfest, the land of oversized beer halls with their oversized Maß. But it wasn’t Munich that most captivated John and Bonnie; it was the relatively unheralded farm breweries that they stumbled upon in Bavaria and throughout Europe.
“You’d pull up and the see the ingredients for the beer growing right next to where you’d be drinking it,” remembers Bonnie. “Some of the places that were so inspiring to us – I can almost guarantee that no one outside those tiny individual towns has ever heard of them.”
There was a romantic appeal to these farm breweries. They were often owned and operated by families that had passed down recipes and practices – both farming and brewing – for generation after generation. They felt stuck in time. They represented a return to “the elements of brewing,” according to John, and were suffused with an intense sense of place and heritage and artisanship.
“If you went back a couple hundred years to different parts of Europe – primarily Belgium, France, and Germany – you had these small agricultural practices with some kind of rudimentary brewing setup, enough to sustain their farm, their workers, their community,” he continues. “They cared deeply about what they put in their beer, and they had a very tight footprint. They would grow what they could, and whatever they couldn’t, they would get as nearby as possible, not out of some interest in doing something local but because it was practical. A lot of farming is the practical application of things.”
John and Bonnie were hardly a pair of city slickers suddenly enamored with a quaint, bucolic alternative to urban life. Growing up outside Chicago, John spent summers on his grandparents’ Illinois farm. He tells me he’s been in and around agricultural settings for as long as he can remember, though he won’t go so far to say he had ever truly been a farmer. (“I have too much respect and almost reverence for farmers to say that,” he shares.) Bonnie, meanwhile, came of age in the West Virginia countryside, a neighbor’s cattle field on the other side of her backyard.
“I’m a farm girl at heart,” she says. “After college, I moved to DC and became a city girl quite quickly, but it always haunted me that I belonged in the country and on farmland.”
On a visit to yet another German farm brewery, John floated the idea of someday opening one of their own.
“I almost brushed it off, like, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds great, but is it realistic?” Bonnie recalls. “It was one of these things you put on the list of lifelong dreams.”
After five years in Europe, the Branding family – which now included one young child and would soon add another – returned to the States and moved into an Alexandria rowhouse. But John and Bonnie didn’t leave the dream of a farm brewery behind in Munich. It lingered. They read, and they researched. As nearly a half decade passed and the couple entered their mid-30s, they decided to act.
“We said, ‘If we’re going to go after our dream, let’s do it,’” Bonnie tells me. “We didn’t want to retire and then explore something we wanted to do our whole life.”
For the Brandings, who are deliberate and methodical in even the smallest of choices, finding the place to plant their farm brewery would be a monumental undertaking. They looked not only in area surrounding DC but elsewhere across the country, as well. Their criteria was detailed and uncompromising. First and foremost, the soil needed to be fertile. The geographic location was not to be inaccessible – they wanted visitors, after all – but it shouldn’t be congested or busy, either. And the farm, as a physical structure, needed to already be there.
“We felt strongly about saving an old farm,” John tells me one summer night at Wheatland Spring, sitting at a live edge table made from a tree that was felled on the property. “Once we lose these barns, they’re gone forever – part of the American memory and culture is gone forever. And that makes me sad. These buildings have gone through a lot, and they have a lot to offer. As good as folks might be at replicating things – whether it’s beer styles or furniture – you can’t replicate time. Just like in Bavaria, you walk into these barns and there’s a certain smell and texture to them.”
The Brandings looked – intently, John adds – at “dozens and dozens and dozens” of properties before discovering Wheatland Spring. He jokes that the farm chose them, but it also ticked all their boxes. It sat on 30 acres of viable farmland 35 miles outside of DC. It possessed almost 200 years of history, during which it served as a cattle farm, a horse farm, and a dairy farm. A bank barn, which the Brandings would convert into a tasting room, had been constructed in the 1832; its corn crib was erected in the 1920s. The surrounding trees – a silver maple, a sycamore – were likely older than the property’s entire history.
“There was just something magical here,” says Bonnie. “We felt it in our stomachs when we drove up to it for the first time and the second time and the third time. We decided this would be the place where we would make our big jump.”
(On one trip to the farm in mid-June, we briefly discussed a conversation occurring on Twitter about whether Wheatland Spring should be considered a DC-area brewery. Bonnie, who handles the brewery’s social media, had seen the back and forth. “I didn’t comment, but I thought, ‘This is the growing region for DC,’” she told me. “We’re an hour away. Try snagging 30 acres any closer. The soil out here is so lovely, and there’s availability – so, I’m not bent out of shape about it.”)
When the Brandings found Wheatland Spring, it was operating as a hay farm, producing the grassy mixture for livestock feed. The previous owner had been looking to downsize – largely because caring for a historic farm is a lot of work, John notes. Prior to the Brandings entrance into its two-hundred-year narrative, the farm had been slated for real estate development. The bank barn, the corn crib, the spring house – all of it would be razed for single-family homes. This would not have an unfamiliar story in Loudoun County. To wit, in the 1950s, the country was home to over 50 dairy farms; today, it has one.
This slice of Virginia is hardly alone in that fate. According to the American Farmland Trust, almost 31 million acres of agricultural land – roughly the size of New York state – were irreversibly lost to development between 1992 and 2012. Included in that statistic: John’s grandparents’ Illinois farm.
“We went back fifteen years ago, and it’s a strip mall,” he shares. “That broke my heart.”
For John and Bonnie, this subject matter is personal. It is deeply rooted. And if, like me, you’re inclined to approach earnestness with a cynical eye, know this: They really mean this stuff. From day one, two-and-a-half years ago, when the Brandings moved to Wheatland Spring, the entire venture has been imbued with the sense that they can truly use the farm brewery as a vehicle to demonstrate that farmland still has value as farmland.
“We both feel strongly about doing what we can to promote small agriculture in the U.S.,” says John. “It’s part of our cultural heritage, and if we’re not careful, we’re going to lose it altogether. We have nothing against houses. Everyone needs a house – we live in a house, I get it. But the farmland is so valuable unto itself, and so are identities of different growing regions around the country.”
In an effort to preserve the farm’s historic structures while retrofitting them to the brewery’s needs, the Brandings worked closely with a fifth-generation local stonemason and a timber framing restoration team. Where lumber was necessary – to reinforce existing framing, to build out a dormer, to place eaves over extensions to both sides of the corn crib – the group sourced oak and pine from saw mills that used traditional cuts and measurements, just as past owners of Wheatland Spring would have. The hope was that as the years pass and the lumber’s tone fades, the new and old wood would be indistinguishable. The story would be seamless.
One modern touch the Brandings implemented was encasing the brewery, located on the base floor of the old corn crib, between a floor-to-ceiling glass “store front” on one end and a glass-paned garage door on the other. Not only would this let natural light in, it would allow visitors sitting in the barn taproom to literally look through the brewery and onto the growing field. As with practically everything at Wheatland Spring, this was intentional.
“We wanted people to make this real connection between the produce, the processing, and the enjoyment of the beer,” John explains. “This farm has been here way longer than we have, and if all goes right, it’s going to be here way longer than we are. It’s our job to reposition it for the modern rural economy. We can create a space, and we can make the best beer we’re capable of making, and then we reconnect people with agriculture and beer. Hopefully, they walk away saying, ‘I feel really good about this. I learned about what goes into beer. I actually want to keep more farmland around.”
Before the Brandings could begin fostering that connection, before they could brew land beer with estate grains, they would have to plant crops and hope for the best. Not long after moving to the farm, prior to any of the months of renovations, John led the effort to convert the fields. At the same time, Bonnie enrolled and earned a certificate in an agricultural business planning program for farms in Virginia and North Carolina.
“We didn’t have any direct farming experience when we jumped in, so we did everything we could to learn it as quickly as we could,” she says. “John did a lot of manual hard work, and I did a lot of research. Trust us, there’s been a really steep learning curve. But it’s also been a lot of fun.”
In the fall of 2018, the Brandings tried their hands at wheat, a grain that has proven well suited to Virginia’s climate. Using a couple of drill seeders, they sewed 18 acres of soft red winter wheat. After consulting with other sustainably-minded farmers in the area – including across the road, at one of the birthplaces decades ago of the modern, sustainable small farming movement – the farm employed a no-till approach.
“So goes the old saw: Ask three farmers their opinions on how to grow, and you’ll get seven answers,” says John. “As with most things in life, farming is about trade-offs and learning what works best on a particular plot of land in a particular microclimate.”
After eight months in the ground, over 40,000 pounds of wheat was harvested last spring.
Remarkably, to this point, the Brandings haven’t had to add anything to their soil. No lime, no nitrogen, no gypsum. When I ask why, John and Bonnie admit they’re not quite sure. Maybe they’ve gotten lucky. Maybe it’s the product of glacial activity across the area over a million years ago. Unlike some other area farms, the Brandings don’t have generations-spanning familiarity with these fields. They’re still learning.
Shortly after taking over Wheatland Spring, the Brandings were visited by Chip and Susan Planck, the former owners of Wheatland Vegetable Farms and legends in the Loudoun County agricultural community for their farmland preservation advocacy and mentorship of area farmers.
“Chip looked out over our fields and said, ‘Wheatland soil is some of the best in the United States. It’ll grow for you if you respect it,’” Bonnie remembers. “It was one of these special moments, like someone with deep experience sharing information that was beyond our understanding.”
The wheat harvested that spring would eventually be sent to Murphy & Rude Malting, a Charlottesville-based craft maltster. For over a year since then, whenever Wheatland Spring has been in need of wheat, it gives Murphy & Rude founder Jeff Bloem a few weeks’ notice, and pallet of freshly kilned estate wheat (or the unmalted estate wheat he stores for the farm brewery) is delivered shortly thereafter. This wheat supply – some of which Bloem purchased for sale to other breweries – will run out at some point early this fall. Wheatland Spring plans to use the last of their 2019 harvest in a transition beer of sorts, blending it with the first of their 2020 harvest: 25,000 pounds of Violetta 2-row winter barley.
For the Brandings, the latter harvest is an unmitigated triumph.
“Barley really isn’t supposed to grow in Virginia,” says John. “It’s too wet, there’s too much fungus pressure, there are too many pests. If barley does grow here, typically there’s going to be a lot of spray on it.”
He tells me this on an early evening in the middle of July. We’re standing in a converted horse stable, next to the Brandings’ personal residence, where all of their harvested barley is drying in open super sacks. Each holds a ton of grain. John removes what looks like giant corkscrew from one bag and jams it through the top of another. The apparatus removes moist heavy air, replacing it with drier ambient air. This is something John will do for weeks, as he waits for the barley to release dormancy – a biological safeguarding mechanism – and sprout. Then it can be sent to Murphy & Rude for malting.
“People often underestimate the amount of work that goes into getting a crop from the field to a bag, let alone to the table,” says Bloem. “Let’s just assume your barley grew successfully, which is also very much not guaranteed. It then has to combined, stored, packaged, moved from one thing to another, and delivered it to where it needs to be – and you need to know what to do with it between all of those times. It takes equipment, people, investment, and preparation.”
At the moment, Murphy & Rude regularly contract malts for four farm breweries, including Wheatland Spring and Josh Chapman’s Black Narrows Brewing. It has numerous times fielded calls from similar operations that are looking to malt barley a week after pulling it out of the ground. Bloem’s response: They should have talked a year ago. Then, he could have counseled them on the type of barley to plant, soil manipulation, avoiding pre-sprout damage, reducing post-harvest moisture, and any number of other techniques that could lead to Murphy & Rude receiving plump kernels that have cleared a third-party lab’s quality and health analysis.
“Those are the kind of conversations that are necessary for things to happen successfully,” Bloem says. “You can get lucky – there are plenty of guys that get lucky – but, in this particular case, it’s not always better to be lucky than good. You’re better off just being good and getting better. You can’t depend on couch farming and hoping this stuff works out.”
Wheatland Spring has surely been the beneficiary of some luck. The Brandings harvested their barley on June 14 – earlier than anticipated on account of a mild winter. A few days later, a brief but furious storm swept through the area, raining a barrage of hail on the farm. If it had still been in the field, the barley would have been destroyed.
But Murphy & Rude’s founder has also never had to worry about a lack of communication from the Brandings. Before the brewery was built or anything had gone into the ground, John connected with the malster. Based on Wheatland Spring’s infrastructure and field conditions, Bloem had recommended they plant Violetta 2-row barley. Violetta has enough dormancy to withstand Virginia’s spring rain (but not so much dormancy, as with Calypso, that it takes seven months to recover before malting), and is tall enough to block sunlight that would encourage weed growth (unlike the short-stocked Flavia).
Well beyond that kind of big decision, John is perpetually trading texts with Bloem, whether it’s about the latest moisture levels or seed cleaning methods. John calls Bloem a “real, true partner.”
“What’s made us as close as we are, in a customer-vendor relationship, is that John is not afraid to learn and ask questions and figure out things in advance, long before they need to be figured out,” the maltster explains. “We get a lot of contact with new, upcoming breweries, but none of them are quite like John and Bonnie with the model they’ve put together and their thoughtfulness and the die-hard connection to agriculture.”
In line with Wheatland Spring’s model, this relationship extends further than contract malting. From its first batch of beer in late spring 2019, Wheatland Spring has brewed almost exclusively with grains grown and malted regionally. For all ingredients, the Brandings have used what John describes as a “concentric circles” approach. First, they try to source inputs from their own land and the surrounding small farms, like the 200 pounds of organic sweet potatoes grown across the street, which were smoked and then placed in the mash for an “imperial märzen” called Rauch Tater.
Then, for malt, they look to Murphy & Rude, which sources the vast majority of its malt within Virginia, or a little farther to Durham’s Epiphany Craft Malt, which draws from a network of small farms across North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. To these ends, nearly all of Wheatland Spring 30 recipes to date have been brewed entirely with regional grain. This is a self-imposed limitation within which the farm brewery operates
“We don’t start with thinking we have every single malt at our disposal – which, of course, we do, because everyone can get any malt they ever wanted to,” John shares. “Instead, we call up Murphy & Rude or Epiphany and say, ‘Hey, what do you have that you’re excited about? What do you have that’s fresh?’”
Such conversations have been the starting point for some Wheatland Spring beers. For example, Corn Crib, a “farmhouse lager” released in April, was developed based on the availability of malted Virginia corn, 6-row Virginia barley, and 2-row Maryland barley. If those particular grains weren’t available on the particular day that John called Bloem, there likely wouldn’t be a Corn Crib and, by extension, a Corn Crib Appreciation Society. (Full disclosure: I am a cofounder of the online group.)
In the broadest sense, this approach aligns directly with the idea of land beer. (A brewery can’t represent the mid-Atlantic’s agricultural character with English Marris Otter.) It supports small farms, thus hopefully keeping more acreage in farmland and creating what John calls a “virtuous cycle.” It also comports with the mindset, admittedly romanticized, of operating Wheatland Spring in a way that is consistent with its long history.
“We’ve thought, ‘If we were designing beer a hundred years ago and brewing it on a farm, what would we have done?’” John says. “Well, we’d source from ourselves and our neighbors first, and whatever we couldn’t find, we’d expand out and look a little farther for it.”
The Brandings are quick to point out, however, that sourcing locally has never been the goal unto itself. The goal is making the best beer possible. But they believe that, most of time, that goal aligns with using homegrown and local ingredients.
“We never want to sacrifice superior quality for local,” says Bonnie. “Within our locality, we want to find the absolute best, and if that’s not available, we’ll go as far as we can to get the ingredients that’s going to result in the flavor we want.”
Using their own wheat, barley, and other produce assures they know everything about those ingredients – who’s handled them, how they’ve been handled, how fresh they are. The Brandings have visibility and control over the entire supply chain.
“We use the farm locality and regionality as a strength, not as a handcuff, to make the beer as good as we possibly can,” says John. “Our goal is not to make ‘local beer,’ per se. Yes, we want certain parameters, but nothing that would prevent us from creating the beers that we wanted to create. Our goal is to make the best possible beer we can and the foundation is made of the best possible ingredients. Most often, these are from our farm, neighbors’ farms, and our growing region. By using these ingredients with intention, it reflects our farm and growing region’s agricultural character.”
Wheatland Spring has utilized locally-grown Chinook a handful of times, most recently in the wild ale Captured Moment, but hops are the one ingredient that the Brandings have been willing to source consistently from beyond the region.
Most of the farm brewery’s beers fall into three buckets: new school American IPAs, classic German styles, and wild ales that are at least loosely connected to the Belgian farmhouse tradition. For the last, hop character is often restrained or barely detectable – in fact, Shades of Blue, a blueberry “herbed saison” released exclusively to the farm brewery’s Farmer’s Stash Bottle Share in July, is technically a gruit – and thus the aromatic and flavor properties of a hop varietal are not paramount.
But consumers expect big notes of juicy citrus, bright tropical fruit, and resinous pine when cracking a can of new school IPA, and those flavors aren’t currently oozing from hops grown in Virginia soil. Similarly, classic German styles call for German hops – noble or otherwise – and while Bavarian farm breweries have the fields of Hallertau and Spalt in their backyards, Wheatland Spring does not. So, for these categories of styles, the Brandings procure hops from the American Pacific Northwest and Germany, respectively.
Still, John is optimistic that Virginia and Maryland’s relatively nascent but well-funded hop cultivation programs will bear fruit soon enough.
“I think we’re not too far off from having some great options grown in the area,” he shares. “It’s not going to be a Motueka or a Mosaic – it’s going to be something else, something unique to Virginia, which I find super exciting because we want to reflect what Virginia beer really tastes like.”
When Wheatland Spring has made exceptions for other ingredients, it has done so sparingly and with an extraordinary purpose. For its chocolate stout Long Shadow, brewed with estate chocolate wheat custom malted by Murphy & Rude, the Brandings worked with a partner focused on ethical and sustainable sourcing and ended up with single-origin cacao nibs from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, in the helles lager Servus, Wheatland Spring blended Virginia-grown pilsner malt with Epiphany’s Ursprung Fest, a specialty malt made using German barley grown on a single small farm in Bavaria.
As you might imagine, such malt comes with a higher price tag than what’s produced by the larger suppliers. All craft malt is a bit more expensive. The same can be said for the farm brewery’s estate grains, which have required significant infrastructural investment to cultivate. These are a few of several reasons that a four-pack or bottle of Wheatland Spring can sometimes run a dollar or two more than similar styles from other breweries. The Brandings’ belief is that, in addition to the promotion of a virtuous cycle, its insistence on using estate and craft malt contributes to better, more memorable beer.
“Beer is an agricultural product, so it stands to reason that the highest possible quality ingredients will give you a better chance to make the highest quality beer,” explains John. “And, in our experience, working with small craft maltsters – who care deeply about creating the best products, sourcing the best grain, and fostering relationships with farmers who also care – creates true value chain. Suddenly, everything is better every step of the way.”
This is the sort of logic that Bloem had hoped breweries would apply when he started Murphy & Rude almost three years ago. Working strictly in small, single-origin batches, his company isn’t left sitting on stockpiles of malt, which means his customers can be assured that they’re getting fresh malt. Fresh malt, with its volatile compounds still present, results in more aromatic, flavorful beer. That, he says, is craft malt’s value proposition. And Bloem bet that some breweries would additionally see his product as a means of differentiating themselves.
“You can brew as many different beers as you want,” he says, “but, at the end of the day, what difference does it make if everyone’s using the same stuff?”
From the perspective of a fellow business owner, not just a partner with and vendor for Wheatland Spring, Bloem marvels at what the Brandings have been able to accomplish since opening.
“They’re a couple that had a vision for what they wanted to do, and they’ve been particularly good at executing on it,” he observes. “I look at how they positioned their brand and focused on the quality of the beer, and how it’s benefited them from the beginning. I feel like they’re one of a handful of places that have vaulted into good favor right after opening. That’s not always the case. I give a lot of credit to Austen, too. He is a quiet giant in all of this.”
Austen Conn enters the story of Wheatland Spring in the fall of 2018. The plan had always been to hire a head brewer. John, who had been given a homebrew kit as a wedding gift by a German groomsman almost a decade ago, taught himself to brew for the specific purpose of someday being able to converse – technically and in detail – with one. (“It was kind of a flip-flopped situation ,” says Bonnie. “John wanted to own a brewery and then he learned to brew.”)
The Brandings wanted to find not just someone with experience, technique, and creative chops, but also someone who could share their vision for land beer. The position wouldn’t be for everyone. It required someone who would buy into the mentality that everyone at Wheatland Spring – John and Bonnie included – is considered a “farmhand” and might be called upon to, say, weed a garden if that garden needed weeding. As Bonnie explains, it was assuredly not “a 9-to-5 gig.”
The farm brewery cast a wide net, seeking applicants from around the country. According to the Brandings, many qualified candidates applied. But Conn stood out.
“The U.S. has a lot of skilled brewers; there are plenty of people who really know what they’re doing,” says John. “Austen is an outstanding brewer. What really sets him apart is his passion and dedication for merging agriculture and beer like we’re doing here.”
Conn spent time growing up in New Jersey and Minnesota but had lived most of his life on the West Coast. When he connected with the Brandings, home was the small port town of Astoria, Oregon, where he was lead brewer for Buoy Beer. Conn’s first brewing job had been at Berkley, California’s Trumer Brewery. Established in 2004, it was the sister brewery of Austria’s 400-year-old Trumer Brauerei. At Trumer, Conn made exactly one beer: Trumer Pils, a German-style lager brewed with entirely European ingredients, save for the water. Day in and day out, he produced the same wort, 50 barrels at a time.
“That was a pretty process-oriented brewery,” says Conn, situated under the corn crib’s garage door in June. “You’re not thinking recipes. You’re not thinking about dry-hopping. You’re just thinking about consistency, execution, and process.”
He would broaden his portfolio at Laurelwood, one of Portland, Oregon’s older brewpubs and the state’s first certified-organic brewery. There, Conn made a variety of beers – “the standard pub line-up,” he tells me – on a 15-barrel system, satiating a high-turnover, onsite customer base.
Then he headed up the Oregon coast to Buoy, an operation that fell somewhere between his previous employers in scope. Operating within a 100-year-old cannery building, the brewery specialized in distinctly Northwest hoppy ales and European-inspired lagers, and during Conn’s three years there it made increasingly more and more of them, as Buoy exploded from 2,000 to 11,0000 barrels of annual production. Such turbulence, however positive, carried lessons about adaptability and the need to focus on quality during expansion. And at both Buoy and Laurelwood, Conn found time to build modest wild ale programs, producing the mixed-culture and Brett beers that always interested him personally.
Recognizing this pedigree, the Brandings flew Conn across the country to spend a few days at Wheatland Spring in early December of that year. Unfamiliar with the area, the brewer was taken by the sight of the land, tucked in the foothills of Blue Ridge Mountains. After three years spent on the remote Oregon coast, where he says life was experienced at a “slower pace,” moving to Loudoun County wouldn’t require a seismic cultural readjustment. Conn was certainly familiar with the kind of opportunities available to brewers, and Wheatland Spring presented one of the most unique he had ever seen.
“I’ve always had the faraway dream of an agriculturally-driven brewery,” he says. “Talking to John and Bonnie, it seemed like we could really make an impact.”
What most struck Conn on the visit was his first walk through the fields with John.
“They didn’t have a brewhouse, but there was already wheat in the ground,” the brewer remembers. “It kind of blew my mind. And not only was there wheat in the ground – there were 18 acres of it. They had just decided: This is going to happen. That was a leap of faith on their part. I guess I just bought in.”
In Wheatland Spring, Conn saw a blank canvas. There was the flexibility to bring under one roof all the styles he had spent years honing. Fueled by their years abroad, the Brandings shared his love for nuanced, approachable European lagers. They liked bold, expressive ales, which aligned with his IPA prowess. (“If you’re not brewing IPA right now, what are you doing?” Conn asks rhetorically.) And, just as much as those beers, John says they wanted adventurous farmhouse ales that “push the farming envelop a little bit.”
This excited Conn. He had always been inspired by breweries that captured their own yeast or used to coolships to inoculate wort with microflora floating through the night air. But he had only admired them from afar – or, in the case of Oregon’s prestigious de Garde Brewing, from 40 miles up the road.
“For most breweries, there’s usually one avenue that you can’t quite execute based on the parameters of the brewery,” Conn says. “If you’re an IPA and/or lager house, mixed-culture projects are going to be way in the background. Wheatland Spring seemed like an opportunity to not only take all of those lanes but to really focus on each in its own right. We would have an oak program from the start, and really take the time for lagers, and really execute IPAs, and do other intermediary styles really well. And they would all be complimentary to one another.”
A cross-country drive brought Conn to Waterford in March 2019. Within a few months, the trio began trying to capture natural-occurring yeast from the property. This process was paradoxically both brief and protracted, open to chance and rigorously scientific.
“It was a pretty big goal early to be able look at the land out here and say, ‘This is where our yeast came from,’” says Conn. “The whole concept of land beer is to reflect the farm in as many ways as we can. Whether that’s growing our own grain, cultivating the herb garden out back, or harvesting our own yeast from the farm, it’s all part of that overarching theme.”
Harvesting yeast began with eight mason jars, each filled with fresh wort from Wheatland Spring’s third brew. The Brandings and Conn placed these vessels across the property one spring evening. They made a game of it – who could pick a winning spot? John says he deployed a dowsing rod – a pseudoscientific apparatus used in centuries past to locate ground water and earthly treasures – and I can’t tell if he’s serious or joking. Possible divination aside, the hope was that yeast living in the air around the property would make a love connection with some of the wort.
“You put these jars where you think yeast might like to hang out,” he says, “and then it’s up to Mother Nature to reward you or punish you.”
The next morning, after jars had been collected, it was immediately clear that three or four had been inoculated with yeast. You could smell it. Metabolic activity was afoot. Soon, the fermentation was more evident. You could see it. The yeasty foam krausen formed atop the liquid.
Working with Jasper Yeast, an independent yeast purveyor in Dulles, Wheatland ended up with nearly 20 isolated yeasts. After analyzing their biochemistry, the group narrowed down those strains, leaving a handful for the farm brewery to experiment with. From there, Wheatland Spring embarked on a long series of starters and pilot batches. Some resulted in “straight nail polish remover,” according to Bonnie. Others were more promising. Those were propagated, and pitched to bigger batches and different types wort. Ultimately, three viable native yeasts emerged to be banked. After that one night in the field, it had taken a mere five months.
The first beer fermented with one of these strains, Shadow of Hope, saw release last November. The particular yeast used had been captured in a jar placed at the base of what Wheatland Spring calls Hope – a tree that, long before the Brandings moved to the farm, had grown up and through the boards of the fence line that stood in its way, creating an image so inspiring to the couple that they couldn’t bring themselves to cut it down when clearing the field. (In case it isn’t readily apparent, much of what’s standing at Wheatland Spring has an official name and accompanying mythology.) Accordingly, they refer to the yeast as the Hope strain.
The Hope strain exhibits qualities akin to an abbey ale yeast, with notes of cherry and plum esters. In contrast, Wheatand Spring’s Field 5 yeast, leans towards a classic farmhouse ale strain, as evidenced in the brewery’s saison Fieldborn.
“We tasted Fieldborn out of the tank, and we were like, ‘Well, it’s not Saison Dupont, but it definitely has a vibe,’” says Conn. “It’s slightly familiar, so it’s not so out-of-the-box that it’s confusing or off-putting, but it’s also not what everyone has already tasted before. It’s right in the adjacent lane, running parallel. We were pretty excited when that one came out and it really was drinking the way that we wanted saison to drink. The extra prize is that it came from here.”
A third wild yeast, also taken from the field, is similar to the Fieldborn strain but with a slight funkiness and less esters. It shares properties with the wild yeast brettanomyces (which Wheatland Spring has also pitched to a mixed-grain saison and a grisette), but the “horse blanket” character is nowhere near as assertive. What exactly are these native yeasts? No one really knows, but John says he’ll have them analyzed in due time.
Wheatland Spring’s approach to these truly farmhouse ales has been somewhat freewheeling. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from drinking the final products, which present themselves as refined and restrained, but Conn and the Brandings are figuring out much of this as they go. Brewed in November, the Ocelot Brewing collaboration Captured Moment was allowed to cool in Wheatland Spring’s coolship overnight before the farm brewery transferred it to oak barrels and pitched a blend of all three native yeasts. The result, released a few weeks later, is spectacular. Could something have gone awry along the way? Absolutely.
“To be brutally honest with you, we’ve never done this stuff with wild-captured yeast before,” says John. “A lot of what we’re doing with our wild ales is experimentation. We’re trying to learn about these processes. For better or worse, we don’t have six generations of family members to teach us how they used to do this. We’re doing what we think is an appropriate reflection of what a farm brewery would do with what we have on hand. That said, we’ll only release beer we’re proud of.”
Wheatland Spring has used its barn loft coolship in less conventional fashion, as well. John, who says he holds the title of carpenter and janitor in addition to co-founder, built what is essentially an oversized screen door to cover the metal vessel, which like most coolships resembles a giant brownie pan. With that vented cover in place to prevent any debris from floating into the wort, the farm brewery has used the coolship to open ferment beers. (Unlike in a closed conical fermenter, an open fermenter allows fresh oxygen to interact with the wort during primary fermentation, providing more fuel for the yeast to express itself.)
Wheatland Spring initially tried this method last year with a beer named Natural Remedy. On an exceedingly warm June night, they added rosemary, basil, and lemons to saison wort, then pitched a yeast, procured from Jasper Yeast, that had been salvaged from an 19th-century barrel discovered in Alexandria. Then they let it rip. Days later, after primary fermentation, they transferred it a stainless steel tank.
“We see the coolship as a tool,” says John. “It’s not something we have to use a certain way. Our limitation is kind of our creativity.
This brings us, at long last, back to Good Days to Come.
In addition to the message that Wheatland Spring hoped to send with the beer, Conn and the Brandings viewed the witbier as the chance to open ferment a beer with its Field 5 strain for the first time.
“It was like, ‘Let’s see what this yeast can do in this environment,’” explains Conn. “This is a developing journey. The coolship is one variable; the barn is a second. Air flow, time of year, temperature – there are all these different things. And each beer helps us figure it out a little more.”
One thing is certain: Good Days to Come is land beer. Its grain bill is entirely regional malt. 46% is a mix of unmalted and malted estate wheat – both grown on the farm, both supplied by Murphy & Rude. Another 46% is Virginia-grown, small-batch pilsner malt. And the remainder is triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye, grown in Pennsylvania and sourced by Epiphany.
For Conn, using these kinds of craft-malted, regional grains as the foundation for each recipe is the biggest departure from his brewing career prior to Wheatland Spring.
“That’s the first step in land beer,” he says. “The coolest part is seeing the farm directly impact the beer. It’s also great working with really smart guys like Jeff from Murphy & Rude and Sebastian [Wolfrum] from Epiphany, because all those guys care about is good grain.”
As with all Wheatland Spring beers, the anniversary beer’s grist was mashed with the farm’s well water. Aside from removing silt, this water is untreated. It’s naturally soft, consistent, and lends itself to an array of styles. There’s nothing for Conn to have to strip back; none of the fluoride you’d find in a big municipality. It’s just another perk of the country life.
From there, the wort was fed into the coolship, where Wheatland Spring pitched the Field 5 strain, closed the screen, and let the metabolic magic happen. Primary fermentation proceeded spiritedly, and after four days, the wort was transferred to stainless steel, just like Natural Remedy. I wonder if during that time in the coolship, particularly that first night, the wort was absorbing microbes from the night air. John admits he’s not sure.
“We’re trying to figure out how our yeasts behave in our coolship in our barn,” he responds. “There are microclimates everywhere. Our hope is that we can put enough of the pieces together to make something truly unique. Sometimes we won’t get it right – that’s part of experimentation – but it also gives us the opportunity to make something really special.”
Likewise, Conn says it remains to be seen whether Wheatland Spring is developing a “resident funk” that lives in the wood of the barn and influences the open-fermented beers. He notes that the farm brewery will move into spontaneous fermentation at some point, and then they’ll truly see how the atmosphere and environment are influencing the beers. And perhaps Good Days to Come will develop more funky attributes with age, but it also wasn’t a beer designed for cellaring.
“It’s bright, definitely summery, really refreshing,” Conn says. “It’s something we want to be drank young.”
After Good Days to Come spent a few weeks in stainless steel, John spent the “better part of a day” zesting hundreds of pounds of orange, grapefruit, and lime. The zest and the flesh – along with lemon juice for “extra pop” – were added to the tank and given time to further condition.
Finally, in the last stage of production, the citrus witbier, a little yeast, and little sugar went into 750mL bottles. These bottles were placed on a rack (constructed by John and his son) in the barn loft, where the liquid was allowed to naturally carbonate over the course of a month.
All of Wheatland Spring’s farmhouse ales undergo such bottle conditioning. It’s true to the lineage of the styles – “force carbing” didn’t exist a few hundred years ago – and it results in a softer mouthfeel, plus the retention of subtle flavor and aromas.
“I find that those classic saisons have a really nice essence when they sit in the bottle for a bit,” explains Conn. “It allows the pressure to interact with the yeast and the esters. We have an underlying natural approach to the wild strains – they come from the field, they’re allowed to ferment on their own with minimal controls, and they referment to create all of the CO2 naturally.”
Good Days to Come is labelled a “citrus wit.” While the original witbiers were indeed thought to have been coolshipped and mixed-fermentation – a subject I explored with Allagash and Churchkey’s Greg Engert last year – Wheatland Spring’s anniversary beer is a decidedly loose interpretation of the style as we understand it today. It’s not spiced. It has the zest, flesh, and juice of various citrus fruit, rather simply dried orange peel. And that’s OK – making a traditional witbier was never the point.
“Sometimes we have a challenge with labeling or nomenclature because we don’t always make beers that are precise interpretations of a style,” says John. “Sometimes, we feel like we need to put something there to orient folks. It helps customers understand what they’re getting into. But it’s tricky – the kinds of beers we’re making with wild-captured yeast and the grains from our field, we’re not always familiar with what style that may be.”
As the Wheatland Spring anniversary has set in the distance, Fieldrise IPA and Getaway gose have already returned for a second time. Despite being received with great enthusiasm, Good Days to Come seem unlikely to enjoy an encore, though. Beyond the emotional atmosphere in which it was created, it feels a product of a particular moment in time. And even if it does return further down the road, it will be more spiritual reincarnation than replica.
“We’re more focused on quality than consistency,” says John. “There are going to be variations in all of our beers because nature and agriculture vary. Instead of trying to manipulate those things to be a carbon copy of a previous beer, our approach is just different. We’d rather allow the grain to express itself, even if it causes the flavor profile of a standard beer to be a little different batch to batch.”
Wheatland Spring’s approach has predictably found fans in the brewing community, where a respect for grain, patience, and natural expression is not always reciprocated on the other side of the bar. Over the fall, head brewers at no less than three prominent breweries went out of their way to recommend the farm brewery (and, specifically, its Bauernhof Alt).
“I was blown away with what they’re producing, especially given how young they are as an outfit,” Ocelot brewer Jack Snyder said in November, discussing his first visit to the farm brewery. “And then I got to meet Austen and learn about his background and pick his brain, and I realized he knows what he’s doing – to put it very, very mildly. They have such a well-defined, deliberate ethos. It’s impressive.”
To date, Ocelot has collaborated with Wheatland Spring three times. In addition to Captured Moment, the two have produced a pair of hop-forward brews at Ocelot. One, a new school rye pale ale called Waiting for the Sun, was brewed entirely with regional grain, including Wheatland Spring estate wheat. The other, Sun Hands IPA, combined the exact same grist from Captured Moments with exotic Nelson Sauvin and Motueka hops from New Zealand.
Wheatland Spring has also developed a close relationship with another North Virginia brewery, Crooked Run. Together, they’ve produced a puncheon-aged wheat wine, a mixed-fermentation saison, and a light, crisp IPA. All featured Wheatland Spring estate wheat. The farm brewery has a way of pulling more traditional production breweries into its orbit.
“They really stay the course with what they want to do,” says Crooked Run co-founder Jake Endres. “The idea of a farm brewery comes with a lot of romantic notions, but the reality is that is not always so easy to grow your own ingredients. However, these guys are growing so much wheat and barley, we started buying some for some of our beers.”
For whatever reason these things happen, Wheatland Spring’s reputation began to spread further and wider this year, particularly after the arrival COVID-19. Partly this can attributed to the brewery starting to can some hoppy ales and German-inspired beers at the end of 2019, and then, beginning in February, sending a limited amount to DC-area bottle shops. Perhaps it was also because people were spending more time online during quarantine, looking for recommendations. Or maybe it’s just hard to keep good beer a secret.
“We’re been very honored recently that a larger circle of customers and supporters have taken notice of our intentions here and what we’re about and trying to do,” says Bonnie. “One of the things that gives us hope through the whole COVID situation is the incredible support of the DC beer scene. We feel an incredible momentum here right now.”
Wheatland Spring is looking at how it can increase production – notably, the brewery has a 10-barrel brewhouse and contracts with a mobile canner – but the Brandings are mindful of preserving the same “on-farm experience.”
“We really like the idea that folks can come out here and have a relaxing, peaceful, serene time,” Bonnie continues. “We never want it to feel like a bar. We want to grow sustainably, within a pace that allows us to still create the best product and experience.”
Even after a little more than a year has passed and bit more attention has come their way, some things remain exactly the same as the day Wheatland Spring opened its barns. If you visit the farm brewery on a weekend, it is rare not to find John and Bonnie working the taproom or out in the fields. And if you call the number on the Wheatland Spring’s website or social media, you are still ringing Bonnie’s personal cell phone.
“Every single customer calls me,” she says with a chuckle. “I’ll be out be out running errands in my car, answering the phone, ‘Wheatland Spring!’ Everyone has direct access to the owners. We are that small.”
At the end of our first interview – one of almost ten conversations for this story – Bonnie expresses appreciation for my taking the time to learn about Wheatland Spring. I respond that my interest stems objectively from the high quality of their offerings, and I flippantly add that good things come to those who make good beer. We all have a laugh.
The next time I see John on the farm, he almost immediately revisits that comment. It has been sitting on his mind.
“You can get good beer anywhere,” he tells me. “You can get it at the grocery store or bottle shop. For us, this is about reconnecting with agriculture and shining a spotlight on small farms. That’s been missing not just in the U.S. beer scene, but in U.S. culture.”
It’s all about the beer… and not about the beer at all.
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.