It all started with hops. Tom Barse credits the existence of the newly opened Milkhouse Brewery (8253 Dollyhyde Road, Mount Airy, milkhousebrewery.com) to the fingertip-sized, viridescent buds he grows on Stillpoint Farm in Mount Airy. Plunked on top of a hill in the rolling Maryland countryside, the teeny brewery and its patio's picturesque overlook-the first farm brewery to be licensed since a law allowing them passed last year-resembles the revered Westvleteren monastery brewery in the backwoods of Belgium, where customers must drive to the actual brewery to obtain any of the coveted brews.
Indeed, Milkhouse must adhere to similar practices. To try its Red Eye Porter or Stairway to Hoppiness IPA or its forthcoming Haymaker pale ale, one must make the hour-long trek to Mount Airy. Barse cannot distribute yet, though he indicates that will change within the next year. The beers, especially the porter, and the views are worth the hike.
A longtime homebrewer, Barse sees the 10-barrel brew system he's installed in the new building as homebrewing on a large scale. Unlike the monks at Westvleteren, he won't need to concern himself with consistency. The state's only stipulation: Each beer must use a product from the farm. Barse mentions that his wife, Carolann McConaughy, picked 4 quarts of berries. "She said, 'Your next beer better have berries in it!'" Plans for farmhouse ales-the Belgian family of beers that encompasses saisons, biere de gardes, and funky wheat beers-and for bottling are in the works.
Manning a packed bar in the knotty-pine tasting room, Barse shakes hands up and down the counter in between filling pints ($5 apiece). It's a day after the brewery's grand opening, on Friday, June 28. When he hands over a brown glass growler of beer ($20) to a customer, he tells them to double-check the twist on the cap-"My arthritis is acting up today," he says, smiling. Later, he admits, he was hamming it up.
The 59-year-old former criminal attorney and social studies teacher chuckles about his age as he measures out acid for cleaning purposes. "You know what my problem is? I need goggles with bifocals." Barse is all smiles and winks. His inflection denotes exclamation points. He frequently terms things "awesome" (and occasionally "fucking awesome").
He's been harvesting hops at Stillpoint for six years, using them for homebrew but also selling them to big breweries like Flying Dog and Heavy Seas. He was the first farmer in the state to grow them since the 1870s. "It's still a nascent industry in the East, but it's growing," he says. He sees hop-growing as an innovative source of revenue, something that highlights the farm's biodiversity while bringing in a different customer base. "I'm interested in the farmers' side of it . . . how farmers can plant a relatively small piece of ground and have a decent cash crop out of it."
Away from the view of the tasting-room patio, down a dirt road and around the bend, one finds Stillpoint's hop yard towering above the ground. Hop plants begin as rhizomes, or a little piece of root, or as "starts," which Barse explains are cuttings from existing hop plants that can later be transplanted to a hop yard. Each plant climbs up a braided coconut-hair string to a trellis 18 feet overhead. The plants require irrigation and tons of nitrogen and time. "You don't get a full crop for three years," Barse says.
When the resinous bines-the rope-like stem of the plants-finally bear fruit, however, they produce leafy, bright-green gems of aroma and flavor. Wet hops, as fresh hops are called, differ markedly from the hop pellets and dehydrated whole-cone hops used by most craft breweries. Wet hops are more floral and more delicate. When Stillpoint sells hops to a craft brewery, Barse offers guidance. "Listen dudes, you don't want this tasting like potpourri," he offers as an example of his coaching.
Barse is a major advocate for East Coast hop growers, serving as president of the Northeast Hop Alliance. A recent hop growers' conference held at the Flying Dog brewery in Frederick traveled to the farm for a tour of its operations. Stillpoint also acts as a mediator for various Maryland hop farmers that don't care to market and sell their hops directly. "One of our purposes is to show that farmers can diversify in bizarre ways, in interesting ways-it doesn't have to be brewing beer or growing hops," he says. "You can take some specialized agricultural product or commodity, like beer or wine or hops or jam or ice cream . . . and make a living."
The addition of a manageable brewery to the farm, then, is sensible, especially considering Barse's homebrewing history. He started over 40 years ago, in 1972, when it was still prohibited. "My dad brought me home a homebrew kit from England for my 18th birthday," he says. "So I made my first batch of pale ale-it was horrible-March 9, 1972. I saved it until my birthday!" making it legal for him to consume-the drinking age at the time was 18-the illegal pale ale he brewed. (After Prohibition, homebrewing was made legal again in 1978: "Jimmy Carter! He was a peanut farmer," Barse exclaims.) He's been perfecting the Red Eye Porter recipe for 20 years.
For Barse, the steady stream of thirsty visitors financially shores up the rest of Stillpoint Farm's haymaking and sheep-raising operations, among other things. "This is the most valuable part of the farm," he says. In their first weekend open, Milkhouse polished off about eight kegs.
With the help of an assistant and occasional visits from pro brewers and homebrewers, Barse will spend about two or three days a week in the brewery to keep the tasting room flush with beer. Work starts around 6 a.m. and goes through the afternoon. He clearly enjoys his labor, smiling and talking while taking sips from a plastic cup of Red Eye in between kegging and cleaning. He takes a break around 5 p.m., hops on his assistant's dirt bike, and rides down the property to check on hay bundling.
The Milkhouse Brewery tasting room is open Friday 3-7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays 1-6 p.m.