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Brewers Guild Taps into Tennessee Farms, Ingredients

Chris King

In 1971, a University of California, Berkeley graduate revolutionized how Americans considered food and its ingredients. Alice Waters, living in California, where she had opened her new restaurant Chez Panisse, had a novel idea – use ingredients from nearby suppliers to create a localized story through food. The uncharted approach to culinary arts would quickly gain traction and become what is known today as “farm-to-table.” 

Last year in Tennessee, more than 50 years after Alice Waters’s initiative, a coalition of craft breweries formed around Waters’s school of thought, but this time with beer. The group, Tennessee Brewers Guild, launched a program to promote partnerships with local farmers to brew beer with Tennessee-first ingredients. They coined it Farm to Tap

When Waters embarked on her counterculture culinary journey in the early ‘70s, she effectively flipped the narrative around consumer products, particularly food. She challenged the notion that products from far-off places are better or more prestigious than local options. The old perception stems from the days before efficient shipping options and globalization, where imported goods were a status symbol and seasonal goods meant the inability to obtain the opulent luxury of the former. 

Photo Courtesy Bohdan Stocek

Today, Waters’ work continues to redefine Americans’ relationships with local goods. Restaurants that source locally support local economic development and have become the on-trend dining option. Artisan goods from nearby communities or crafted in the United States have become highly desired and touted for quality. Now, Tennessee is bringing those same principles into the world of craft beer. 

For decades, beer was produced en masse from other countries, including Germany, Holland, and Mexico, with a long tradition of brewing and solidified supply chains to support international demand. Recently, however, Americans have been calling for a new type of brew — one crafted in their community by faces they recognize and ingredients from closer to home. The rise of the craft brewery has ensued, with a vast majority of Americans living within 10 miles of a small batch beer brewer. 

Photo Courtesy Priscilla Du Preez

Tennessee’s Farm to Tap represents a novel and coordinated initiative to capitalize on the demand for local ingredients while supporting nearby farmers and creating brews unique to a specific area. The state is a unique incubator for such an idea, as its agricultural community produces traditional beer ingredients and flavorful and eclectic ones. 

“Grain products like wheat and barley are certainly common ingredients in many craft beers, [but] Tennessee farmers produce other ingredients — like strawberries, watermelon, other fruits, nuts, and honey — which are becoming increasingly popular with craft beer enthusiasts,” says Kyle Hensley, a consultant for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, which works in partnership with the project. Hensely continued, adding that the program wants to “help [its] brewers familiarize themselves with what is available and how best to procure the produce.”

Photo courtesy Adam Rhodes

Farm to Tap is officially run by the Tennessee Craft Brewers Guild, a registered nonprofit organization of craft breweries across the state and designed to advocate and advance the interests of the growing industry in Tennessee. Sixty-three breweries are members of the guild, not including non-brewery corporate partners.

Farm to Tap hopes to pique other breweries’ interest in the benefits of sourcing locally, including lower carbon footprints of each product, investment in local businesses, and a more circular economy.

Before its launch, Farm to Tap received $350,000 from the state assembly, which helped accelerate the initiative’s impact. 

Photo courtesy Merritt Thomas

The research conducted by Farm to Tap suggests that Tennesseans, much like patrons of farm-to-table restaurants, are willing to pay a slight premium for brews crafted in their home state. According to the program’s site, 79% of consumers stated they would be willing to “pay slightly more for craft beer if its ingredients included Tennessee farm products. ”Sharon Creek, the group’s executive director, says its impact is invaluable for Tennessee. “Farm to Tap is a tremendous opportunity to give an economic boost to our farm economy, provide new product lines for the ever-growing craft brewing sector, and give consumers more ways to support local businesses.”

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