04 Nov Crops and Hops: Inside Stone Brewing’s Organic (and Public!) Farm
“When I moved onto the farm, it was me and my wife trying to find a change of life,” says David Solomon, manager of Stone Farms in Escondido. “I was in advertising. She was doing international sales. I couldn’t handle being in front of a desk — I felt like I was getting atrophied.”
This life-changing moment happened back in 2004, when the farmland in question still belonged to Milpa Organica, where David and his wife Jessica Sanchez would begin their career in farming. After “La Milpa” went out of business in late 2010, nearby craft beer juggernaut Stone Brewing Company stepped in to take over the farm. Now David helms 19 acres of organic crops that range from arugula and potatoes to lemongrass and dragon fruit, produce that supplies the brewery’s bistros and select beers.
Last June, the farm opened to the public. Visiting hours span Friday through Sunday, and the property includes a store with four taps.
In other words, you can sip a stout while touring the edible beds. Which is exactly what we did!
Suede Imperial Porter
It was a cloudy Saturday in late October when we visited the farm, located about 16 miles from the coast and nestled between boulder-studded hills. The Indian runner ducks were quacking up a storm, and Stone’s Dandelion IPA was on tap. But Ryan and I were here to see about another kind of beer: the new Suede Imperial Porter. A collaboration between Stone Brewing, 10 Barrel and Bluejacket breweries, Suede was released last month, and incorporates local avocado honey and dried jasmine, and calendula flowers snipped right from Stone Farms, a few miles away from the brewery.
This smooth, gorgeous porter is one of our favorite beers right now. (Ryan and my drinking tastes diverge in some ways, but our friends will tell you we become Mr. and Mrs. Imperial Porter whenever we belly up to the bar.) It’s limited edition, so we’re
hoarding enjoying every drop of Suede while it lasts. The aroma is undeniably floral, and notes of jasmine and honey slide onto your palate in advance of the traditional coffee and cocoa. Calendula adds a bright bitterness. As I type this I am hankering for a tall, dark glass of it right now…
Megan Parisi of Washington, DC’s new Bluejacket suggested the imperial porter style and Tonya Cornett of Bend, Oregon’s 10 Barrel came up with the grain build. For the botanicals, Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele was inspired by a dazzling batch of dried jasmine IPA created last spring by one of the company’s brewers, Rachelle Wilkerson.
“I was amazed at how well the jasmine played with the beer flavors,” Mitch tells us by phone. “The calendula was the same thing — one of our small-batch managers had used some calendula in a cask, and it had an interesting floral and bitter character to it. The fact we grew the calendula on Stone Farms was also a part of the equation.”
These ingredients are added prior to fermentation; a mesh bag full of the flowers was allowed to steep in the wort for an hour while the latter was boiling in the whirlpool. The honey is dumped right in, and sterilized in the 200-degree-plus temps.
About that locally sourced avocado honey: “It was more strongly flavored and floral than any other honey I’d ever used in brewing,” Mitch says. “It just seemed natural to me to use honey in a beer that had jasmine in it — I think the flavors are somewhat complementary.”
Other Stone Farms brews have included a lavender ale (“it was spectacular,” David notes), a “pie” beer with New England pumpkins, the Dandelion IPA currently on tap at the farm, and a saison with parsley, lemon thyme, white sage and rosemary, unofficially known as “the Simon & Garfunkel mix.”
The Farm Tour
It was pretty exciting to see all that bright orange Suede calendula up close and still in bloom. Today on the farm, young families said cautious hellos to the Nubian and Boer goats before guiding their strollers through the signature salad mix (red romaine, green romaine, frisee, minutina, mizuna, tat soi…) and braising greens (dinosaur kale, red russian kale, mustards, chard, amaranth…) that grow in long and numerous rows.
“In the winter everything is growing so much slower, so you need a lot” of these greens to keep up with the demands of the kitchen, David notes. An added challenge this year has been the bagrata bug, which recently began terrorizing the region, sucking the life out of crops like broccoli, cabbage, kale and arugula. Neem oil and soap sprays have been an effective defense tactic, David says, as has covering beds with a cheesecloth-type fabric right after germination.
Drinking from a pint glass of Dandelion IPA, he showed us around the farm, a paradise of agricultural diversity that also includes bull’s blood beets, rhubarb, spinach, broccoli, hydroponically grown microgreens, cabbage, butternut squash, lemongrass, shiitake mushrooms, echinacea and various herbs. The hops that clamor up a metal installation near the shop are used in ultra small-batch microbrews served at the Liberty Station location. And crop-wise we’re just scratching the surface here.
A crew of just seven people makes it all happen. What helps is that they’ve decided to play — and compost — by their own rules.
“I like to say me and my crew reinvented farming for ourselves,” David says. “If you do farming, you have to adapt it to your own needs. I don’t want to break my back, I don’t want to get overwhelmed or burned out. It’s about learning what you really want to do and cutting out the unnecessary. And we’ve done a lot of that.”
For all the cutting out, there’s also plenty of bringing in. The fruits across the property — cherimoyas, dragon fruit, pomegranate, figs, grapefruit, a few varieties of guava — were planted by David after the Stone takeover. Right now the passionfruits are ripe, hidden within their luxuriously leafy vines growing near the dinosaur kale.
David even sent us home with some!
This sense of generosity and community is a theme throughout the farm. Lighted twin oak trees canopy a picnic area and a pizza oven whose mosaic was made by David and Jessica. Jam- and pizza-making workshops were notable events this year, and workshops for next year are expected to cover planting, mushroom growing, mead-making (!!, where to we sign up?) and vermiculture. From every corner, you can hear the happy feedback of the farm’s animals: the rustling of peacocks’ feathers, the clucking of poofy-headed White Sultan chickens.
“It was obvious we wanted to open it to the public,” says David, a lifelong vegetarian who was born in Caracas and raised in Los Angeles. “I didn’t want it to be a closed farm — one of my biggest things is inspiring people to do their own gardens. I want you to grow your own vegetables. Do you know how empowering it is to say, ‘Hey, I grew this tomato? I grew this cucumber, this salad’?”
A few years ago, the same philosophy inspired David and Jessica to leave La Milpa and move to Michoacán with the goal of raising an edible forest and building dome houses (using principles David learned at Cal-Earth) for impoverished communities. They stayed just a year because, he says, “They weren’t really accepting of us. They thought we were crazy: ‘These guys are weirdos, these guys must be CIA, DEA.’ The whole year it was this constant battle — I really wanted it to be an uplifting thing. So we said, ‘Okay, let’s go back to California and let’s try it all over.”
By the time David and Jessica returned to San Diego, La Milpa had closed and Stone was expressing interest. And so a beautiful collaboration began.
About the sowing, germinating, thinning, weeding, harvesting processes he’s been honing for almost a decade, David says, “It’s a dance. We learned from our mistakes.” He names one of his farmers, Santiago Vazquez, as a source of unending hands-on wisdom. His nickname is the Maestro.
“He taught me so much, and he keeps teaching me so much,” David says. “Simple things, like how to harvest. People don’t realize harvesting is an art form — leaving enough leaves so there’s constant production. How to harvest salad — if you cut too low, you ruin the plant, if you cut too high, then you’re attracting insects.”
What’s next on the list of farm-to-pint glass collaborations? Well, David just sent the brewery 30 pounds of pomegranate.
For every formulation, David says, “I want this beer to be epic. I want it to taste amazing. I want it to be healthy. I mean, dandelion beer — you can’t get much healthier than that. Whatever damage the beer might be doing to your body, the dandelion is fixing it right up.”
He laughs. “What more can you ask for?” —TH