Plow to Pints: Farm Brewing Sprouts in Maryland, Virginia

Dirt Farm Brewing tasting room
Dirt Farm Brewing tasting room

All photos by Phil Galewitz. 

Bruce Zurschmeide stands on the expansive stone deck outside his Dirt Farm Brewing tap room and points to the acres of hops and barley plants below. “You can taste the farm fresh ingredients,” he said holding a glass of his Tarte 31, a cherry ale made with cherries grown on the 400-acre farm just outside in Bluemont, Va, about 50 miles west of Washington D.C.

It’s an early spring Saturday just after noon, and already the rustic tap room is mostly filled with guests enjoying brews, some tasty pizza and views of the countryside on the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

As craft brewing explodes nationally and particularly in the Mid-Atlantic states, farm brewing has become one of the hottest trends seeking to satisfy thirsts of beer lovers. These rural breweries take the beer making process to another level as by state laws they must cultivate some of their own ingredients on the brewery grounds.

Dirt Farm is one of 10 farm brewers in Virginia. Maryland has about a dozen farm breweries and more on the way. Both states approved the new farm brewery licenses in the past few years as a way to help farmers and grow agri-tourism.

Bruce Zurschmeide in the Dirt Farm Brewing tasting room
Bruce Zurschmeide in the Dirt Farm Brewing tasting room

The farm breweries in many ways are similar to the dozens of wineries that have become popular weekend destinations around Northern Virginia and Maryland. But instead of looking out at rows of grapevines and tasting rieslings and cabernet sauvignons, customers at farm breweries admire hop vines that grow as tall as telephone poles and enjoy IPAs and porters.

The Zurschmeide family has owned the farm since 1993 and has grown all types of produce including asparagus, pumpkins, and strawberries. In 2007, they moved into wine making, opening Bluemont Vineyards. Bruce and his wife, Janelle, conceived the idea of a brewery after a trip to Delaware that included a stop at Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware. “We loved the vibe and the atmosphere and we thought we could do that here,” Bruce Zurschmeide, 45, said. Many of the skills making wine could be helpful in making beer, they figured. “It’s all fermentation,” he said.

But first they had to help change the state law that would give them permission to sell beer in the rural area. After two years, their bill was approved in 2014 and Dirt Farm Brewery opened in 2015 at the top of dirt road.

“The law created an opportunity for more businesses and farms to be part of this growing craft beer trend,” Zurschmeide said. “Being able to grow stuff right on our property and take produce and covert into beer…gives us another value add to our agriculture.”

That includes Dirt Farm’s strawberry wheat brew, a peach beer and a pumpkin beer. With their own hops, barley and local water and work beginning creating their own special yeast with a local microbiologist, Zurschmeide hopes by end of the year to create a beer that is totally made with ingredients from the family farm.

A few miles from Dirt Farm Brewing is Old 690 Brewing, the first farm brewery to open in Virginia. On 10 acres, just outside Purcellville, Old 690 quickly became a destination spot with its varied homemade beers, live music and food trucks. The tasting room — a converted barn-- has a large bar with several folks waiting to pour pints and samples.

Old 690 is the work of two families - Darren and Tammi Gryniuk and Mark and Ronda Powell and master brewer and co-owner Bob Lundberg. All still have their day jobs but their passion in craft beer.

Gryniuk, who works in software sales, said they use their own small hop farm to supplement hops bought from the Northwest. Sitting outside the brewery, guests can see the Shenandoah Mountains just over the ridge. “It feels like being out in the country and sitting out in someone’s backyard or at a resort out in the mountains,” he said. “People feel comfortable coming out here and it’s a big draw for families.” On their 7 bbl. beer system, Old 690 often has 10 different beers on tap. All their beer is sold on site, but early planning is in the works to expand capacity and begin distributing beer around the region, Gryniuk said.

Mindful to be good stewards of the land, Old 690 uses less than 250 gallons of water each week because of how its learned to recycle water. “We want to be conscious of the environment,” he said.

Like so many brewers, Henry Ruhlman started brewing with a store-bought home beer brewing kit— a gift from his sons. Six years later, he opened Ruhlman Brewing Co. in 2014 on Creeping Creek Farm in Hampstead, Maryland, about 40 miles northwest of Baltimore. The 36-acre farm in the rolling hills off Carroll County features a concert area that hosts music every Saturday, a catch-and-release fishing pond and a disc golf course.

Mark Powell with Darren Gryniuk in background at the Old 690 tasting room
Mark Powell with Darren Gryniuk in background at the Old 690 tasting room

Ruhlman, 62, who still works full-time at his contracting company, said the farm brewery is family and pet friendly. “The construction company is still paying the bills for the brewery business but we are having fun,” he said. He said the brewery was a relatively inexpensive way to gain additional income from the farm. He started growing hops on the farm about a decade ago and when he began homebrewing, he thought it would be great to open his own brewery.

Since 2012, Maryland has allowed farmers to produce up to 15,000 barrels of beer per year. Farm-based brewers must feature home-grown barley, hops or fruits in their beer. Brewers may sell their beer for consumption both on and off the farm.

Ruhlman prefer beers that focus more on malts, including a milk stout, a red ale and an imperial stout called Black Knight.

He gets inspiration for making beers just looking around the farm which was originally owned by his late father. Last year, Ruhlman made a Persimmon beer from fruit of the Persimmon trees on the lot. Lately, he’s been looking at his apple orchard for ideas. “We can always do an apple ale…just need to figure out how.”