Words by Richard Morin, Photography by Oliver Parini
After a long day, Andrew Peterson crumples into his office’s worn leather couch, exhausted from the day’s work. He’s 51 with a youthful exuberance about him. He has a shock of curly red hair flecked with grey and a beard of the same. An unbuttoned flannel shirt and tee shirt give him an almost collegiate feel. Rock posters and leaflets line the entranceway, and lovingly used electric guitars and amps are scattered about the room. Beer taps emerge from the barn board across the room from him, a small sign below declaring “drink local.” It’s almost easy to forget that you’re inside the barn adjacent to his home in Monkton. This blend of rock-and-roll and rustic perfectly characterizes Peterson, a former owner of two indie-record labels. Now, as the owner of Peterson Quality Malt, he is orchestrating the cultivation and production of malt grains to supply Vermont’s craft brew scene.
To that end, Peterson is transforming one of Vermont’s most iconic dairy operations, the 583-acre Nordic Farms in Charlotte. Once home to 250 prize-winning cows and New England’s first robotic milking machines, the mammoth red barn along Route 7 will soon become a malthouse producing 3,000 tons of malted grains a year.
In breathing new life into Nordic Farms, Peterson is building upon his grand vision for how malting locally grown grains can positively impact the Green Mountain State’s fragile agricultural economy. “What makes Vermont so special are the open spaces and the active use of the land. As dairies close, we have a choice to let the land go fallow or find another use for it.” His approach is to use local farms to raise grains that supply his malthouse, which he believes is a viable option to help farmers diversify and supplement their incomes. “I want people to one day drive by a field and see a sign that says this is where their beer came from,” he says.
“What makes Vermont so special are the open spaces and the active use of the land.”
Peterson has been malting grain in his converted barn in Monkton since 2014. He believes the time is ripe for his expansion, as consumer interest in the Localvore food movement has migrated to craft beers. “Today many people want to know where their food is grown— where the ingredients in their meals come from. [They] are beginning to do the same with their beer.”
As an early advocate for truly local beer production, Peterson has worked tirelessly to grow and malt grains, the backbone of any beer, to supply local artisan food and beverage makers. “What has worked for me wouldn’t have worked anywhere else. We are lucky to have people here in Vermont, and those who visit, who are interested in knowing what they are putting in their body,” he says.
The transition to the new facility at Nordic Farms in Charlotte will allow Peterson Quality Malt to meet the growing demand by increasing its malt production by fifteenfold. “It’s a big leap for sure. But honestly, it is one that has come about quite organically, and in a way that I could not have imagined, but in a way that is very Vermont-rooted.”
The owners of Hotel Vermont soon noticed Peterson’s efforts. They shared his vision for local ingredients and invested not only in his reclamation of Nordic Farms but in his wider vision for a sustainable agricultural community that included bringing a bakery, vegetable and flower gardens, sheep, turkeys, and aquaculture to the Charlotte barn.
“We see this partnership as a natural fit since we have so many existing connections to farmers and brewers,” says Jay Canning of Hotel Vermont. “With Andrew, we will execute a master plan for [Nordic Farms] consisting of several agricultural uses in addition to the 350 acres planted with barley and other grains.”
“I quickly decided that instead of competing with all these great brewers in Vermont that I would collaborate with them.”
Peterson himself initially wanted to open his own craft brewery with a focus on local ingredients. But he soon discovered there was little in the way of local malt. He bought a book on malting and became enthralled by the history, science, and artistry of the process. “I quickly decided that instead of competing with all these great brewers in Vermont that I would collaborate with them,” he says.
He began small, experimenting in his kitchen in Monkton before renovating the barn that houses his current malting operation. After speaking with engineers and other malthouse owners, he designed and constructed his own with the help of neighbors and community members. The intricate controls that guide the malting process were designed and built with the help of a local engineer. “That is kind of the story of Vermont,” he says, the brown leather couch enveloping him. “Every town has an individual in their community that has this unique skill set that is highly sought after but can be put to use locally in really valuable ways. It is really about getting back to basics and being generous with knowledge and skills.”
Early on an unexpected roadblock stymied Peterson’s efforts. There weren’t enough grains being grown in Vermont for him to malt. Local farmers had mostly been producing grains for feedstock. He quickly came to a realization. “I had to become a farmer too.” Peterson bought a tractor, plow, and combine and found local farms willing to lease land to him. One farm quickly became two farms, became three farms. “Farmers talk to one another,” he says, noting today many dairy farms in Vermont are actively looking to diversify. “And raising grains doesn’t require getting up at 4:30 a.m.” Peterson now cultivates close to 600 acres on a dozen Vermont farms with the help of a local farmer, Brian Van de Weert from Pleasant Acre Farms in Ferrisburgh, VT. “Economies of scale through the partnership has really helped both of us,” says Peterson.
Van de Weert came into the picture when Peterson’s quest for locally grown grains was coming up empty. “He had been growing wheat, and it turns out he was just eight miles down the road.” Van de Weert now tends to the fields at Nordic Farms and has bought a larger combine to accommodate the growing agricultural harvests.
Peterson supplied his initial batches of malt to local homebrewers and a few area breweries for feedback. “The first batches were not so good, but we figured things out fairly quickly,” he says with a smile and stroke of his beard.
Through the process of developing five distinctive malts for local brewers, Peterson quickly found his footing. He now supplies the majority of malt used by four local breweries—Foam Brewers in Burlington, Cousins Brewing in Warren, Hogback Brewing in Bristol, and Hired Hand Brewing Co. in Vergennes. He also supplies malts for specialty brews to several other local breweries, distilleries like Whistle Pig Whiskey in Shoreham, and local bread makers. “We’ve essentially been at maximum production for a couple of years now,” says Peterson, noting that they had expanded his initial operation three times. “We couldn’t get any larger, so we began a search for a new facility.”
Immediately ruling out industrial parks, he looked to local farms with existing agricultural buildings. Like many of the developments in Peterson’s journey, a conversation led to the Nordic Farm, whose previous owner, Clark Hinsdale, felt it would be a perfect fit for Peterson’s endeavor. “The buildings at Nordic were bigger and newer than I could have ever hoped for,” he says, a bit astonished at his luck. “I was looking to make a medium jump. This was a huge jump that I thought there was no way I could afford.” But a local lender, Yankee Farm Credit, stepped in alongside the Hotel Vermont owners to help finance the ambitious project.
As the new facility has taken shape over the last two years, the former cow barns have been cleaned out and reconfigured. Towering shiny metal grain bins have been installed. A locally made grain mill was commissioned from New American Stone Mills in Elmore, VT. “It is truly a piece of art,” says Peterson. Despite the significant obstacles brought by 2020, progress has continued at the farm. The malt house was fully commissioned in the fall and has the capability to produce multiple kinds of malt. Currently, there are a few in rotation including Maris Otter, Two Row, and Pilsner.
The farm, when at full capacity, will also raise close to 350 acres of grains and be carbon negative with the help of solar and highly efficient systems. But more importantly, for Peterson, was the vision of Nordic Farms to become an ag makerspace. Much of that vision has already been realized, as it now houses Slowfire Bakery, the House of Fermentology, Clayton Floral, a vegetable and livestock farm to supply Hotel Vermont’s Juniper and Bleu with unique vegetables and meats, and—something a bit unexpected in this neck of the woods—a shrimp farm called Sweet Sound Aquaculture. As it turns out malt waste is the perfect food for the crustaceans. “We have really enjoyed serving fresh Vermont shrimp at our restaurants,” noted Juniper chef Doug Paine.
And just when you thought things couldn’t get more efficient, the malt house serves a dual purpose. Peterson wanted to be sure that if a local farmer took a risk in growing grains for him that if the crop was not suitable to be malted for beer, it could be used for bread flour. This helps local farmers who are making the transition from raising cows. “That way they get paid for their efforts and we can work together to get the grains where they need to be [for malting]. While beer production was down for many breweries this spring and summer due to the pandemic, home baking was up significantly. This prompted the farm to pivot, milling some of the wheat that would have otherwise been malted for breweries and selling five pound bags of PQM Flour directly to local co-ops and markets. “We can’t afford to be a monoculture farming community. We need to work together to expand what farming is in Vermont.”
In doing so, Peterson, who hopes to bring his personal story full circle by hosting concerts on the farm in the future, is building a model for what farming might look like in Vermont for years to come. “We are working on a small scale [to give our partners] an opportunity they might not have otherwise had. . . It might not be the next killer app they are making, but it could be the next killer appetizer, and that can be very sustaining for all.”
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