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Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore at the Beyond Brewing Forum

So after months of waiting, Organarchy‘s first-ever Beyond Brewing Forum took place earlier this month. How was it? Well, I knew it was going to be fantastic, and it was. But more on that later – because today I want to share some thoughts on a particular talk I heard during the first day from Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore.

Here is a quick excerpt of his remarks to craft brewers, farmers and other regional industry attendees:

“I know I’m at home [here in Virginia], but as you do think about the future, I can assure you there’s no better place to invest your money and work than in Virginia. Many of you know that we have been working in the Commonwealth, for I guess the last seven or eight years, to promote the craft beverage industry. To fully integrate it into our overall economic development platform so we treat craft beverages – wine, distilled spirits, beer, cider, mead – the same way we treat IT, manufacturing, and on and on and on.

It is part of the economic development fabric of the state. As far as [Virginia Governor Terry MacAuliffe’s] promotion of craft beer, wine and other craft beverages… he gets it. He understands it’s jobs, it’s investment, it’s tax dollars – and that’s just at the brewery, distillery and winery level. Then you start thinking about the feed stock that goes into it, trickling down to the farm – and that’s the thing that we need to convince so many people in Virginia about.

These great craft beverages all start on the farm. This agriculture at it’s absolute finest. It’s value-added agriculture at its finest …

Virginia generates about $52 billion a year in annual revenue and over 300,000 jobs all across the state – in the suburbs or Washington D.C., down the Eastern Shore, and all the way to Southwest Virginia. And the craft beverage industry – particularly craft beer – plays an incredible role in helping us build that new Virginia economy. Less than three years ago – excuse me, less than four years ago, we had about 30 craft breweries in Virginia. We now have over 145 in the largest cities and in the middle of counties like Goochland County which is, for those of you non-Virginian types, I assure you, is the Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery. You go to the middle of nowhere and take a right. And those folks have done great business. They have a great view, and I think there’s even more to come.

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Milkhouse at Stillpoint Farm in Mt. Airy, Maryland

I was joking with my friend from Maryland here about the government being here to help you, I think in Virginia we really do that right. I hope that Virginians in the house we agree to a certain extent that we do work with you. Not only do we want you here growing your business, we want you expanding it and we want to help you …

If you don’t take away anything else from the conference, it’s this:

Virginia is all in with craft beer.

From the farms all the way through brewhouse, and we want to work with you to make it happen, to take it to a higher level. Again, the resources that we have, the expertise, the manpower, the infrastructure is growing, and obviously all of my Virginia colleagues, I want you to continue to grow and prosper …

If they don’t, let me know who they are, and I will make the secret special forces of Virginia government come out. [laughter]”

Re-reading this again as I write this, I am in awe as I was then.

It’s not that I haven’t seen support from the Maryland government. Just last year, the Anne Arundel County Council unanimously brought production and farm breweries to our own backyard. And Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot put his admiration for our state brewers on full display during his remarks at the award ceremony for last year’s Maryland Comptroller’s Cup at Peabody Heights Brewery in Baltimore.

In his remarks, Franchot said, “[Maryland breweries] contribute a lot, but the quality of what you produce? ‘Aces up’ all the way around. What you produce is really special.”

He went on to say those brewers should feel proud because they took a risk by putting themselves out there and making the investment of time, passion and money to advance this industry in our state. [My column from November 18, 2015.]

But – and I say this without diminishing Franchot’s support of our brewers – I would die to hear a speech from someone in Maryland like one above from Secretary Haymore of Virginia.

For someone to stand up and say, “Maryland is all in with craft beer.”

An industry that not only creates jobs and nurtures culture directly within the confines of their communities, but also empowers farmers with new value-add agriculture opportunities.

That latter part is something that’s extremely important to note. I heard it time and time again during the Beyond Brewing Forum that not only do people in Maryland not get the role of agriculture in beer, Flying Dog CMO Ben Savage mentioned during his talk (something I’ll dive deeper into on another day) that the craft beer industry as a whole has done a terrible job of showcasing beer as an agricultural product.

And as I mentioned in my feature on Organarchy, we rock at buying local in terms of buying from local brewers. But us consumers are not that great about driving demand for – or even just sparking the conversation about – local ingredients in our beer.

Even people who don’t love wine or cider know they’re (traditionally) made from grapes and apples. However, that same base level of knowledge doesn’t exist with beer.

Grains and hops – both agriculture products found on farms – are the lifeblood of beer. But that kind of narrative gets lost because we’re used to going to industrial parks or brewpubs or restaurants downtown to get our fill from our local favorites. With wine, on the other hand, we’re trained to go to vineyards with sprawling, rolling hills of vines as a backdrop – you can see that land-to-glass connection so quickly.

It’s getting better locally, with farm breweries starting to pop up. In addition to Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm, we have Manor Hill Brewing in Howard County. And I’m just dying to get out to Waredaca Brewing Company in Montgomery County.

But even with those wins, I still hear murmurs. Murmurs of unhappy neighbors. Murmurs of difficulties in spite of supportive legislation for farm breweries and others, as well. Hell, just look at the mess we got into locally with something as simple as growlers.

I’ll end this by saying that even if you don’t 100 percent agree with me, if you have any knowledge of our local beer industry, you know that Maryland has a reputation for being difficult and overly restrictive. Especially when it comes to beer, wine and spirits, as well as the farmers we could empower with the ability to support those agricultural products… but don’t.

And when brewers in our state ask for help with limits that stifle growth, they don’t get it. Instead, distributors are favored, and they’re told to make decisions they shouldn’t have to make. From that linked article:

But Nicholas G. Manis, lobbyist for the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association, said that if the Knorrs [of Evolution] want to expand, they should sell their restaurants and convert their brewpub permit into a full-fledged brewery license.

“At some point, you have to decide if you want to be a brewer or a restaurant,” Manis said.

Well, if we were to apply that logic up the chain, I think some distributors need to decide if they’re really “independent distributors” and not an exploitation of the three-tier system on behalf of big beer. But that’s a story for another day.

It’s gotten to the point where Secretary Haymore was able to get up in front of a bunch of regional brewers and hop growers and say that Virginia is “open for business” for the craft beer industry, and really mean it.

Which is funny. Because I thought “open for business” was our slogan. I guess not.