Eric Stiegman's quest to make Illinois grain part of the beer-brewing boom


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Eric Stiegman at Moody Tongue Brewing Co.

On Monday I wrote about Jared Rouben's Moody Tongue Brewing Company, and Rouben's concept of "culinary brewing," making beers using the kind of farmers market ingredients we associate with farm-to-table restaurants more than breweries. At Rouben's event last Saturday, I met a farmer named Eric Stiegman, whose barley and hops will go into some of Rouben's beers.

Stiegman's farm in Thawville, Illinois, about 100 miles south of Chicago, is a fairly typical commodity farm, growing corn and soybeans. But like a lot of farmers Stiegman dabbles in other things for his own use—or because only growing commodity crops is boring. In his case, when he got involved with a brewing club he revived some Hallertau hops plants he had growing on his property, and started looking into growing malt for beer. (Malt is barley that's been germinated in water and then air dried to develop the sugars and enzymes, so beer yeast can consume it and produce alcohol.) He also began rigging equipment, such as a used pizza oven, to roast the barley to different levels of toastedness, which is where much of beer's color and flavor come from.

Stiegman's goal isn't to grow enough himself to keep an operation like Rouben's running, but rather to show that Illinois grain can be part of the brewing boom and encourage other farmers to start growing grain and hops for Illinois' brewers. I spoke with him at the event about his experiences "growing" beer.

Michael Gebert: So tell me about all the activity that's going on at your farm.

Eric Stiegman: Our farm's a 700-acre corn and soybean farm, it's a family farm. I'd gotten kind of restless with corn and soybeans, and I tried grapes—I have about an acre of grapes. It's a lot of maintenance and pruning—I still have it, but I haven't paid as much attention to it as I should since I've gotten into the malting part of it.

About ten years ago I started malting. Basically all of the beer I've produced has been with my own grain. I started growing an acre or two, and then hand-malting it in my basement. Using window fans and stuff to dry it down, and putting it in the oven [to roast it]. And then, foolishly maybe, I start thinking I'm going to expand this to a small commercial-scale operation. I started building my own equipment, I bought an old refrigerated trailer so I can control the atmosphere and control the temperature for the malt. Installed an air conditioner and a furnace in it so I can maintain about 55 degrees.

Then I built my own kiln, put it outside just in case it blew up or caught on fire, didn't want it in a building. I've run over 30 batches through this kiln now, I usually run about 1,500 to 2,000 pounds in a batch. After it's been in a kiln and you achieve a certain temperature, I suck it out with this large grain vacuum cleaner and I put it in these large 50-bushel bags. Then hopefully it's ready to make beer, after you age it for a month.

In my kiln operation I can make up to an English ale, that's a couple of hundred degrees of kiln temperature. But last year I looked around for a peanut roaster, that's a rotating drum, so I could make the more flavored malts, the darker colored malts. I imported one from China, which was quite an experience, and it's taken me a year to sort it out and I just ran the first batch yesterday. So I have roasting capabilities besides my regular kiln.

Stiegmans roasted chocolate malt.

And you were growing hops as well?

Yeah, well, anybody that wants to make beer on their own place has got to have some hops. I've actually got four or five different varieties now. 15 years ago, when I first tried, I ordered some Hallertaus, probably American—I don't know how to tell the difference [from German hops], they made some pretty good Kolsch. They seem to survive in Illinois all right, they don't grow as well as some other varieties but if you want to make some German styles of beer, it's pretty important to have their style of hops.

How did you get interested in trying to grow things for Jared Rouben?

My friend Max and I were coming up to see a philosopher and artist friend up in Chicago, and he always liked to drink at the Pump Room, he lived by there. Then the Pump Room was getting closed, so he wanted to go to Goose Island. So every time I'd come up to Chicago, we'd go there for beer, and I was always just amazed at the quality of beer they had there. So I started seeing who's the brewer here, and Jared was the brewer. They had some association with Budweiser at that time, and I'm a little micro-malter, so I kind of had some hesitation about what [my local] beer community would say about somebody approaching Budweiser—the establishment.

So I was kind of heehawing around about that for a long time, and I was still checking out different breweries in Chicago and downstate—Blind Pig [in Champaign] brewed the first all-Illinois beer using my grain. But in the meantime, I see that Jared is leaving Goose Island and I think, I better approach this guy. And in addition I see that he's supporting a lot of local producers, adding their ingredients to his beer, which is even better yet. So I sent him an email and he met with me and I brought him some of my beer, and we kind of hit it off.

I told him my situation, which is that I was looking for cutting-edge brewers. Because I hadn't gotten as good a reception as I might have thought I'd get for being one of the only malters in the midwest.

It seems like brewers aren't that open to [local grain] because a lot of them are selling whatever they can make. Why should I add any expense or hassle to it when everything I make sells? That seems to be kind of what I ran into. It's such a growing industry and they were like, that's nice, but . . . we're selling everything we make, what's the point of having something different? I can't blame them in a way because they work a lot of long hours, but I kind of saw this as something that was in the future that was going to come down, and Jared felt the same way. And I thought, well, I found somebody who thinks this is a good idea.

Stiegmans hops.

This is starting to become a growing movement, there's about thirty people who are either working on or operating micro-malting operations in North America. And they're trying to get some research going on the east and west coasts. The idea, which I found through my beermaking and growing, is that terroir applies to barley, and probably also to hops, as well as it does to grapes. And I think that's a whole new avenue that brewing's going to move into the future. And whenever you start something new you have a lot of people that aren't interested in listening to you talk about it. Maybe the tide's turning a little bit in this country, now that you have a number of people that are interested in malting. A lot of the new microdistillers are showing interest in different flavors, from maybe the same malt variety, something that's local, that has a distinct flavor that nobody else has.


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