From the crushed recycled concrete in its parking lot to the composted spent grains that will eventually fertilize the hop yard, the utmost care and effort has been made to make the practices at River Saint Joe Brewery in Buchanan as sustainable as possible.
The farmstead brewery and taproom sit on the 101-acre Flatwater Farms, a certified organic farm, and the two work in tandem. In fact, there are so many closed-loop systems built into the processes, it can make you dizzy trying to follow them.
Fran Tuite bought the land that is now Flatwater Farms in 2014.
She originally purchased a log cabin across the street, using it as a weekend rural respite from her busy weekdays in Chicago. The area was recommended to her because, as a lifelong rower, she was always seeking out flat water. The St. Joe River provided that, and it wasn’t a long drive from Chicago.
One day, Tuite was walking her dogs and saw an auction sign on the farm’s property. She decided to make her dream of owning a farm a reality.
As the farm’s website states, “The vision for the farm was to move from conventional farming and mono-row cropping to a variety of plants and trees that would nourish the soil, wildlife and insects.”
The conversion to certified organic farming took three years.
Marc Luff, farm manager at Flatwater Farms, said Tuite wanted the farm to be organic from the beginning.
“The preservation of natural landscapes is important to her,” he said. “From both an environmental and human health standpoint, she has a strong belief in caring for the natural environment.”
Noting that one of the logos for the farm uses an image of an owl, Luff explains that, in farming, they only use products and materials “that won’t harm beasts and birds of prey.”
Luff’s freshman rowing coach knew Tuite and told him they needed to meet. Luff joined the team in fall 2020. He and his wife, Claire, who runs the marketing and events for the brewery and farm, started farming with a CSA farm in Cincinnati and had most recently been working on a ranch in California.
Luff brings a sense of creativity to his work at Flatwater Farms. For example, he knew he’d have to find a winter solution for providing food for the brewery year-round. So, he came up with the idea of modular greenhouses. Luff and his team can lift these greenhouses and move them from bed to bed, as well as connect them to cover larger areas. He’s built five already, with plans to build more.
This winter, Luff plans to have a lot of salad greens for the chef to use on the menu at River Saint Joe. Featured crops will include lettuce, arugula, spinach, radishes, kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes and butternut squash.
Luff originally thought he would farm for two weeks but, to his surprise, the work inspired him, and he never turned back.
“I saw lots of erosion and animals that didn’t get the food and outside activity that I thought they needed,” he said. “I wanted to see if farming could be done in a good way for the animals and the land, that kept the soil in place, so it didn’t wash away when it rains.
“The environmental aspect of farming is the thing that keeps me coming back. I just see so many puzzles that need to be solved.”
Luff said Chinook and Cascade hops do the best on the farm. Some of the 5-acre hop yard is also dedicated to bittering hops, like Nugget and Magnum, and they’re testing out a number of small varieties to figure out what else does well.
“Right now, our brewer, Brandon MacClaren, has claimed all my hops for this year,” Luff said. “The goal is to keep expanding our hop production for other breweries to use — unless the beer enterprise keeps growing and we consume them all again.”
One of the more interesting farm-to-brewery collaborations was when Luff and team harvested maple sap on the farm earlier this year and MacClaren used it to make a beer. In a ‘regular’ beer, the sugars in malt are what the yeast ‘eats’ to make alcohol. But sap is 3% sugar. Instead of boiling it down, as a brewer would with barley, “we took it right from the tree and started brewing with it,” Luff said.
They sold out of the 2021 batch. It takes about three weeks to make the beer, so be on the lookout for this beer about three weeks after sap starts running in 2022 (roughly in late March).
“Buchanan township, in a really forward-thinking way, created zoning that allowed landowners to open breweries on agricultural land,” said Brian Dougherty, CEO of River Saint Joe.
The concept for the brewery came about when he and Tuite had coffee one day. They thought about wineries and how successful tasting rooms are when they’re located right within the vineyards. With that idea in mind, they got to work.
While the farm continued to grow crops, the team worked on licensing, zoning, and designing and building a sustainable brewery and tasting room.
“A lot of the choices we made for the building were with an environmental angle in mind,” Dougherty said.
First, the solar panels on the building produce enough energy to power all of the brewing equipment. Next, the weathering steel used on the building’s exterior is zero maintenance. No fossil fuels are used in heating and cooling the building due to a combination of insulated panels, air-to-air heat pumps and energy recovery ventilators. And, of course, the brewery uses water from the farm, all from a well on the land.
After years of work, the brewery was ready to open.
“We planned our grand opening for March 2020 which, in hindsight, was almost comically tragic timing,” Dougherty said.
Because River Saint Joe opened just before the statewide shutdown from the COVID-19 pandemic, Dougherty had to get inventive.
Business went pretty smoothly in its earliest days, but the second lockdown in November 2020 is when things got pretty scary, Dougherty said.
And that’s when River Rocks was born.
The concept is “like shuffleboard meets curling,” Dougherty said. “People stand on one end, and they push these curling stones with brooms toward a target. Like bocce ball, whoever’s closest to the target gets points.”
The ice rink that River Rocks is played on has three lanes and is equipped to stay frozen in temperatures up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, it’s surrounded by firepits with lights hanging overhead, and the hop yards are in view.
“People loved it,” Dougherty said. “It’s something fun to do outside in the winter in Michigan.
“I think COVID really woke people up to that, too; you can be outside any time of year — you just need to be prepared.”
The game was very popular last year. While walk-ups are available if lanes are open, Dougherty recommends booking lanes and times online in advance.
Even for visitors who don’t want to play River Rocks but want to enjoy their beer outside in the winter, River Saint Joe has heated tables and fire pits — including one that is about 20-feet tall — surrounded by Adirondack chairs.
And of course, the inside is nice, too. The building is brand new, and it has large windows overlooking the farm. You can even sit nestled amongst the brewing equipment. “You get to see a lot of the process when you come here,” Luff said.
Article written by Sarah Aldrich