“Our challenge was to make the best saison in the world,” says Daniel Heisler, the head brewer at Blackberry Farm Brewery in Walland, Tennessee. “Turns out we came pretty close.”
In 2016, Blackberry Farm’s Classic Saison took home a gold at World Beer Cup in the French and Belgian Saison category. This accolade, among a couple of other Great American Beer Festival medals for the farm brewery’s other beers, helped to put Blackberry Farm on the map.
The brewery is just one feature of the Blackberry Farm resort in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains that boasts award-winning chefs, a world-class wine cellar, luxurious spa treatments, paddle sports, fly fishing, horseback riding, archery…the list goes on. In essence, it’s a 4,200-acre paradise from which you won’t want to go home. Initially, the plan for the modest farm brewery was never to make more than three or four beer styles.
Back in 2010, Blackberry Farm’s managing partner Roy Milner helped to incept a plan for building a brewery on the property in a small dairy barn that was once used for sheep milking, trench drains included. In 2013, he began talking to Heisler about coming on as their head brewer. Heisler was then working at Petoskey Brewing in his home state of Michigan. He’d previously brewed at New Holland Brewing, also in Michigan, and Bohemian Brewery in Salt Lake City. “I had the honor to work with two iconic brewers after my homebrew days,” Heisler says. “Bobby Jackson of Bohemian Brewery, now the head brewer at 10 Barrel Brewing, and John Haggerty, the former brewmaster at New Holland and now cofounder at Warped Wing Brewing Company. These are two guys who really know their stuff.”
Heisler says an opportunity like Blackberry Farm doesn’t come along every day. “The farm isn’t the first place you’d think of to start a brewery, and that intrigued me,” he says. “In addition to being a beautiful vacation resort for spa treatments with incredible food and wine, the farm also has a lot of great artistry going on outside of what you’d think of from a luxury hotel. The chefs are making fermented foods, preserving, and crafting cheese. Eastern Tennessee is extremely connected to mountains and the land, and similar to beer making, they were already preserving ingredients over time for enjoyment later. I was interested in making something high-quality, local. I thought of how amazing it would be to make beer in a place like this.”
So that’s what he did. He moved to Tennessee and helped to craft Blackberry Farm’s Classic Saison, named so to pay homage to the traditional beers of the Wallonia region of Belgium and to honor simplicity. (Check out the homebrew-scaled recipe for Blackberry Farm’s Classic Saison!) “It’s basically a lager beer with different yeast,” he explains. Classic Saison is brewed with Czech Pilsner malt, Saaz hops, and White Labs WLP565 Belgian Saison yeast. “Many of our other beers are explorations of that saison yeast strain,” Heisler says of his Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter Saison lineup. “That seasonal theme works perfectly for the farm,” he says. Spring is spiced with orange peel, coriander, and grains of paradise; Summer is hoppy with Australian Summer and Citra hops; Fall is brewed with spelt, rye, and oats; and Winter is black and rich, brewed with dark wheat and chocolate malt.
In 2015, Summer Saison won a silver medal at Great American Beer Festival in the American-Belgo-Style Ale category. “That was when we started to experiment more,” Heisler says. Milner knew right away that there was something to this wild culture thing, so he invited a local lab to come out and cultivate wild yeast from the property. They sampled yeast from cherry blossoms and honeysuckle blossoms and other flora from the property. “The yeast they cultivated is phenolic and weird,” says Heisler. “It finishes dry, and it’s very funky and wild tasting.”
The first experiments performed with these wild cultures were with fruit, and the results were surprising. “We made a blackberry rye, a roasted cherry dark ale, and a strawberry buckwheat ale as part of the Native Series,” says Heisler. “We found that fruit and these yeasts don’t play well together. They are super attenuative. The beers get to six percent ABV before I can even blink, and then there’s no sugar left,” he jokes.
More experimentation with these cultures yielded success when Heisler made the beers “more yellow, more simple.” The Tennessee Cream Ale, for example, is brewed with flaked corn and heirloom grits. It’s a light, refreshing beer that’s bubbly, effervescent, and a deceiving 6.3 percent ABV. “I think we have a winner,” Heisler says.
Whether the beers are saisons, Native Series members, part of Blackberry Farm’s Abbey Series, barrel-aged beers, or beyond, the goal is always drinkability, specifically drinkability with food. “Table-friendly is the whole idea here,” says Heisler. “Blackberry Farm is always thinking about food and beer together—the whole point is to be able to drink and eat. People often approach us when they want to do collaborations because they know we’re thinking that way.”
Daily Miel is one such collaboration. Made in partnership with Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, North Carolina, it’s brewed with two varieties of spelt, aged noble hops, and more than six pounds (2.7 kg) per barrel of Carolina Piedmont and Tennessee Foothills honey. It’s then fermented with each brewery’s house yeast strain. “This Daily Miel thing came about because we wanted to use local honey. We had a beautiful opportunity to just be brewers together, and the result was dry and appropriate for the table.”
Next up for Blackberry Farm are more collaborations, but not just with other breweries. “We’re trying to take collaboration down alternative routes,” Heisler declares. “As much as I love to collaborate with other brewers and plan to do so in the future, there are so many others who we can work with, too. Our next collaboration, for example, is with a local artist who did artwork for the label. We’ll also be working with a grain manufacturer on a project. Collaborating outside of just beer makers is where the exciting stuff is happening right now.”
“It’s cliché but true that it takes a village,” Heisler says. It takes other breweries and organizations to execute these world-class collaborations, and at Blackberry Farm it takes a huge staff with many moving parts to deliver the high level of hospitality that guests experience. “There are a whole lot of people behind the scenes making something magical here,” Heisler says, reiterating that craft beer is just one element of that magic. “This farm is capable of some of the most amazing things.”
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PHOTOS: COURTESY BLACKBERRY FARM BREWERY