It’s not every day that the guy brewing your beer looks like that same guy you saw performing on stage at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. But if you visit a farmer’s market in Fishkill, New York, there’s a good chance you’ll come across Evan Watson. He owns Plan Bee Farm Brewery with his wife, Emily, and indeed he is that guy you saw on stage.
Watson is an acclaimed musician whose folky blues-meets-rock sound has made its way around the country since his debut album _A Town Called Blue _released in 2009. Watson was recently selected to solo open for Meatloaf, and he appeared on The Voice last fall, among many other achievements throughout his music career.
“When Evan was on tour, we traveled 40-odd states,” says his wife, Emily. “During the tour we decided maybe that wasn’t the lifestyle we wanted to pursue any longer—it wasn’t very healthy, and there was a lot of pressure. We had to have a backup; we had to have a plan B.”
For the Watsons, plan B was brewing. The couple had been homebrewing since college, and Emily had been working at an environmental nonprofit for New York’s Hudson River. “We came up with the concept of an agriculturally sourced brewery,” Emily says. “Our friends who own Bee Archetype [a New York State honey producer that keeps bees and produces items such as honey soaps, candles, lotions, and beeswax] motivated us to start our own business. Their model was completely grassroots,” Emily explains. “It was inspiring.”
So the musician-turned-brewer and the environmentalist-turned-brewer started two beehives on their farm property on the border of Hudson Highlands and opened Plan Bee Farm Brewery in 2013. These beehives yield raw honey from which they extract all of the yeast used to ferment their beers. “We wanted to keep everything as local as possible, so we started playing with the idea of cultivating our own yeast,” Emily says. “We started by cultivating yeast from peaches and strawberries that we grow on the property, and then Evan had the idea to take it out of the honey. The bees are collecting lots of yeast as they forage a three-mile radius nearby.”
Plan Bee’s yeast isn’t the only beer ingredient cultivated nearby. In fact, Emily and Evan use as many ingredients from their property as possible (including aromatic herbs, hops, fruit, and even dandelions—see our Dandeliaison recipe for their farmhouse ale brewed with dandelions and honey), and every ingredient in Plan Bee’s beers is grown or produced in New York. They brew with grains from Farmhouse Malt in Newark Valley, hops from Hop Wild (owned by Kevin Durland, a farmer friend) in Lagrangeville, and maple syrup from Crown Maple and Madava Farms in Dover Plains. They age beers in soaked oak barrels from Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner; they bottle the beer in bottles from BOB (BuyOurBottles.com) in Baldwinsville; and they even clean the brew-house with products from Finger Lakes Soap Company in Van Etten. “We’ve really committed to a local mission and we haven’t wavered from it,” Emily says.
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Plan Bee is a registered Farm Brewery, which means that at least 20 percent of the hops and 20 percent of all other ingredients in its beers must be grown in New York State. The state’s Farm Brewery law also gives Plan Bee the ability to sell its beers at local farmer’s markets, which is critical to the brewery’s business model.
“We sell our bottles only at farmstands,” Emily says. “We don’t distribute on purpose; we want to be able to talk to the people we sell to so they can understand what we’re doing.”
The Watsons are currently expanding their brewery to a 25-acre farm in Poughkeepsie where they will transition from a 1-barrel brewhouse to a 10-barrel system. They plan to grow their own hops, grow and malt their own barley, and continue beekeeping for the production of their yeast. Once expanded, they still won’t distribute their beers.
“We will sell all of our beer on the property,” Emily says, “in the style of a winery, where you … would expect to see the grapes in the vineyard. Instead of taking tours in industrial parks where most breweries are located, guests will be able to see the ingredients and the process in 10-barrel open oak fermentors. We really want to educate about where beer comes from, to re-establish that agricultural connection.”
In New York State, brewers are not required to list yeast as a beer ingredient, “which is really funny because yeast makes about 75 percent of the flavor profile of that beer,” Emily points out. Plan Bee’s honey-harvested yeast gives off fruity esters, Emily says, with pineapple and banana notes that you’d expect from Belgian yeast. “Originally when we used honey in our beers, Evan hypothesized that because there are so many wild bacteria that make beer sour that all of our beers would become sour,” she says. But they found that honey, with its antiseptic properties, actually keeps the beers really clean. So Evan started inoculating wooden barrels with yeast, which is why all of Plan Bee’s beers have the potential to become sour over time.
“So, our barrel-aged beers are oaky and honey-forward when fresh, but if you let them stay in the bottle, they develop that tartness, that effervescence, and that funkiness associated with sour beers,” Emily says. “The yeast takes on a personality of its own when it develops in the cellar.”
Like a lot of sour-beer brewers, the Watsons are less concerned with consistency and more invested in the flavor of their beers from batch to batch. That variability, coupled with a small brewhouse, gives them the freedom to experiment. In 2014, they brewed more than fifty different beers.