On-farm breweries grow

A hobby has turned into a growing business for a couple of Lambton County farmers

You can’t mistake the fact you’re arriving at an on-farm brewery when you arrive at Stonepicker Brewing.

There’s the McCormick Deering antique tractor at the end of the lane, the idled hog barn you pass on the way to the brewery building and the 1933 Case C hanging from the wall above the bar when you enter.

Then there’s the name of Jim and Laura Soetemans’ and Joe and Mary Donkers’ brewery: Stonepicker. You can’t get much more farm-level than that.

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Why it matters: As the popularity of microbrewing continues to increase, it’s not surprising that more of them are connected directly to farmers.

Joe and Jim and their wives have been friends “forever” and when Joe closed his farrow-to-wean hog barn south of Forest, he began concentrating on brewing beer. The two friends had started brewing beer five years ago. They ordered a hobby brewing kit that’s larger than average at 20 gallons. That meant they had lots of beer to give away, and people said they liked it.

What started out as some fun then led to tours of other breweries.

“Everyone was having a good time and they were doing decently well, so we decided to jump in,” said Joe during an interview at the brewery not far from the hog barn and the Donkers’ home.

The brewery offers about 12 beers on tap, six that will be produced constantly and six others that are seasonal.

The brewery opened during Labour Day weekend and so far traffic and sales have exceeded their expectations. The visitors have been diverse and sometimes unexpected.

A group of senior citizens visits on Thursdays for an outing and a drink. Cyclists from Sarnia and motorcyclists on tours have visited. On nice days, visitors spend time on the patio outside the brewery building, sheltered under trees and overlooking the farm fields. They are on the main route from Sarnia and the United States to the Grand Bend cottage area.

“City people like the farm stuff and they are not connected to it anymore,” said Joe.

The names of the beer at Stonepicker Brewing all relate to farming.
photo: John Greig

They arrive, try a flight of beers (the name for a sample tray) buy some that they like and hang around for an hour or two. The beer flight is also punctuated by a farming symbol, with old baler tines protruding from pieces of wood that once separated a shipment of hog slats

The brewery could be an economically feasible way to get people to spend time on a farm.

Still actively farming

The hogs may be gone from Joe Donkers’ farm, but he’s still farming, now with an eye to creating added value in the brewery.

He put in 60 acres of malting barley this year, including Bentley two-row malting barley.

“I can malt it into anything I need,” said Joe.

He’s using about 30 per cent of his own malt to make their beer at this point. The plan is to create a malting plant in the old barn, which could also be an opportunity to tour people through to show them the whole beer creation process.

Hops are integral to the making of beer and there isn’t much of it grown in Ontario yet.

“We will use as much local hops as we can, but Ontario only has a limited number of varieties they can actually grow because they aren’t under licence,” said Joe.

The Stonepicker brewers get most of their hops from Washington and Oregon.

“The hop is pretty much the most important part of beer,” said Jim. “You need good hops for flavour.”

Jim continues to farm near Warwick Village, where he grows crops on about 1,000 acres and also raises broiler chickens.

The brewery is the first in its area, so unlike some areas, eastern Lambton County is far from saturated.

They would be happy to have another brewery nearby, to provide beer-lovers with multiple places to visit. There is a winery nearby, Alton’s Estate Winery and they have already found people who have visited both. There is also the Twin Pines Cidery not far away.

Equipment is easy to find, as long as you know what you want. There are lots of dealers in Ontario, said Joe.

The beer names are all tied to farms. They come up with them as they are brewing, attaching lists of potential names on the vats.

“One of our friends named Farmers Tan beer,” said Laura.

Stonepicker, the name of the brewery, started out as the name of a beer. That beer name originated because they ground the malt in a pail that was also used for picking stones that day. It eventually became the name of the brewery as well.

The Stonepicker beers are also on tap at restaurants in London and Sarnia and some places between.

“We’re never expecting to be nation-wide, but we hope we will grow a bit from here,” said Joe.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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