Plan Bee Farm Brewery is a magical place. Off the beaten path in Poughkeepsie, it sits on sprawling green hills and guests can wander around and enjoy their beers at a picnic table, settled under a tree, or while meeting a goat or chicken friend. The kicker is that the very beer in your glass at Plan Bee is brewed with ingredients grown right on the farm where you’re standing, or sourced from farms very nearby.
The result of Plan Bee’s unique emphasis on local, farm-grown ingredients is special beer that you really can’t find anywhere else. Farmhouse ales--”barn beers,” lagers, and spontaneously fermented ales absolutely shine with the aromas and flavors of fruits, herbs, spices, and vegetables that were lovingly grown in season and harmoniously blended into refined yet rustic recipes. For that reason, Plan Bee beers win over beer lovers, of course, as well as wine and spirit lovers. To dig into all of that plus why it’s a good idea to subscribe to the Hive Membership on TapRm and how music is woven into this idyllic farm brewery’s ethos, we chatted with Emily Watson, who founded and runs Plan Bee with husband Evan.
What made you decide to open a brewery, and how did the plan come about to create such unique beer with a focus on farmhouse ales and local ingredients?
Emily: To go all the way back to the beginning, I met my husband in college, and he was a craft beer enthusiast at that time. We moved to New York when we were 21 and I got him a homebrewing kit and we started homebrewing together. It was about the same time as a hop shortage that was happening, and we got into this philosophical discussion about what would happen if you weren’t importing all your ingredients. What if all your ingredients were local and you had more control over your agricultural goods by having them all in location? We went down this rabbit hole trying to find anyone who made ber with all U.S. ingredients, all from one place. We thought, why in America do we copy world styles, but we don’t have true American beer? What does American beer taste like?
My husband then started working at Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, and got more commercial experience. We decided after four years to start our own project, and push through with our own experiment: can [brewing with all local ingredients] work? We spoke to a lot of people who owned commercial breweries, and all of them said that it wasn’t possible; don’t even try.
We started super small. We moved to Fishkill on a one-acre piece of property, grew as much of our ingredients as we could, and set up a one-barrel brewhouse. We took all our money, all the money we’d gotten from wedding as gifts, to start our small business, and any time we made any money, we’d just reinvest it back in. We called it our “petri dish phase”; we were at this nano level just to make sure what we wanted to do was possible...We also got politically involved with what happening at the time. Governor Cuomo was pushing farm licenses, and we’d go to grain conferences to convince farmers to switch over to brewers’ grain. We’d tell them there already is demand and there will continue to be demand. We also worked to get people to grow hops, and to promote the agricultural economy, so we could benefit; the whole state could benefit. In 2015, there were enough hops and grain being grown in the state, and we expanded to a 10-barrel brewhouse.
For those who may not be that familiar with farmhouse ales, how would you describe what makes these beers different and special?
Emily: Education is one of the biggest hurdles. In order to explain why our product is unique, there has to be first an understanding of how the brewing process works so people can understand how we’re separate from most commercial breweries. The biggest thing I get all the time is people don’t know the difference between lagers and ales. Ales are such a large category, so many things fall under ales. We make wild ales, and when people ask me what means, well, it’s a broad term. It just means we don’t use yeast monoculture; with our yeast and souring bacteria, it usually means there is natural Brettanomyces present.
We are a brewery that only uses ingredients from a very small regional radius and our yeast that ferments all of our beers is cultivated from raw honey and raw honey comb that is also ours. The mix we use to turn sugary wort into alcohol is only from organisms on our farm, from bees foraging only on our farm. I don’t know of another brewery in the entire U.S. that uses 100% regional ingredients and 100% of the time uses yeast cultivated entirely on their own property. Ours is a truly regional beverage, it’s an exact terroir of our farm in Poughkeepsie. It’s a taste of our farm, a taste of our barn, a direct swab of place and time. We capture that in a bottle, and no matter where you go, you can taste this exact place.
How might farmhouse ales appeal to, say, a wine drinker, and/or someone not as used to beer?
Emily: A lot of times, we get people who say they don’t like sours, and, well, there are lot of different ways to make a “sour” beer. Some people make a straight, regular beer and then put citric acid in it like what’s outside of Sour Patch Kids; it’s the culinary method of adding sourness. Or, there are kettle sours, where you let the grain go putrid in the mash tun and then pull off the rot that starts to develop and then boil that to pasteurize it. So, there are many different flavor profiles when you drink a “sour.”
When people try ours, I ty to explain that our process is much closer tied to that of a winery’s...Most of our beers hit same pH level as white wine. They’re not that sour; we try to stick close to 3.8, and our barn beers have a pH of 4. Because I’m letting the fermentation actually provide the acidity, the beers are more like a wine, with subtle layers of complexity to them. As you take a sip, as it warms up, as it ages over time: the flavor profiles will develop and change just like wine. We have vintages because our beer is so closely tied to the agricultural region, just like a vineyard. If someone says, “I don’t like that style [of beer],” I say, “Try that next year,” or, “try laying down the bottle [in storage].”
What is the process like, deciding what to brew and how to brew it, with how that’s determined by what you grow on the farm or what you can get super locally?
Emily: Our barn beers are all the same recipe. We brew the same base beer every single time for every barn beer. What we add to make each beer unique is dictated by what we have available to us in terms of what we’re growing on the farm or what local farms are growing and what we have access to. We brew the beer first and we’ll have an idea of what we’ll want to add to itt but sometimes that changes last minute if we can’t get what we want or we don’t have enough of it to make a real impact on flavor.
Since it’s the same beer every time and most ferment for several months, we have time to add fruits and herbs. We can say, “Oh, we have this fruit and we want to use it,” and add ingredients most likely on the cold side of fermentation, after the beer’s been fermenting for at least a week or two. Sometimes we brew a beer and we know exactly what we want it to be from the beginning. We brewed a dark barn beer with chocolate and roasted malts, and we knew we were going to brew that beer, so we’d preordered everything and had it all ready to go.
Because we’re not worrying about changing that barn beer recipe every time, we can keep our fermenters full. We also do spontaneously fermented brews, but we only brew those in the winter time to cut down on the available microbes. There are less active organisms in the atmosphere then, which is a good thing, because we don’t want certain players getting into the beer and then sitting there for year or two, which could create off-flavors and a bad taste or keep the beer from finishing properly. We have two fermenters for that project, and now we also have two lagering tanks.
Are there any particular Plan Bee beers available on TapRm that you’d like to share a little about?
Emily: For Karnet, a barn beer with cherries, we did pressed cherry juice in the coolship and whole cherries in the fermenter a couple weeks after fermentation took off. We’re trying to promote that as a new kind of staple; we don’t have that many staples--Ash and Karnet are staple barn beers.
The Barrel Series #1 is a really cool beer. It’s a dark lager we brewed with The Culinary Institute. We used our corn, our pumpkin seeds, and our smoked peppers. We made a lager and at that time, we didn’t have a way to lager, so the culinary students helped us process our farm ingredients and brew there. Then we took back some of the finished lager and stuck it in whiskey barrels and let it age in our cellar, and pulled it back out to do an extremely limited run.
Can you tell readers a bit about the Hive Membership and why that could be such a great, unique way to experience Plan Bee beer?
Emily: We started Hive exclusives and came out with the fourth one in this summer 2021’s batch, so we’re up to four exclusive beers only given to members of the Hive. It’s an opportunity to try these cool nano projects we’re putting together, projects that are usually in collaboration with someone else or where we had a limited supply of an ingredient so there’s only a wine barrel’s full of that beer.
It’s also technically a discount. If you buy everything out of the bundle, you’re spending more than if you were a member. There are also discounts off merchandise when you come to brewery or shop online.
Plus, you stay kind of connected to us. It’s a quarterly membership and we usually send each box for the first day of each season. So, it’s correlated with the seasons and we try to put in merch items that also correspond. For the summer batch, we’re sending out embroidered picnic blankets and sunglasses to get everyone excited for the season. We also hope to eventually have Hive-exclusive events again, which Covid had shut down. We were doing biannual Hive get-togethers, where we closed the farm to the public. It allowed us to get together with the Hive members, and have everyone come and drink, as a way to say thank you.
How does music play into the Plan Bee ethos and vibe? What is it like to visit the brewery and how might music have a role in that?
Emily: Evan’s “plan A” was music, and “plan B” became the brewery, which is why that’s part of our name, along with the bees doing their hard work sourcing yeast for us. When we started the brewery, we were focused on creating the best product. Now, as we’re going into our eighth year as a business, things are getting a little easier and more predictable. Evan could take back on his music career. He built a stage on-site at the brewery, which he completed in the fall of 2019, and started pulling all of these really great musicians from the city he had worked with in his first career. We’d bring them to the farm and do ticketed music events. So now, we’re bringing that back into fold. Music really is a bigger part of the brewery.
Evan just finished his new album last month. Most of 2020, he worked on creating this new album that we will be releasing, and we’ll probably have a release party and people will have access to buying it on vinyl to support Evan and hear who he is through his music. Anything artistic for the brewery, he does it, from the label design to the beer design. It’s kind of tied into who he is, and music just another medium, like an extension of who he is as artist. He’ll continue to create, and have more space to create music, and try that with people interested in digging deeper into our Plan Bee world.
The concerts are going really great. We did one in May and then some in August before Covid rules shut them down. Now we have some for June, July, August, and September scheduled on our site. We have not more than 100 people, we’re open after hours, and in true fashion of Evan’s thinking about the Plan Bee world, he thought out how people will actually experience the music. So, he built the stage facing east, so as musicians are playing at dusk, the sun sets behind the stage. And our friend, Natalie Renganeschi painted a mural across the stage with the sun shining during the day and the moon at night, so as the sun sets, it actually moves the color like this transition from day to night. So for people who come out to listen to live music, they also get to experience this living art.
Experience these magical, musical vibes from Plan Bee Farm Brewery with this Spotify playlist Emily and Evan curated. Pair with your Plan Bee beer and it’s almost like you’re kicking back and enjoying the scenery on the farm.