A New England Grain Renaissance

“There is a world of difference between fresh and commercial flour,” said Andy D’Appollonio, the owner of Still River Farm in Coventry.

A difference that can best be described with one word, according to D’Appollonio, taste. 

“It’s more robust,” D’Appollonio, who started growing wheat on his farm six years ago. “The bread is brown, crusty with large air holes, it’s a big difference.” 

D’Appollonio is part of a grain renaissance in New England. Small, grain farms like his have popped up across the Northeast, especially in Maine. 

Photo by Gregory Stroud on November 19, 2017.

“Bakers want it fresh,” D’Appollonio said. “When you buy local you can ensure its ground in the same year, if not the same month.” 

Every year since 2016, D’Appollonio has increased the acres he devotes to wheat, but he still can’t keep up with the demand from local bakers, co-ops, farm stands and restaurants. 

“More people are trying to focus on local and realizing that wheat, not just veggies, can be part of that,” he said. 

The homegrown difference for bakers

Although today wheat is not often thought of as a New England crop – most people tend to think apples and cranberries — before reliable railroads and the Erie Canal, Northeast was the grain belt of the United States. 

But unlike grains grown in the Midwest, New England and New York have more variable rain patterns that change the flavor, texture and nutritional make-up of the grains produced each year. 

For the average baker this variability might be a challenge, but for Daniel Moreno of Kneads Bakery Café in Westport, that’s all part of the fun of buying local. 

“We get excited about how to work with the local varieties each year,” he said. “The weather messes with the protein content and changes how the flour interacts, but that’s all part of the fall.” 

Every fall, when the new year’s crop of wheat is milled, it’s time to remake the recipes at Kneads.

“The local flour has the bran and the germ still intact,” Moreno said. “We don’t sift anything. We get to enjoy this unique flavor for nine months before it’s time change again.” 

Although new wheat farms are emerging across Connecticut, Moreno sources his flour from New York, Massachusetts and Maine. 

“We just need more volume than the Connecticut farms can give,” Moreno said. “We go through 2,000lbs every ten days.” 

Micro-mills for micro-breweries 

It’s not only bakers that are looking for local grains. The more than 100 micro-breweries that have cropped up in Connecticut are always looking for a way to make their local brews truly local. 

“When we buy local grains, it has characteristics that are specific to Connecticut because it all has to do with how it is grown and how it is processed,” said Spencer Waldron of High Nine Brewing in Deep River. 

High Nine Brewing sources some of its grains from Thrall Family Malt — a company that is new to business –on a farm that the family began operating in Windsor in 1646.

“Five years ago, we started researching,” said Spencer Thrall, the current owner of the family farm. And what they found was that breweries were up and coming and in need of local grain, at the time there were no farms offering malted grains in the state. In fact, Thrall Family Malt became the first farm to grow and malt grains in Connecticut in more than 100 years. 

“We started with barley and wheat, but now we are also growing oats and rye,” Thrall said. In 2020, dedicated 500 acres to its new crops

To date there are 116 breweries in the state and many more in the works. 

“It’s a fairly recent phenomenon,” Thrall said. “More craft breweries are opening all the time and all looking for local ingredients.” 

Waldron agreed, saying the chance to support the Connecticut economy is a big reason they choose to buy from the Thrall Family. 

“It’s about supporting and growing this new local economy and helping everyone in Connecticut,” he said.

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