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Farm to Tap

At the Forge Garden, a new craft beer teaches our community about the creative possibilities of sustainable, urban agriculture.
February 7, 2023
By Nicole Calande
Green cones growing on a vine

Picture a small hops cone, marked with fragrant yellow lupine dust and crisp brown tips. Now picture a pint of your favorite craft beer. How do you get from one to the other?

Rebecca Nelson can tell you the answer. In fact, she’s done it herself. The sustainable food systems program manager of SCU’s Forge Garden was recently part of a team that helped bring to life “Forge Ahead”—an English-style pale ale made using hops grown at the garden. 

While beer isn’t typically on the menu at the Forge—students and community members enjoy weekly offerings of plant-based meals and freshly-harvested produce—the collaboration highlights the transformative mission of this half-acre campus garden and community space.

“Because we can grow so much, we always want to turn the diverse products here into something meaningful,” says Nelson.

Beyond exploring the ways urban agriculture can nourish communities, small projects like this locally-made beer demonstrate how we can build a more sustainable future on a global scale.

“We’re so disconnected from our food, and if we’re going to reform the food system, we need a better understanding of that system,” says Erika French-Arnold, the director of SCU’s Center for Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which shares the garden’s mission for food sustainability and justice. “The Forge is our living laboratory.”

So how did this particular experiment start? Two years ago, Associate Vice President of Operations David Schoenwetter was strolling through the Forge when he recognized a familiar plant: hops. 

While California hops are often used in beer production, this fast-growing perennial served an entirely different function at the Forge—supporting pollination from the garden’s bees and providing shade through its makeshift trellis.

However, on that day, a new purpose began brewing…

The beer bros 

For David, beer runs in his blood—well, brewing does, at least. His brother Andy Schoenwetter had been homebrewing beer on-and-off since 1991, and in the restless early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he started Stir Crazy Brewing—a nanobrewery that creates small-batch beers for special occasions.

Now, nano means small, but just how small? Andy’s homebrew set-up can only accommodate 10 gallons of his award-winning creations at a time.

When David saw the Forge’s surplus of hops, he realized the opportunity to broaden the garden’s reach in a fun way.

Hop to it 

Last year’s batch of Forge Ahead started almost 12 months earlier with Nelson trimming the unused hop cones in the winter, mulching the growing plant in the spring, and watering it every three to four days using drip irrigation until harvest time—which typically falls between late August and early September.

Despite spending the last six years with her hands in soil, Nelson was new to the hops harvesting process. “There are so many different things you have to observe to know when it's ready, like color, texture, and breakability. I was learning from all these senses, and then teaching the interns. That's a lot of the work we do out here—that discernment practice of knowing when to do things.”

At that point, Nelson was assisted by a team of 11 student interns who majored in a wide range of academic disciplines including environmental studies, public health, business, philosophy, and history. Through this work, the students’ understanding of sustainable farm-to-table gardening transformed from the theoretical to the practical.

With roughly 15 gallons-worth of hops harvested, 2022’s yield far surpassed the previous year’s—thanks to Nelson’s new, staggered harvesting technique that focused on pulling cones only when they were at their ripest.

Four bottles of dark brown and red beer on a table.

The hops-forward pale ale was gifted to Forge Garden donors at its weekly Farm Stand.

Once dried, the hops came to Andy for brewing—a complex, 16-hour process he fondly describes as “a lot like making soup.”

While used as a preservative, hops play a crucial role in balancing the beer’s flavor, with sweetness coming from malt and bitterness from the hops.

“In this case, we went overboard because we had more hops than you could shake a stick at,” laughed Andy.

After almost a year of preparation, the final product was unveiled in late December. Thirty-two 40-ounce bottles of Forge Ahead were offered to friends of the Forge and previous donors as a special thanks for their service.

On the day the beer was given out, Nelson had bins of the remaining hops on display to accompany the bottles. She recalls that many people didn’t initially connect the cones to the beer—that is, until they smelled them. “And then people were just really excited, not just for the beer, but also to know that this project was happening, and that they learned something new.”

Room to grow 

For those that missed out, this year’s batch of Forge Ahead is just the beginning. Nelson plans to further integrate the brewing process into the educational experience at SCU, perhaps by hosting an educational weekend workshop taught by expert homebrewers like Andy.

Both Schoenwetter brothers see opportunities for this project to evolve, potentially by dabbling with mead using the Forge’s honey-rich bee hives or—with the support of alumni—expanding brewing operations from Andy’s backyard to somewhere like the Hut. There are also plans to bring back a batch of non-alcoholic hop water to include more people in the process.

By demonstrating all the ways that the Forge can nourish the Bronco community, Nelson hopes to entice people to visit and return often. “By seeing things grow and participating in that process, you become part of that cycle and our larger food system.”