On Black Friday of 2011, Patagonia ran a full-page ad in The New York Times showing one of its famous fleece coats beneath the tag line, “Don’t buy this jacket.” It was a counterintuitive move by an apparel company that, by any traditional metric, should’ve wanted people to buy lots and lots of jackets. But it was also a bold move that signaled Patagonia’s commitment to the environment and its willingness to prioritize societal and planetary good over the bottom line. Seen through that lens, it is a little easier to understand why a company known for making those fleece jackets would start producing beer.
In 2012, Patagonia Provisions officially launched and released its first product the next year: wild sockeye salmon. Since then, the offerings have grown to include hot cereal, buffalo jerky and soup mix. As of Monday, that list now includes beer. Sweet, sweet beer. Patagonia Provisions teamed up with Portland, Oregon brewery Hopworks to create Long Root Ale, a pale ale that includes a new grain called Kernza that is more sustainable than traditional grains.
“If you think of Patagonia as an environmental company [instead of an apparel company] it makes sense that we’ve evolved that way,” says Birgit Cameron, senior director of Patagonia Provisions. “Because food touches everybody, no matter who you are or what your economic status is, we felt we’d be able to reach more people through the stories that we’ve already talked about in agriculture through food…Everything that we make has a deep reason for being. Our salmon is about saving the wild salmon species so that we can have that in the future. Our buffalo jerky is about restoring the prairie, which is an ecosystem of tremendous importance. Our grains and legumes and fruit and vegetables are about highlighting organic regenerative practices that promote healthy soil.”
But people don’t tend to have deep conversations over jerky the same way they do over beer, which was a big reason Patagonia teamed up with Hopworks to launch Long Root Ale.
“It’s OK to talk about the conversation it generates as much as the flavor that it generates. They’re equally important parts of the project,” says Christian Ettinger, the founder and brewmaster at Hopworks, which uses organic ingredients and has been certified as a B Corporation for its efforts to solve environmental and social issues. “The true power of beer is getting people together for thousands of years. What better place to talk about sustainable agriculture than over beer that’s made with something that could really change the food system?”
WTF Is Kernza?
Ettinger was blown away when he got the call from Patagonia to work together on a beer. (At first, he thought it was a prank call). But he, along with what I suspect is everyone reading this, had never heard of Kernza prior to embarking on this project.
Developed by the Land Institute in Kansas, Kernza is a perennial, which means that it comes back year after year, unlike traditional wheat which needs to be planted annually. Since it doesn’t have to be tilled and plowed each year, there are less emissions from farm equipment. Its longer life cycle also means that Kernza can develop a longer root (hence the name of the beer) that is able to hold onto nitrogen that might otherwise flow into rivers and sucks down more carbon from the atmosphere and uses less water.
Of course, even with all those benefits, it is still difficult to get people excited about a grain. Outside of the annoying conversations with your gluten-free friend who can’t talk about anything other than being gluten free, when was the last time wheat dominated dinnertime chatter? That is where the beer comes in. “There’s many reasons why inserting perennial foods into our system would be an excellent part of the path forward. Kernza is a hero in that path. We felt that putting it into a beer would be a great way to spread the word,” says Patagonia’s Cameron.
A New Kind Of Beer
Patagonia couldn’t have found a better partner for putting Kernza into beer than Hopworks. “The challenge of working with a new grain is something we’re familiar with,” says Ettinger, who got his first homebrew kit when he was just 18. Hopworks produces Organic Survival Stout, a beer that incorporates a variety of ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth, spelt, and kamut. Still, utilizing a grain more akin in shape to wild rice than barley or wheat presented challenges. Hopworks went through five different iterations with different percentages of Kernza before settling on the final recipe, which has 15% Kernza.
At that ratio, the Kernza is much more than a novelty ingredient or a talking point. The Kernza adds a nuttiness and spiciness to the pale ale that are easy to notice. “We realized that as we dropped the bitterness we could taste the grain more,” says Ettinger. At launch, Long Root Ale will be sold at Whole Foods locations along the west coast in California, Oregon, and Washington. While beer tastes vary greatly between San Diego and Seattle, Ettinger is confident that he brewed a beer that will appeal to a variety of palettes. “We’re seeking to give Kernza a voice but also create a beer that was hoppy enough to satisfy everyone on the west coast, which is a tall order. I think we hit that perfect balance,” he says.
This actually isn’t Patagonia’s first foray into beer. In 2013, the company partnered with New Belgium, the brewers behind the popular Fat Tire Ale, to create California Route, an organic lager. But Long Root Ale is about more than putting out a branded beer, it’s about affecting change in the food industry.
While Patagonia has its own initiatives and is fully invested in making them successful, it also hopes that a collateral benefit of that will be other players in the space following suit. “Having one of the bigger guys incorporate this could actually be great in moving the needle because a small percentage for them would mean a lot of acreage,” says Cameron.
The company, she says, recognizes that creating a more sustainable agriculture system is a collective effort. “We are looking to Provisions as a forum for like-minded thinkers. Let’s pick the best things to move forward for the next 50-100 years and let’s show through business that it can be economically viable. We’re doing our thing and hoping that along the way this message might seep into other areas of the food world and be embraced.”
As it pertains to beer, Patagonia is exploring not just the Kernza grain but also the infrastructure around it. The company is looking at ways to malt Kernza, which is currently too small to make it through traditional malting sieves. “If we can get it malted there’s no reason why we can’t make a beer where the majority of the grist is composed of Kernza. Then you’ve got something super innovative,” says Ettinger.
Patagonia is already in the R&D stage of testing other styles of beer, such as a hefeweizen—and looking at ways to expand distribution beyond the west coast.
“If people like it, we’ll make it,” says Cameron. That is good news for beer lovers and environmentalists alike.