One hundred and forty-two years before Connecticut joined the Union, William Thrall established what would become the Thrall family farm in Windsor in 1646. Ownership of the farm was passed down from parent to child over the centuries.
As the 1900s dawned, Oliver Thrall helped pioneer the growing of shade tobacco using an innovative technique that decreased the crop’s sun exposure and increased humidity, creating an elite cigar wrapper that is still sought after.
For more than 100 years, shade tobacco was the farm’s mainstay, but recently Connecticut-grown shade tobacco has faced stiff competition from countries such as Honduras and Ecuador. Farmers there grow “Connecticut seed” tobacco, and hourly wages for workers planting and harvesting the labor-intensive crop are much lower, resulting in cheaper prices than shade tobacco actually grown in Connecticut.
A few years ago this shift in the market caused brothers Spencer and Joseph Thrall, who are the 12th generation to run the farm owned by the family business, O.J. Thrall Inc., to explore replacing some of their shade tobacco with another crop. Through chance encounters with local brewers and brewery owners they learned about the desire for Connecticut-grown products in beer. They considered hops but felt the demand wasn’t great enough to devote several hundred acres to the crop. Instead they decided to grow barley and other grains, such as rye, used in the brewing or distilling process, and to open the first malt house in Connecticut in the modern era.
Three hundred acres of the 600-acre farm have been converted from shade tobacco to barley, wheat and other grains. Thrall Family Malt celebrated its first barley harvest last November. The farm’s new product has already made its way into beers from more than two dozen Connecticut breweries including Kinsmen, Kent Falls, Fox Farm, Back East, Broken Symmetry and Two Roads.
Spencer Thrall says that in the past brewers could only get malt from a few giant malt companies. “Now craft brewers want to have local craft ingredients to brew with.”
The Thrall family’s entrance into malting could be the beginning of a new grain movement in Connecticut. Grain grows abundantly well in the state and is planted by many farms as a cover crop. Since Thrall started, another malt house, Rooster Malt Co., has opened in Bethel.
In July, just before harvest for the spring crops, one of Thrall’s barley fields on River Street in Windsor is a sea of golden-brown bristles. The brilliant crop wraps around several iconic dark-red tobacco barns and is flanked by a field of broad-leaf tobacco, a green and leafy plant that could be mistaken for spinach from a distance. It’s a stunning snapshot of both the classic and the new crop on this so-old-as-to-be-almost-ancient family farm.
Across the street is the actual malt house. It is housed inside a former tobacco warehouse now home to a brewery’s worth of silver vats and equipment. Here the malting process occurs as those golden barley grains are put in water so they sprout, then dried so they don’t continue sprouting.
The process is long, Spencer says, but it’s worth it, especially when he gets to enjoy the fruits of his crop in a beer made by a Connecticut brewery.
“It’s always very gratifying to taste the final product of all the work,” he says with a smile.