Alex DeFrancesco started growing hops about a decade ago. At that time the craft beer movement was just taking hold in the state, and brewers were wondering if hops would grow well in Connecticut.
“I was one of the first farmers to start growing hops here, working hand in hand with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station to see what varieties work well here,” DeFrancesco says.
DeFrancesco was made for the job, as the soil is pretty much in his blood. His great-grandfather started the DeFrancesco Family Farm in Northford in 1907 and DeFrancesco grew up on the farm, helping his parents and developing an early love for the land. As he worked with hops he also became fascinated with the world of brewing and craft beer.
In November he opened Stewards of the Land Brewery on his family’s farm as a way to merge his two passions.
“My grandmothers taught me how to cook, and old-fashioned grandmothers, when you’re cooking, they tell you, use a little of this and a little of that,” he says. “So taking a bunch from the farm, different ingredients that we grow, and bringing brewing back to how it used to be years ago, centuries ago, was my whole concept of Stewards of the Land Brewery. The farmers working with the land, maintaining the land and utilizing what they have available on their farms, but also farms in the area.”
DeFrancesco grows hops and barley as well as other ingredients used in his beers, and takes the idea of using local ingredients to extremes.
“All our beers right now are made from 100-percent Connecticut malts and barley. No other brewery in the state can claim that,” he says. When his brewery can’t get the ingredients it needs from his own or other Connecticut farms, DeFrancesco sources from farms right over the border in Massachusetts.
The brewery makes small batches of beer and distributes exclusively from its farmhouse taproom. DeFrancesco works with head brewer Colin Nicholson to offer a variety of styles including barrel-aged farmhouse ales and sours as well as IPAs, stouts and other traditional beers.
Local flavors fuel everything the brewery does, as DeFrancesco notes that hops grown on his farm and elsewhere in the region have different characteristics than those grown on the West Coast. “The oils that I see coming out from New England hops, they’re more tropical, they’re more passion fruit,” he says.
Beyond hops and grains, items produced on the farm that make it into the beer include winter squash, corn (for lagers), honey, berries and more.
The COVID-19 shutdown was tough on Stewards of the Land since it doesn’t offer can sales, but the brewery was able to sell enough growlers and farm-grown items to pay the bills. Now it serves beer on site inside and outside and still offers contactless pickup of beer, farm goods and other artisan items.
In general, the taproom was modeled on the community taverns of old, and that spirit shines through even in the aftermath of a pandemic. “We’re trying to make it a destination for people to just get away and escape the reality of what the world is right now,” DeFrancesco says. He adds that when you visit the brewery you’re likely to meet him or one of his brothers and to feel the spirit of local agriculture. “You see the farm, the history behind it, you’re drinking the ingredients from the farm and you have the family that worked the land for over a hundred years visiting with you.”
Stewards of the Land
418 Forest Road, Northford