Davis’s Firetower a tall, cool one
COLORA, Md. — Roger Davis pointed to a collection of brewing tanks at the center of his still-new, one-room farm brewery in northwestern Cecil County late last month.
The tanks brew beer, but they’re not brewing tanks, he said. At least, they didn’t begin that way. Polaroid created them for the film emulsion process in the 1980s, and Davis scooped them up in an Amish salvage yard in Reading, Pa., several years ago.
“I’m all about using equipment that was used for something else,” he said, smiling. “It makes perfectly good beer, but it’s not what everybody else has.”
It’s one of several quirks to Firetower Farm Brewery, which opened in January 2017 and announced recently its intentions to distill spirits as well. The county recently granted the brewery a crucial zoning exception, which would permit the brewery’s expansion, including a tap room, leaving only state and federal agencies to sign off on Davis’ plans.
“We want to create a destination. We want to create an agritourism site,” he said. “We don’t want focus on distribution yet. We want to make our money on the farm.”
It would make Firetower one of the state’s few farm distilleries, said Kevin Atticks, CEO of Grow & Fortify, which manages the Brewers Association of Maryland. It’s part of a continuing expansion of farm-based beer and spirit businesses since the Maryland General Assembly created the farm brewery license in 2012. Nineteen farm breweries have opened in the state since, and six more plan to open over the next two years, Atticks said.
Davis, 47, isn’t a farmer. He’s a chemist and chemical engineer employed by an adhesives tape company in Philadelphia. He spends most of his week there but travels to Colora several times a week, including the weekend, to operate the brewery. He said he came to industry after developing a serious interest in whiskey, scotch, bourbon and other spirits while living years ago in Austin, Texas.
“It lead me to the question of what would malting barley from this area result in,” he said. “There’s a French term called terroir, and it sounds nice and fancy, but all it means is, ‘What’s the taste of the land?’ So you hear things like Champagne, you hear Camembert, you hear Brie. Those are distinctive products from certain agricultural regions, and that sense of terroir ties into that flavor.”
That question eventually led him to Cecil County’s well-known Kilby farm family, which had the fields to experiment with malting barley. He had connections to the family through his wife, Dawn, who once taught French at a county high school. They planted three acres to start.
Shortly thereafter in 2014, the state again passed legislation loosening distribution restrictions for farm brewery owners, and Davis made the decision to launch a farm brewery. Beer requires less time to produce than whiskey, which made it more financially attractive.
When the brewery debuted last year, it was the first farm brewery in Cecil County.
Firetower’s products include a Bucky Brown Dunkelweiss, a FarmStand Blonde Corn Ale and a Jackpot Mocha Stout, among others, sold primarily at area farmers markets. (He’s also working on a gluten-free beer.) The beverages are made using corn, wheat, barley and oats grown on Kilby fields. The Kilby family, which sold some of its farmland and its creamery last year, retains a 20-percent stake in the brewery, which was built on the property.
It buys hops, but Firetower is experimenting with growing its own, though it hasn’t had much success to that end in Cecil County, Davis said. The brewery refuses to use fungicides or pesticides.
“In this area, it seems predicated on the use of fungicides to get a good yield out of most varieties of hops because of the disease pressure,” he said.
The brewery is still a small business, selling around 12 barrels of product last year, Davis said. His reluctance to spend — partially by appropriating used or odd equipment — has been helpful. The enterprise so far has cost him more than $100,000, a small amount, he said, which he hopes will prevent the kind of indebtedness that kills other breweries.
“We are the smallest of the small, even on the farm brewery side,” he said.
If the brewery is permitted to begin distilling in Colora, Davis said he sees it as an amusing return to form for the region. More than 80 years ago during Prohibition, the Kilby property, known then as Steel Farm, was raided by federal officials who discovered and destroyed more than 14,000 gallons of mash — enough to make about 3,000 gallons of moonshine, he said.
“That’s a massive amount,” Davis said. “So this area has a history of moonshine and whiskey, but it’s not ever been legal.”
He’d like to see Firetower begin with a corn whiskey and eventually move into bourbons.
“What I really love about this is the creative freedom,” he said. “You are unlimited as far as how to differentiate yourself from other people because it goes into recipe, it goes into process, it goes into all the different variables that go into it. Yeast varieties, hop varieties, temperatures. You change one thing and your beer is different. The same thing applies to the whisky side.”
He’d like to be Cecil County’s first distillery, though he’s heard rumor of competition. Regardless, he said, he’s looking forward to a Firetower taproom.
“We see that as our next avenue for growth. We’ve gotten our name out there, we’ve gotten good feedback,” he said. “Now it’s time to start bringing people in here.”
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