In the dead of winter, Hickory Creek Farm is cast in swatches of muted browns and grays. The sky is a cheerful, cloudless blue, but somehow, the Wellsville, Kansas, landscape – with its barren trees and patches of snow and ice – looks even colder than it feels. To the untrained eye, Hickory Creek’s brown fields are indistinguishable from one another.
Even now, Cory Johnston and Gary Van Horn can identify almost every square inch of the farm’s 640 acres. As the partners behind Great Plains Custom Grain, which sells both heirloom and commercial grain grown at Hickory Creek for local craft distillers and brewers, that's their job.
Great Plains got its start in 2014, shortly after Johnston purchased Hickory Creek with his parents. Johnston's wife, Veronica, made a serendipitous connection that led to the idea: At a high school reunion, she became reacquainted with a classmate, Darren Unruh, who lived about a mile from Hickory Creek. He was in the process of helping to open Lifted Spirits, a distillery in Kansas City's Crossroads Arts District.
Along with Unruh, Lifted Spirits’ co-owners Kyle Claypool and Michael Stuckey asked if Johnston might grow wheat for their distillery. Johnston seized the opportunity, reaching out to Van Horn, a tenant farmer whose family had been farming corn, soybeans and wheat at Hickory Creek since 2010.
Today, Johnston and Van Horn employ sustainable agricultural practices on the farm, including crop rotation, cover cropping and no-till farming to raise soft red winter wheat, winter barley, millet, non-GMO yellow corn and two varieties of heirloom corn. Under the Great Plains label, the partners sell their grains to Lifted Spirits as well as breweries like Brewery Emperial and Torn Label Brewing Co. in Kansas City and Blind Tiger Brewery & Restaurant in Topeka, Kansas.
Johnston and Van Horn have also had a couple tons of their soft red winter wheat malted at Blacklands Malt in Leander, Texas. Malting is the process of germinating a grain – usually barley – and then drying it for brewing. Great Plains sells its malted wheat to local breweries, including Blind Tiger; Cinder Block Brewery in North Kansas City, Missouri; and Double Shift Brewery in Kansas City.
Together, Johnston and Van Horn’s goal is to bring more local flavor into craft beer and spirits, as well as support the grain economies in Kansas and Missouri.
“What we’re doing is about having a relationship with the crop you’re growing,” Johnston says. “We know how much effort, time and luck it takes to really grow a good crop. And what better way to tell the story of grain than over [a] beer or cocktail made with that yield?”
TASTING THE STORY
For John Dean, brewmaster and co-owner of Blind Tiger Brewery, Great Plains’ most interesting and important product is the unmalted wheat.
“Unmalted wheat is harder to come by, especially if you want a local product,” Dean says. “Kansas is a wheat state, but very few people grow brewing-quality wheat – most of it's grown for bread. That’s why I was so happy to find Great Plains.”
Unmalted wheat can give beer a bread-dough flavor with rounded smoothness and sweetness – exactly what Dean was going for in Raw Wheat, Blind Tiger’s flagship beer. “It’s a spectacular flavor, and that’s the reason you bother to use unmalted wheat,” Dean says. “It can make lautering [separating the mash from the wort and residual grain] difficult, because it’s gluey and can make water stick to the mash, but it’s worth it.”
Dean also uses Great Plains’ soft red winter wheat in his County Seat Wheat beer. Great Plains isn't Blind Tiger's only Midwest grain supplier, and Dean is adamant about his passion for using local products.
“The most important part for me is quality local [ingredients],” Dean says, “and when [Great Plains is ] involved, that’s no question. Cory literally delivers the grain [himself]. You’re talking to and shaking hands with the guy who grows your product. You’re not just another number.”
Johnston says you can taste the difference in beer made with Great Plains’ grain, too. Heirloom corn like Silvermine benefits from cooking at 212ºF – significantly higher than a basic mash temperature, which is about 150ºF. Once the Silvermine reaches 212ºF, cold water is added to bring the temperature down to 150ºF before the corn is mixed with malted barley in the mash.
“Depending on the temperature and duration, your heirloom corn can contribute fermentable and non-fermentable sugars,” Johnston says, “so what you would notice is additional sweetness, corn flavor and higher ABV, which lightens the body of the beer. In our experience, the red [Bloody Butcher] corn has a strong corn flavor and the white [Silvermine] corn has a mild flavor. Yellow corn falls in between on the flavor scale.”
Michael Stuckey, co-founder and head distiller at Lifted Spirits, echoes Dean’s regard for sourcing grain locally. Stuckey has used Great Plains’ soft red winter wheat to produce Lifted Spirits’ gin and vodka from the beginning, and it’s also featured in the distillery’s newest product, a wheat whiskey released earlier this year.
“One of the most important components is the grain that we use,” Stuckey says. “That ability to make exactly what we want – instead of getting pallets of wheat from a huge supplier – gives us an amazing degree of control on our product. We have this investment in each other’s dreams, and that’s really why we work well together.”
Stuckey’s enthusiasm for customization is not unique among Great Plains’ clients – most are looking for grains grown to their specifications, as that’s a rarity for many craft brewers and distillers. After harvest, test batches of grain are distributed to clients, and Great Plains then works closely with them to dial it in further.
“[Lifted Spirits is] looking for a pretty specific protein content based on what they’re producing,” Johnston says. “Distillers are looking for lower protein and higher starch for improved yield, but too low of protein and fermentation can make the product suffer. The soft red winter wheat we grow for Lifted Spirits targets protein levels between 11 and 13 percent; that’s enough for a good fermentation, but it allows for a higher starch content, which is good for ethanol yield.”
Stuckey notes that because Great Plains works to customize exactly what he’s looking for, Lifted Spirits can make more alcohol with less grain, resulting in reduced waste. “If we were using a regular wheat from the silo, we would need 650 pounds or so, and with the Great Plains wheat, we're using 470 pounds because of things like the high starch content – it's really efficient,” Stuckey says.
According to Stuckey, Great Plains’ wheat helps distinguish Lifted Spirits’ vodkas, gins and whiskeys in the marketplace. He says the value of working with Johnston and Van Horn is in the unique flavor of their grain, which in turn give his spirits their distinctive character.
“The easiest thing to observe about the effect of the grain is the mouthfeel of the spirit,” Stuckey says. “When you sip on our gin, you realize it has a presence on your whole palate, and those characteristics are driven by the kind of wheat we use. Some of the sweet notes you get in the spirit are from the wheat, and they balance the botanicals. It’s a give-and-take between the juniper and sweet flavors.”
LABOR OF LOVE
It’s Great Plains’ heirloom grains – which more closely resemble what our ancestors harvested – that get the most attention. The Silvermine white corn grown at Hickory Creek, for example, was developed in the 1880s and refined by plant breeder Ernest W. Young in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1907.
“From a food nerd perspective, if a variety is still around after 100 years, it may have outstanding flavor characteristics,” Johnston says. He vouches for some of his own cooking experiments with the white corn, including using ground Silvermine to make grits. “They tasted slightly sweet with a mild corn flavor,” he says.
But it’s not just the flavor and the history that makes growing heirloom varieties attractive to Johnston and Van Horn.
“From the landowner and land-steward perspective, heirloom varieties allow us to get away from GMO crops and their reliance on chemical herbicide applications,” Johnston says. “It, hopefully, creates another source of income away from pure commodity crops. The first year we grew Hickory King white corn, we were amazed by the number of honeybees during pollination. It’s not something I’ve seen with other varieties of corn.”
There are some challenges associated with growing heirloom grains, however, including yields, which aren’t comparable to commercial varieties. “Even non-GMO crops with 100 years of variety improvements have much better yield, disease resistance and drought resistance than the heirloom varieties we’ve grown,” Johnston says.
It’s not just heirlooms that give them trouble, though: Johnston and Van Horn have also struggled with growing barley to malting-quality standards; barley needs to meet minimum and maximum thresholds for kernel size, kernel conformity, protein, moisture, germination power and mold and mildew levels.
“We’ve planted barley for malting and brewing for three years running,” Johnston says. “We haven’t exactly produced a crop up to malting-quality standards, and part of this is because barley varieties were traditionally developed to grow in more northern latitudes as a spring variety; it gets too hot in Kansas to grow spring barley.”
Johnston is devoted to solving his barley problem, though. “Lots of Eastern [U.S.] universities are publishing great barley variety research more attuned to growing in our climate,” he says. “We’ve sourced winter barley seeds that resulted from that research, and here, in our fourth year of production, we’re looking for malting-quality results.”
Great Plains was recently awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to receive matching funds for a feasibility study on building a malting facility in Kansas City. This is a promising project, as it would increase access to locally grown malt for brewers and distillers, although it’s still in the early stages.
“In other words,” Johnston says, “what we’re doing is a labor of love.”
First Johnston and Van Horn focused their energy on Hickory Creek Farm, then on launching Great Plains, and next, their attention will turn to Fields & Ivy Brewery, which they plan to open in Lawrence, Kansas, next month. The 10,000-square-foot space will seat 130 and include a brewery and taproom as well as a live-music venue and brick-oven pizza restaurant. It’s a natural evolution for Johnston and Van Horn, as eventually they’ll be able to serve 12 of their own beers on tap brewed with Midwestern ingredients. Eventually, Fields & Ivy may even brew a few beers made with exclusively with Great Plains products.
“Summer Pasture, our American wheat-style beer, is made with Great Plains’ wheat malt,” Johnston says. “Our Worboys lager is made with about 10 percent heirloom Silvermine white corn – which is awesome, because Silvermine was developed in Lawrence, where the beer is being made. We have other ideas about beers for local grains like the Bloody Butcher corn or lighter styles for the Silvermine.”
Dan Chivetta, head brewer at Fields & Ivy, studied brewing at the Siebel Institute in Chicago and previously spent nine years brewing at Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City. “Brewing a beer in Kansas with all Kansas[-grown] ingredients – that's really cool," Chivetta says. "Local matters, and Cory’s got the vision for it. This is the sort of thing that really resonates with people."
Indeed, Johnston’s longterm vision seems broader than growing grains and brewing beer. He’d like the work he and Van Horn are doing with Hickory Creek, Great Plains and Fields & Ivy to be part of a larger narrative around transforming the image of his home state.
“Everyone knows Kansas as the breadbasket of America,” Johnston says. “Now we want to make it America’s beer barrel, too.”
Fields & Ivy Brewery, 706 E. 23rd St., Lawrence, Kansas, fieldsandivy.com
Great Plains Custom Grains, Wellsville, Kansas, greatplainscustomgrain.com