Bent over his field, scythe in hand, Jacob Pressey moves across the barley like a farmer from some lost impressionist painting. Sunlight burnishes the dry stalks. A haze of golden fluff rises with each stroke. Behind him, a friend rakes mounds of felled barely.
It is harvest day at Humboldt County's only beer farm, two acres of leased land not far from McKinleyville's Hiller Park. Here, Pressey grows hops and barley destined for the beer he serves a few miles away at Humboldt Regeneration. His brewery's full name — Humboldt Regeneration Brewery and Farm — evokes his history and his hopes. Pressey earned a degree in environmental science at Humboldt State University, studying soils and agriculture. "We looked at a lot of the ways that, basically, humans are screwing things up," he says, including the stresses that industrial agriculture puts on the land. That's the history. The hope: Pressey wants to establish an estate farm one day, on his own land, growing hops and barley, brewing and serving beer in an on-site a tasting room, and offering farm tours so visitors can appreciate the life cycle of sustainable, local beer.
"To be able to drink outside, and see the fields being farmed ... then I'm not preaching to the choir about sustainable farming. I'm preaching to the general beer lovers." As he talks, Pressey's estate farm and brewery seems to shimmer in the air around us. There would be scythes and sunshine, the thrum of his rebuilt 1949 combine and a soft glow of beer and imagination. The barley field of dreams.
First, though, comes this year's harvest. While their tractor sputters nearby, Pressey and his friend Matt Kruskamp wrangle with the combine, a machine that could qualify for its own senior discount. It's a steampunk-looking collection of wood and straps and metal in John Deere green. They thread a large black mat into its maw, back it out, try again. They shut off the tractor. Coaxing this combine will take a while. In the new silence, I hear the Doppler of nearby freeway traffic, approaching and departing, its pitch rising and falling.
The barley they have scythed by hand is for calibrating the combine, adjusting the settings so that its combined tasks — harvesting, threshing and winnowing — result in neat handfuls of grain, ready to be roasted. Today's crop is Conlon barley, a two-row malting barley that does well in many of Humboldt's microclimates. It grows atop each stalk in tight rows, with long, stiff tassels sweeping downward. Pressey also grows another variety, radiant barley, and he has planted hops that rise in tall towers along the edges of his field. Fruit and herbs from the garden of the home he rents next door sometimes find their way into his beer, too. But the grain is key, he says, because industrial grain production has divorced beer-making from the land. It's easy for brewers to find malted barley that's been grown and processed far from home on a huge scale. Pressey wants to reverse that, to create a beer "terroir," making local soil, crops and climate as important to beer as it is to wine.
The McKinleyville land is the third plot he's farmed since founding Humboldt Regeneration four years ago. It's in a pocket of open space tucked behind more suburban streets. One field over is a sprawl of blackberries, a couple of landlocked boats missing their motors, and a friendly brown horse with a white blaze down his nose. On Pressey's side on the fence, dandelions and daisies grow up through the tractor treads of a fallow patch. Soft dirt squishes underfoot. Nearby is an area staked out for a big new greenhouse, for growing more hops, part of the projects funded by a $10,000 grant from federal Natural Resource Conservation Service.
On this warm August day, though, the focus is barley. Finally, the combine is ready. Pressey mounts the tractor. Kruskamp walks beside the combine, adjusting it as needed. The work goes more swiftly than the preparations. And once they're through, fresh beer, poured into mason jars, will be waiting.
A Date with Beer
Saturday, Oct. 1: Smaller and often just as sunny as Hops in Humboldt, Hoptobefest welcomes kids and has great beer from 20 breweries. New this year are Crescent City breweries, SeaQuake and Port O'Pints, plus Hangar 24 Craft Brewery from Redlands, California. Two local cideries and several home brewers will also be pouring. Festivities, including three bands, food, and dancing, run from 12:30 to 6 p.m. at Perigot Park, with taps open from 1-5 p.m. Hoptoberfest benefits Blue Lake school programs. Advance tickets $25; $30 at the gate.
Saturday, Oct. 1: Mad River Brewing will keep the celebration going at its Blue Lake taproom with a "wet and wild" weekend, featuring a dog jump pool and a dunk tank, from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, benefitting volunteer firefighters and the Blue Lake Museum.
Saturday, Oct 1: Wait, there's more! From 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Sequoia Conference Center in Eureka you can taste Cypress Grove cheeses paired with Humboldt beers and hear from Charlie Bamforth, the UC Davis brewing expert who's also a great story teller. The fundraising event benefits Arcata High. Tickets are $35 at Wildberries or by calling 498-2917.
Throughout October: Pumpkin beer. Ohhhh-kay. You'll find Pigskin Pumpkin Ale at Six Rivers in McKinleyville and a smoked pumpkin porter at Humboldt Regeneration.
Saturday, Oct. 15: It wouldn't be October without Redwood Curtain's daylong Fall Fever Bierfest, celebrating German-style brews. You'll find lagers, ales, barrel-aged beers, German-inspired food from the LoCo Fish Co. food truck and music from 8 to 11 p.m. at the Arcata brewery.
Friday, Oct. 21: Dead Reckoning Tavern in Arcata begins a two-day celebration of sour beers from Cascade Brewing in Portland.
Late October: Shop and sip fast, or you'll miss "21," this year's Eel River Anniversary Beer, a bourbon barrel aged triple exultation anniversary. Past anniversary beers have sold out quickly, so check your favorite store for bottles and look for it on tap at the brew pub in late October. If you want something lighter, look for Apricot Switchblade, an apricot white IPA — ask about the bar incident behind the name.
Saturday, Oct. 29: Six Rivers Brewing gets into the early Halloween spirit with Prester John's Six Feet Under scotch ale and music by the Pine Box Boys, starting at 9 p.m.
Monday, Oct. 31: What would Halloween be without a Dead Guy Ale? Rogue Brewing brings beer, glassware and other beer swag to Dead Reckoning Tavern in honor of the holiday.
Thursday, Nov. 3: Stop in at the monthly meeting of Humboldt Homebrewers, starting at 7 p.m. at Humboldt Beer Works in Eureka.
Saturday, Nov. 12: Strangebrew. Set aside 5:30 to 10 p.m. at the Eureka Theater for the weirdest beer you'll drink all year. Advance tickets $30; $35 at the door.
Carrie Peyton Dahlberg embraces pie, scones and soup as pumpkin-delivery substances. Send her your beer news at email@example.com.