Kernza is a sustainable grain that breweries are starting to experiment with using. Photo by Amy Kumler/courtesy of Patagonia Provisions

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all,” Wendell Berry writes in his classic polemic, “The Unsettling of America.” “It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

No good soil, no farms. No farms, no beer. While beer probably isn’t the first thing one thinks about when pondering the climate changes unfolding before our eyes, perhaps it can play a more important role in confronting this crisis than one might think.

Allagash Brewing Co. recently partnered with Patagonia Provisions – the food and beverage arm of the outdoor outfitter Patagonia – to brew an experimental beer using Kernza. Kernza is an “intermediate wheatgrass” and is billed as a perennial grain crop. Allagash was one of 11 independent craft breweries from across the country – including luminaries like Sierra Nevada and Russian River – to participate as part of the inaugural Good Grain Collaborative program. The program’s goal is to encourage regenerative farming practices by promoting the use of ingredients with a lower environmental impact. And for brewers and the farmers they rely on, that means developing more sustainable forms of ingredient production.

“Kernza” is a trademarked name, owned by The Land Institute, a nonprofit that has been developing the crop for two decades. Unlike monocultural annual crops, whereby a single species is grown alone, polycultural perennial crops (or multiple species growing at once, together) are less extractive and ecologically destructive.

Kernza’s deep roots help stabilize soil, enhancing its structure and ability to hold water. It reduces weed competition, cutting down on the need for tillage and herbicides. As it provides continuous soil cover, it also helps minimize soil erosion. Research suggests that Kernza reduces nitrogen and phosphorus contamination of water ecosystems. Scientists also anticipate that it will draw down and store more carbon than the annual grains typically used in brewing, reducing atmospheric greenhouse gasses.

Allagahs’s Kernza pils.  Photo courtesy of Allagash

For the Good Grain collaboration, Patagonia Provisions wanted each brewery to make a lager using Kernza, with all organic ingredients. Beyond that, the recipe was up to each participating brewery. Allagash developed a take on the hop-forward Italian pils, though without the Noble hops (which couldn’t be sourced organically). Centennial and Chinook were deployed, with restraint, adding citrusy grapefruit notes to the beer. Fifteen percent of the grains – grown at A-Frame Farm in Madison, Minnesota – were Kernza, joined by organic Pale, Pilsner and Munich malts. The beer was available on draft in the Allagash tasting room in late June, but quickly sold out.


This was not the brewery’s first (or last) crack at using Kernza. It has been experimenting with Kernza for a few years, after an employee suggested integrating it into a pilot beer. Allagash’s 10-barrel pilot system provides an ideal playground for creative trials. Recently, it was used to brew a Kernza gose, pitched by Brett Willis, Allagash’s senior communication specialist. Goses – a style with historical roots in Germany – are brewed with wheat, as well as a bit of salt and coriander, making for a light-drinking, slightly tart beer ideal for the summer months. That recipe used Kernza for 25% of the grain mill.

Willis says he gets a raw, untoasted nut quality from the Kernza beers. But it is subtle. Because of that nuance, Patrick Chavanelle, Allagash’s research and development brewer, thinks it works best with cleaner yeasts – like the lager yeast used for the Patagonia collaboration. This opens up space for the Kernza to express itself, producing a beer that doesn’t merely use the grain, but maximizes it as part of the palette.

Patrick Chavanelle, Allagash’s research and development brewer. Photo courtesy of Allagash

Brewers and maltsters are still working out how best to prepare and use Kernza. “It’s so new from a brewing perspective,” Chavanelle noted. Brewing with Kernza comes with challenges. The most immediate might be how to process it. Kernza’s grain is small and thin, and not a good match for a standard grain mill; it needs to be cracked open, but without being pulverized. Some producers are flaking it, which makes the starches more available (something Allagash is looking into). Kernza has some similarities to wheat, from a brewing perspective, which made it a logical choice for the experimental gose. But, Chavanelle said, they are still “figuring out where it works best.” And for now, exploration is the point. “By experimenting with grains like Kernza in our beer, we’re helping to build a toolkit for how we as brewers can do our part to help alleviate the climate crisis,” said Allagash Brewmaster Jason Perkins.

Without soil, there is no community, according to Wendell Berry. But conversely, a sense of community is also essential to caring for that soil. And in that sense, Allagash’s work more broadly aligns with the Kernza initiative. One percent of the sales of its Kernza pils was donated to Cultivating Community, a longtime partner of Allagash that also supports environmental initiatives. The Maine-based nonprofit works with New Americans, teaching sustainable farming and managing urban growing spaces, which community members use to grow their own food. In the past, Allagash sourced flint corn from Cultivating Community’s Hurricane Valley Farm for its Black Is Beautiful collaboration beer, which benefited the National Black Brewers Association. The brewery is currently discussing using Amaranth grown on the farm (an ingredient they’ve tested in a lager on the pilot system).

Alongside these experiments with alternative grains, Allagash has also played a central role in building the state’s capacity for farming beer grains. In 2016, the brewery committed to using 1 million pounds of Maine-grown and processed grain annually. At the time, they were brewing with just 65,000 pounds of Maine grains each year – a reflection of the limited supply. With the brewery’s pledge – and working with farmers and maltsters, including Maine Malt House, Blue Ox Malt House, Aurora Mills & Farm and Maine Grains – the production of Maine grains for brewing has grown significantly. The brewery crossed the million-pound threshold in late 2021. In 2022, that number cracked 1.5 million pounds. And it has also made the supply of Maine-grown grains more available to other Maine breweries.

Just last month, Allagash was recertified as a B Corporation (the “B” stands for “Benefit”). B Corp certification relies on a company demonstrating measurably positive social and environmental impacts and a commitment to accountability to all stakeholders (as opposed to merely shareholders). Applicants to B Corp status must carefully audit nearly all facets of their business, then apply for certification. Allagash first became a B Corp in 2019 with a score of 83.8 (80 is the minimum score to qualify); their recertification this year earned them a score of 104 – a considerable jump, reflecting the brewery’s commitment to increasing environmental sustainability, contributing money and volunteer labor to community organizations, and caring for its workers.

Just as soil connects lives, so, too, does beer. And if soil is a precondition for community, as Berry claims, Allagash might be showing us how beer can cultivate and multiply certain forms of community – ones less reliant on mere extraction and more attuned to a future that is environmentally and socially sustainable.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.

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