Bounding through Rabbit Hill
This industry has the tendency to lead you places you never thought you’d be. Sour beer festivals in Indiana, for example. Smelling hops in Oregon. Tourism conferences in Boise.
They’ve all been amazing experiences for the attendees — we learn a lot at conferences, we make a ton of important connections at beer festivals, and selecting hops is all part of the business.
However, if you’d asked us ten years ago if we thought we’d ever be on the back of a tractor, sitting on a bale of hay, getting a tour through a gigantic grain farm in Shiloh, NJ, we’d have slapped the beer out of your hand.
Yet, it’s the unknown places in our backyard that can be the most rewarding. That’s why, when Hillary and the folks from Rabbit Hill Farms hit us up to attend a thank-you picnic on the farm, we didn’t hesitate to say yes.
On the drive to Shiloh, we were struck by the world of difference 40 miles can make in New Jersey. From the Victorian shore terrain of Cape May, with gulls flying overhead and shore traffic on the weekends to the rolling farmland of western Cumberland County — it’s like going through some sort of portal to another dimension. And it’s only 40 miles.
This is where we earn our nickname of The Garden State.
As we passed field after field of wheat, barley, and rye, it took a bit before it dawned on us — this is all Rabbit Hill. This farm is enormous. In previous interviews, Hillary mentioned that it took up most of Shiloh, but we weren’t quite sure what that meant.
We pulled up to the farm and were given a tour of the operations. Rabbit Hill has recently expanded their floor malting area, building a new room that can now handle three tons of malt at a time in a state-of-the-art malting room. We got to see their very first batch in the new room.
After Hillary demonstrated the seed cleaner — a wooden machine that shakes and wheezes and eventually produces sorted and cleaned seeds for malt –, we hopped on the tractor with her father, Abe.
Now… were not sure what you might picture when you hear of a farmer named Abe, but it probably isn’t the tall, tanned, floral-shirt-wearing gentleman who gave us a tour of the farm. He explained that the nearly square-mile farm had been in Hillary’s mother’s family for four generations.
“And now it’s Preserved Farmland,” he said. “The paperwork is filed with the state, so it’ll be farmland in perpetuity.”
We journeyed through the still-maturing wheat fields, which Gray Grasso — daughter of Marketing Director Alicia Grasso — wanted to swim through. In the light breeze, the phrase “amber waves of grain” came to mind, so you can’t really blame her.
Abe brought us to see the two-row barley, the backbone of the brewing industry. Rabbit Hill was nearing harvest time, Abe told us. He could tell because the spikes were beginning to get top heavy, the florets curling over upon themselves.
We ventured to the lowest point of the farm: an area that previously had collected all of the runoff of the surrounding farms. In a partnership with the state and the Audubon Society, they’ve been able to build drainage ditches throughout the farm which maintain the necessary drainage. The Audubon society committed the money on the basis that Rabbit Hill would plant a field of flowers to attract pollinators.
We wound through some of the sod fields — Rabbit Hill is a well-known sod producer — before coming upon the picnic tents set up in the middle of sod field, next to rolling fields of rye.
So, there we were: nearly a half-mile in any direction from a permanent structure of any sort, soaking in the sun, enjoying the company, and watching children run through rye fields.
The irony was not lost on us that Hillary’s son’s name is Holden. Salinger would be proud. (Actually, Salinger would probably grumble something about phonies and yell at the kids to get off his lawn.)
And, y’all, these folks can cook. Burgers, sausages, slaws, and salads galore, grilled fresh veggies and fresh strawberries for shortcake — no one left Rabbit Hill hungry.
Or thirsty. We weren’t the only brewery invited, nor were there only breweries invited: they invited all of their beverage-industry customers.
“Everyone from the Rabbit Hill group is just really awesome,” says Innovation Director Brian Hink. “They’re some of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with, and any chance to hang out and share some beers is always well worth it. Throw in that some of our friends from area breweries that we got to share the night with, it was a really special evening.”
Alicia enjoyed bringing the family.
“It was such a relaxing day,” she says. “Such a welcome change from a typical Saturday.”
It really was a great day. Not only because of the barbecue and the food and the friends, but because we got the chance to see Hillary and Blair and Abe in their element.
They’re people who take a great deal of pride in what they do. They’ve been working this land for generations — it’s a legacy to them and their families. Their neighbors pitch in and help — one gentleman there was proud of the work he did helping them build their new malting room.
They’re proud of what they do. And they very well should be.
Rabbit Hill is producing some great grain for us and for the industry at large, and they’re doing it in a way that’s been all but forgotten by the modern malt producers. Floor malting is hard. It requires constant monitoring, a great deal of physical labor, and a tremendous amount of time. There’s a reason that modern technology has rendered it obsolete.
However, the malt they produce is unparalleled. Getting a behind-the-scenes look at how they produce it and getting a chance to spend some quality time with them? Well… that’s a win-win kinda day.
We’ll have some more beer created with Rabbit Hill grain coming down the pike in the near future. Stay tuned!