(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 newsletter of River Valley Market [now River Valley Co-op], Northampton, Mass.)
Justin Korby, a stonemason by trade, is no stranger to hard work. Having practiced his craft for over a decade, he accidentally underbid a project a few years ago. Basically, he says, he worked two and a half years for free. In the meantime, he devoted himself to his hobby of home-brewing beer. Gradually, an idea took root: he felt ready for a career change, and opening a brewery seemed like a compelling option.
But how would he compete with larger brewers, while maintaining some sense of balance in his personal life? Wanting to keep his operation small, he knew he’d need some feature to distinguish it from other microbreweries. A proponent of bolstering the local economy, he toyed with the idea of starting a “beer CSA.” The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. He could produce small quantities of high quality beer, patronize local grain growers, respond quickly and effectively to his members’ palates, and set an example for others to use this model themselves.
Though he touts Stoneman Brewery as “the first Beer CSA in Western Massachusetts,” he’s also clear that he doesn’t want it to remain the only one. Korby envisions a local ecosystem of microbreweries and farms, saying he aims to return to “how breweries were 100 to 200 years ago.” This means the process of developing new brews is based mainly on the availability of local ingredients. Larger brewers, he explains, source their grains from multiple suppliers and blend them for consistency.
Korby’s commitment to keeping it local means that when he buys a batch of malted barley from Valley Malt in Hadley, its flavor reflects the field it was grown in, the weather that year, and the specific variety that was grown. This means he can’t necessarily depend on using the same recipe from batch to batch. The variable nature of single-origin ingredients is “challenging,” he says, “but also exciting.”
The description sums up his experience of running a small business. It’s clear that Korby has put a huge amount of thought into planning, developing, and operating the brewery. It’s more mentally exhausting than stonemasonry, he says, but easier on his body, and therefore more sustainable for him. It’s a family affair, too, with his wife and other relatives supplying much of the brewery’s labor, and contributing to its long-term vision. They have plans to expand, with one current goal being the installation of a six-head bottle filler so they can fill more than one bottle at a time. But Korby is clear that this is just one of many projects his family has in the works. Yes, they’re devoting a lot of time to it now, and want to see it succeed, but he’s firm that they “don’t want to just be brewing beer for the rest of our lives.”
Instead he wants to serve as a model for community-focused business. He’s interested in encouraging other local breweries to open, which he hopes will encourage more local cultivation of a wide variety of grains. He sees opportunities to collaborate with other local breweries, such as his recent collaboration with People’s Pint on a beer (available this May) made specifically for River Valley Market.
His vision of a more robust local economy is clear and convincing. It’s hard work, it’s slow-going, and the learning curve is gigantic, but Korby’s enthusiasm is contagious. “At the end of the day,” he says about his venture, “it’s fun.”