Throughout the decade or so when Kevin Ely was brewmaster at Uinta Brewing in Utah, he often traveled to Germany for conferences and trade shows.
He learned that renting a bike and cycling through the Bavarian countryside was a great way to learn about local traditions. He subsequently learned that local traditions included farm breweries – lots of them – that served primarily the surrounding 20 square kilometers.
“I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, so I took a bunch of pictures and just started asking around,” Ely said.
About the pigs, that is, which, unlike most breeds, are covered in a coarse, sometimes curly fur. As for the beer, it was made most often by locals for locals, with variations on different traditional, German beer-making themes.
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“They were usually family operations, with a deep sense of community,” Ely said.
A few years ago, Ely and his wife Jael Malenke, were presented with an opportunity to purchase a long-standing family farm near his wife’s childhood home in Coshocton County, Ohio. They decided to take it and, with the help of Jael’s brother and his wife, Aaron and Lauren Malenke, recreate some of that same sense of community around their own farm brewery.
They wanted to recreate the wooly pigs as well.
And so, Wooly Pig Farm Brewery was born, on a former land-grant farm that previously had been in the same family since the mid-1860s in Coshocton County, Ohio, not far from the original Malenke family homestead, where Jael and Aaron’s parents still live.
Now, let’s get the pig business out of the way – yes, there are Mangalitsas on the farm, anywhere from 25-50 over the five years or so since the Malenke-Ely crew moved in.
“We know they’re huge ambassadors for us,” Jael Malenke said of the pigs, whose meat is especially desirable in making prosciutto and other pork often found in charcuterie. “People want to see them, take pictures of them. It’s definitely a unique feature of the brewery.”
The pigs also help dispose of grain and other materials left over after the brewing process (and even customers’ pumpkins in the days and weeks following Halloween), in keeping with the sustainable ethic employed by Wooly Pig.
“The pigs allow us to operate the way we do,” Ely said.
So no hard feelings, pigs, but can we talk about the German-style lagers that Ely masterfully brews now?
Moving to Ohio and opening Wooly Pig offered Ely complete control of the brewing process, and he put his training (he’s a biochemistry/brewing science graduate of the University of California-Davis, one of, if not the, first brewing science programs in the country) and experience at Uinta to use on rich, full-bodied German-style brews – Helles, Dunkel, Schwarzbier and Pilsner, for example. Wooly Pig’s beers are lagered and unfiltered, giving them a unique character, and, while Ely doesn’t ignore hops in his brewing, there’s not an IPA to be found in the brewery’s tap list.
“I didn’t think it was a risk,” Ely said. “These beers have great appeal to a variety of drinkers, from craft beer fans to anyone who just wants a golden, beer-flavored beer.” In the end, Ely said, “I make beers that I want to drink.”
Ely considers Wooly Pig a “process” brewery. While he does employ local added ingredients – paw-paws grown on the property, local elderberries, Amish maple syrup – it’s the way he combines and processes core ingredients, grains, water and yeast, that give Wooly Pig’s beers their variety and flavor.
Combine those tastes with the brewery’s natural beer garden appeal – who knew having a brewery at a farm, where there’s plenty of outdoor space, would prove exceedingly valuable during a global pandemic? – and Wooly Pig offers a genuine Bavarian experience in rural Ohio.
It’s a recipe that’s worked. The customer base skews local – Wooly Pig is the only brewery in Coshocton County – but includes regional travelers from Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Columbus, among others.
“We’re family-friendly, dog-friendly and community-friendly on purpose,” Yael Malenke said. “It’s been very gratifying.”
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