Naturally Brewed in the Natural State

November 1, 2016 | By More

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On 10 acres just outside of Subiaco, Liz and Mike Preston are making their dreams come true. They’ve bought an old homesteader’s land and have been hard at work in the hills and hollows building a quaint little brewery and organic farm. Liz runs the show — a strong woman with red hair and a tenacious drive, reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter. Mike is her loving husband and the marketing department. Together, they brew various varieties of beer  30 gallons at a time.

Liz was a marine microbial biologist, in her pre-brewer years, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Humboldt State University in California. Soon after, she traveled to Santa Cruz where she became lab manager at the university. “I had all the opportunities I would have had in the Ph.D program, but without the cost,” she explained. She worked there for six years, managing students and their experiments, extracting genetic material from ocean samples, and planning research expeditions.

When she met Mike in 2007, they traveled back to Humboldt County. She found work at an environmental lab and then at a power company. They were decommissioning an old nuclear reactor and needed someone who knew environmental regulations inside and out. “California is pretty stiff in their environmental regulations,” she explained. “I always knew in the back of my mind that I would end up on a farm,” said Liz, “It was a running gag with my boss.” When things didn’t go well in the lab, she’d joke, “One more day like this and I’m on the farm.”

Her words were prophetic. She did end up on a farm, but not before searching the country high and low for the perfect location.

First, they tried upstate New York. It was beautiful but not a good fit. Mike worked at the Entergy power plant there while they searched for a plot of land to buy. They found some ideal locations but were not fond of the high property taxes. “We were going to have to pay minimum $1,000 a month for the rest of our lives,” Liz said. So they decided to look south, considering properties in Arkansas and Georgia.

Arkansas seemed like the perfect location, and Mike was able to transfer to Arkansas Nuclear One. The couple enjoyed the slower pace of life, the beautiful hills, fields, streams, and old farm buildings. They found their dream homestead for sale by an owner on Craigslist  — ten acres of rolling hills, a small drive east of Subiaco. “The property was owned by the Rose Family, the only other owners of this property on record,” Liz said. The piece of land, on St. Louis Valley Road, was first purchased during the great depression. Records indicate that the Rose family traveled back and forth between Arkansas and California to harvest grapes so that they could make payments on the property.

“When we were trying to think of a name for our business, we really wanted their name to be part of it,” Liz said. The couple ended up choosing a combination of the two family names, and  Prestonrose Farm and Brewery was born. In addition to preserving the name, the Prestons are also preserving the old farmhouse, storage buildings, and barn. They live in the farmhouse and the storage buildings will be reinforced and finished inside as guest houses The barn is slated to become the brewery and beer garden.

The first thing the couple did when they bought the land was establish a certified organic farm. “We’ve got everything, from watermelon and cantaloupe to herbs and hot peppers,” said Liz. They grow their vegetables from organic heirloom seeds instead of your typical grocery store hybrids. These seeds are generations old cultivars, passed down for hundreds of years in some cases. The plants have incredible variety and wonderful taste. They also adapt to the local environment because the seeds can be replanted from year to year.

Large farming operations use hybrids because they are often hardier and have greater yield than heirloom plants, but the benefits to using heirloom seeds on a small farm are numerous. They often taste better than hybrids and have incredible variety in flavor, color, and form. They don’t all ripen at once, allowing the farmer to produce a crop over a longer period of time. This leads to fresher vegetables at the market.

The Prestons are also growing their own hops, but with mixed results. “This year’s hops are pretty sorry,” Mike said. Liz explains that hops grow best near the 42nd parallel, which runs through New York, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington and that Arkansas is almost too far south, right at the edge of their habitable zone. This gives the hops a distinctive taste, but harvests can be hit or miss. Last year was great. This year the plants didn’t bear much fruit. “That’s how things go,” Mike said.

It’s only been about eight months since the couple started selling homemade beer at the farm, but they’ve seen incredible success in this short time. They estimate that they’ve already sold 1,800 gallons of brew.

It’s Liz’s precision, smarts, and drive that make her such a successful brewer. She brews the old fashioned way —  in a farm building and 30 gallons at a time. Brewing is a very scientific process, but the flavors can vary wildly based on small changes in temperature and process. Liz uses her scientific background to make delicious beers for every season.

The brewing process starts with four ingredients: barley, water, hops, and yeast. “The first step is the malt, where the grains are germinated and enzymes are activated that help break starches down and make them easier for the yeast to eat,” Liz explained. Malting is the only step of the process that happens off the farm. “Most breweries use brewery supply groups that purchase malt in huge quantities from malt houses” she said. There are no commercial Arkansas malt houses, so the Prestons take an “as local as possible” approach. Currently, Prestonrose malt comes from three houses in three states: North Carolina, Texas, and Colorado.

Mashing is the next step. Much like making tea, the malted grains are steeped in water between 148 F and 156 F. The specific temperature of the water activates enzymes that help extract sugars from the grain. The sugary water, called wort, is separated from the grain, which is then boiled. The boiling neutralizes unwanted flavors, concentrates the mixture, and sanitizes it. Hops and flavors are also added during this step.

This mixture is then cooled rapidly and put into a fermenting vessel. “The faster you can cool the wort from boiling to 70 degrees, the better,” Liz explained. The speed at which it cools can directly affect the final flavor. Water from the garden hose flows through a series of metal radiators to cool the wort. As a result, summer beer cools slower than the winter beer does and her beers taste different by the season.

Next, yeast is added to the cool wort. The yeast consumes the sugar, transforming it into CO2 and alcohol. This process can take weeks, and the length of time depends on the type of beer Liz is brewing. Ales ferment for a shorter amount of time than lagers. You can tell fermentation is happening as the bubbles of CO2 escape from the fermentation tanks. After fermenting, the beer is almost ready to drink. It’s allowed to sit for a few days while impurities fall to the bottom of the tank. Next, carbonation is added by injecting CO2 into the beer. “We decide how carbonated it’s going to be based on the beer style,” Liz said. Porters and stouts tend to have less carbonation than lagers and ales.

Over the eight months the brewery has been open, Liz has brewed 60 batches of various flavors and types of beer. Each of these beers, from the browns to the pales, are sold right at the farm, which is open to the public twelve hours a week. The couple was overwhelmed by the community response. “I thought it was going to be a lot harder than it has been to gain the local support we have,” said Mike. The couple has even more planned for next year. They plan to turn the Rose family barn into a pub space and brewery. The current brewing building will be used for small batch experimentation. In addition, they’re rebuilding several of the old storage buildings and finishing them inside for use as guest houses.

Though the Prestons are from out of town, they understand the importance of local cooperation and have become active in the community. They are members of the Paris Chamber of Commerce and help organize the farmer’s market there, adding an online marketplace. “Everybody has a part to play,” said Mike. The Prestons also work closely with local suppliers, builders, and other brewers. Mike explained that “small businesses in a small town have to support each other.” Perhaps this viewpoint is part of the reason Prestonrose Farm and Brewery has such a strong local following.

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