The drive to Big Thorn Farm and Brewery in Georgetown, Illinois last Sunday was a dark and rainy one. By the time I pulled into the location, the sun had broken through the clouds and the breeze was flowing freely. I was certain the rain would hold off — at least I thought it would. I headed toward what seemed to be a tree house on the edge of the property to check in to The Land Connection's Women Who Farm series and learn more about Anna Schweig, co-owner of Big Thorn Farm.
The registration check-in was housed in the newly built tree bar. As I walked up the wooden steps I smelled cedar and cherry wood. Jaquelyn Evers, Executive Director of The Land Connection, got us checked in and handed us our name tags. While I mingled with the group, I also took in the beauty of the tree bar and its surroundings. Evers then began a short presentation before the farm tour started. She explained that the purpose of The Land Connection is to help train local farmers in sustainable farming techniques, connect them to one another, and “create a sustainable food system for our future.” She also told us their goal is to share with the public “our sources of food and why it matters.” I’m an avid vegetable gardener myself so I really appreciated what the Land Connection is doing, and it made me look forward to the rest of my time at the farm.
After Evers' opening presentation, she introduced the owners of The Big Thorn Farm and Brewery, Anna Schweig and her husband Aaron. Anna began by telling the story of how the farm came about. Her husband was already an avid home brewer when the opportunity to be the head brewer at JT Walker’s Brewery came his way. The couple had always wanted to start a small farm and brewery, and in 2011 they made their dream a reality by purchasing 15 acres of land and planting 60 hop plants in hopes of seeing them flourish. Aaron was perfecting his brewing skills at JT Walker’s while Anna worked at The Blind Pig Brewery and learned about farming life. She planted an herb garden, mushrooms, fruit trees and much more on their new land. They began selling to local farmers and produce markets still hoping to one day use what was growing on their farm to brew beer. The farm flourished and now they live in little solar house on the property and will soon to opening a working farm and brewery. She concluded her story by thanking us for our support, then she and Aaron led us onward to the much anticipated farm tour.
The first stop was the herb garden where they cultivate all of the botanicals they use in their different varieties of beer. The various types of herbs were numerous. They grow grapefruit mint, apple mint, pineapple mint, chocolate mint, hyssop (newly planted), hops, tarragon (not used in the beer yet), lemon balm, and numerous kinds of thyme. Anna mentioned that her favorite variety of thyme to use in their beer is the lemon thyme, and her favorite type of mint to use is apple mint. That just sounded so delicious and refreshing that I couldn't wait to get back to sample some brews.
Next we moved on to check out the fruit trees. We walked through cherry, pear, apple, and apricot trees. Anna and Aaron also pointed out some almond trees and a circle of beautiful mulberry bushes. There was time for a few questions and one of the group member asked about the solar panels next to the brew shed/cellar. Anna explained that they’re an off-the-grid farm, which means they’re not connected to any power lines at all. Big Thorn’s main source of energy comes from a small windmill and solar power panels. They store back up power and have a battery bank; they even dug a solar well.
As we passed the lovely grape vines and approached the brewing shed/underground cellar, I looked up at the sky and saw that once again the grey clouds were piling up. The group took shelter from the rain in the beer shed and underground fermenting cellar. An extremely kind tour goer even let me have her extra poncho to protect my camera and notebook. The entire group, including the hosts, were so thoughtful and courteous.
Anna and Aaron explained how the three barrel brewery system was built and how it operated. We headed down the stairs to the underground cellar where they they ferment and store the beer in tanks before it’s bottled. The rain was not showing any signs of stopping so it was time to find a bigger shelter.
The group retreated back to the tree bar for refreshments and, of course, we were all excited about the beer tasting. As we trickled into bar, I spotted some enticing snacks they had set out. There was a tray of gorgeous locally grown garlic scapes, kohlrabi, green and red peppers, and cucumber. Alongside this was an array corn chips and dips: creamy hummus, spicy peach salsa, and even a freshly made basil, garlic tarragon, sour cream dip created by one of the staff. It tasted and smelled stunning. After we’d eaten our fill, the beer tasting commenced and I was transported to craft beer heaven.
As Anna opened each beer she took the time to explain how it tasted and which herbs and fruits were used to develop the flavors. We tasted four beer and they were as follows:
- Scruit: Tasted sour with hints of fruit, the color was dark and cloudy, almost a coco color.
- Farm Pale: This was a much lighter milder beer, it was clear and golden in color, and I could really taste the lemon. It was my absolute favorite!
- Wood Thyme Tart: They used English Thyme and Golden Thyme to create this beer. It was a very tart taste and also had hints of lemon.
- Toasted Oat Brown: This was a very dark beer with chocolate flavors, it was made with malt and fresh oak. This for those who prefer a good lager or Porter.
- Ginger Juice: The ginger taste was subtle and the citrus flavor of the orange came through. It was golden in color and was very refreshing.
Our last activity of the day was testing botanicals. We walked out in the garden and were instructed to clip bunches of herbs to take back to the bar. When we finished we walked back to learn the process of testing herbs and different botanicals for use in beer. I learned that there are three ways they test: boiling, steeping, and brewing. We took our bunches and soaked them in hot water to test for flavors and smells. It was a really entertaining hands on experience that I would definitely do again.
The hosts of this event were incredibly appreciative of the land and you could tell that they love what they do. I had a wonderful time touring, tasting beer, and meeting people at this 2nd Annual Women Who Farm event.
Big Thorn Farm and Brewery will soon be open to the public, including the unique Tree Bar. It'll offer up beautiful views and delicious brews and tasty bar snacks. The official opening date is August 4th, and hours are from noon-sunset. This is a great date night spot, a great place to learn, and a perfect place to let the kids run around while you enjoy a nice cold one. It really is worth the drive.
Big Thorn Farm and Brewery
14274 E 600 North Rd
Photos by Rebecca Wells