Brewery Terra Firma: Craft beer and sustainability

When John Niedermaier decided to open his own brewery, he knew he wanted to create something different – not your typical downtown brewpub or a brewing operation that would crank out cans of beer like a factory assembly line.

“I wanted something that would be a model that would be followed by other breweries,” Niedermaier said. “I wanted something sustainable.”

“Back in the day, you kept it simple. There weren’t all these chemicals,” said Niedermaier, who grew up in Traverse City and lived downstate for some time before returning to the region. “The food waste out of your kitchen, you would compost.  We are adding nothing to the waste stream.”

A field of buckwheat was used as a cover crop. It was harvested and milled for flour. True to his vision, Niedermaier opened Brewery Terra Firma, believed to be among the few sustainable production breweries and taprooms in Michigan. The property is also a MAEAP certified historic farm, following state-recommended sustainable farming guidelines. 

Brewery Terra Firma is the only brewery in Traverse City not hooked up to a municipal waste system. Instead, thanks to an innovative water capture system, the brewery reclaims more than 500,000 gallons of water a year from the manufacturing process for reuse as irrigation and fertilization of his own farm crops. Spent grain from the brewing process is composted and shared with local farmers.

The brewery sits on 10 open acres several minutes south of downtown Traverse City, a pastoral spot surrounded by encroaching housing. The parcel was part of a farm that predated the formation of Garfield Township in the late 1800s. Apple, pear and mulberry trees from that farm still exist. Niedermaier has planted fields of hops and grows flowers and maintains bee hives. An outdoor beer garden and fire pits encourage locals and tourists to linger. The property is also dog friendly. 

The tasting room is an open, bright space overlooking the farm with local art on the walls; the 5,200-square-foot total structure is also “efficient and sustainable.”

More than a dozen beers are on tap at any given time; the brewery is also licensed to make hard cider, with apples purchased from local orchards. He also sells locally made soda and Kombucha. 

“When we built this place, we installed floor heat in the whole building,” he said. “We have extra insulation in the walls. We even harvest our waste BTUs from the fermenters and refrigeration systems to heat the building during the cooler months. It’s had a massive impact on our heating bill.”

Michigan is home to nearly 400 breweries, ranking the state sixth in the nation in breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs.

Sustainable practices are not uncommon among brewers across the country, but with such a diverse group of breweries, in both size and business model, defining those practices can be difficult, said Chuck Skypeck, technical brewing projects director at the Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade group that represents craft brewers and brewing enthusiasts in the U.S.

"Every brewery I know reuses the water and heat generated by cooling processes for other activities in their brewery. There are plenty of other common everyday practices that can be described as sustainable," he said. "The list of common-sense activities that breweries do that can be described as sustainable activities goes on and on."

An informal survey by the Brewers Association a few years ago showed that more than 90 percent of brewers across the country were "either sending their spent grain away as livestock feed or composting instead of it going to landfills," Skypeck said. Feeding spent grain to livestock has been a practice as long as brewing has existed. 

The Brewers Association publishes a series of sustainability guidance manuals related to key environmental aspects and the impacts of craft brewing. They include sustainable design and build strategies, as well as wastewater management and energy usage.

The beer

Niedermaier’s efforts in sustainability are sound, but he’s equally adept at crafting beer, using his own recipes and ingredients from his fields and local farms. He likens brewing to cooking.

“I come from a family that loves to cook,” Niedermaier said, noting he’s had no professional training. “My mom loves to cook. My dad loves to cook. We love being creative. Beer is food and food is cooking. It’s a nice way to relax and try new stuff.”

Samples of beer at Brewery Terra Firma. The brewery is responsible for keeping Manitou Amber Ale in production.
Niedermaier might not have been trained professionally in the culinary arts, but his brewing education is solid. He honed his craft from the legendary Jack Archiable, who opened the first craft brewery in northern Michigan – Traverse Brewing Co., long before craft brewing exploded across the state. 

Archiable's alumni have gone on to launch their own commercial operation, including Joe Short, owner of Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire, now an iconic Michigan brand. Niedermaier also served as brewmaster at Right Brain Brewery, another popular Traverse City brewery. Right Brain’s owner, Russell Springsteen also learned from Archiable.

Brewery Terra Firma released its first commercial batch in the spring of 2013.  It was an American Pale Ale called Gladstone, named after the Upper Peninsula town, where his father grew up and where he spent summers as a child. Niedermaier still brews Gladstone, a popular choice among customers. He also resurrected a legendary northern Michigan beer – Manitou Amber Ale, famous as the first craft beer in the region and one with a following.

Niedermaier estimates he has more than 1,000 original recipes in his ever-growing vault.  “I like trying old-style stuff, and old brewing techniques and reading about them,” he said. “It’s just fascinating to me. I also like creating seasonal stuff.”
His brewery produces about 1,200 barrels of beer each year.  

The farm

Along with sustainable practices within his operations, Niedermaier also knew he wanted to create an agricultural brewery.  On the grounds, Niedermaier grows Columbia and other hop varieties, herbs and flowers, and keeps bees. 

The farm products – hops, herbs and honey – are all used in his craft beer. Other ingredients, including pumpkin, beets and corn, come from local farms. Over the years, he’s grown barley, buckwheat, sunflowers, onions, garlic and sage. 

A combine harvests barley at Brewery Terra Firma. The barley was used for a Trappist beer.
“When we put beer on tap with honey from our beehives or hops from our south field, it’s impossible for people not to try them,” he said. “We literally walk those hops to the brewery – 60 seconds away. People love that.

“People are focused on the local and want to keep money in their community,” he added.

About the bees. He maintains 40 to 50 bee hives on the farm and last year had a record harvest – twice the normal yield. The honey found its way into Scottish Moor Heather Ale. He imports Scottish heather flowers. 

What’s next 

Niedermaier plans to relaunch statewide distribution this year, with a variety of canned beers and to push more draft products locally. 

He also wants to revisit offering kitchen service, using ingredients grown on his property and from local farms. He’s also among the brewers across the country experimenting with Kernza, a perennial wheat. He’s planted some and just made his first batch with grain provided by The Land Institute, a Kansas-based nonprofit research, education, and policy organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture. 

A view of the sleeping farm in winter.
“Kernza is an old heritage variety they’ve been working with to turn into a viable crop,” he explained. “Its root system is deeper, so it doesn’t have to be replanted each year. You can plant and harvest for four to six years. It’s also drought tolerant.”

Brewery Terra Firma celebrated its 10th anniversary last summer and the brewery is frequently visited by others in the industry who are curious about his model.

“This is how breweries used to function,” Niedermaier said. “They were generally not in downtown areas – they were on the outskirts so they could access grains without tremendous effort. There was no real model for this. There are brewers around the country doing sustainable stuff but there are not a lot like this.

“It’s considerably more work but there’s no question it’s worth it. With the concerns about the environment, it needs to be done. It’s more gratifying for me.”
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