M&M Gardens has been a chemical-free vegetable growing operation since 2009.
Small-scale, diversified vegetable farmers in Missouri and Kansas would like to explore the viability of adding value to their beet root production by partnering with a local distillery to create a small-batch, double-distilled beet spirit. Economically, we hope to create a high-value product made exclusively out of locally-sourced raw materials that the farmers and distillery can share profits from. If successful, this project has the potential to open up a new sales outlet for small-farm crops. Beets are an especially promising crop for this endeavor both for their high sugar content (for converting into alcohol during the fermentation process) and their relative ease of production in our region. Developing this market for farmers may also prove to be a helpful way to strengthen crop rotations on the farms and better integrate cover crops during the summer months.This project has lots of variable potential onto which others can add: Which varieties of beets make the best spirit? Can other locally produced crops be similarly distilled, like sweet potatoes or carrots?
- Produce at least 4 tons of beets on the partner farms, including sugar beets and garden varieties
- Distill beet mash and taste-test with farmers, customers and mixologists to develop recipe
- Market finished product locally
- Evaluate the economic impact for farmers
- Note the environmental impact of cover crop integration and crop rotation on small farms facilitated during beet root production
- Share findings through social media, magazine articles and tastings
In the first year of the project, small farmers in Kansas and Missouri planned to plant beets to harvest, mash, ferment and distill into a high proof, savory spirit. The farmers chose 3 varieties of beets to experiment with: Merlin, a common garden variety that has a high brix rating compared to other red beets; Moneta, a monogerm variety that might reduce the labor required for cultivation; and a non-GMO variety of sugar beet.
The three beets would be fermented in different combinations to see which resulted in the most sugar and yeast activity (and therefore more alcohol in the mash) and the best flavor as a distilled spirit.
Our spring and fall plantings were largely thwarted by a series of unfavorable planting conditions, resulting in a much smaller harvest than what we were originally hoping. However, we were able to grow enough to begin experimentation.
In the spring of 2018, we harvested 450 lbs of Merlin and sugar beets. This was enough to start three different fermentation mashes: one with just sugar beets, one with just Merlin beets, and one that had both varieties. After harvest, farmers topped and washed the beets and delivered them to the distillery for processing. The distillery crushed the beets into fermentation barrels, submerged them in water, and added a generic yeast that can thrive in a wide range of temperatures. After 2-3 weeks of fermentation, each ferment was distilled separately in a simple pot still to evaluate the amount of alcohol that was produced. Unfortunately, the only ferment that produced any measurable amount of alcohol was the sugar beet mash. (This makes sense because sugar beets were already understood to have the most sugar, but still disappointing because the Merlin produced 0 alcohol.)
From 150 lbs of sugar beets, the distillery collected 0.82435 gallons of alcohol at 100 proof (or 50% alcohol). This is enough for nine 375mL bottles of 100% Beet Distillate bottled at 80 proof (or 40% alcohol). This can be compared with Apple Brandy, which undergoes a very similar treatment, but with apples instead of beets. 150 lbs of apples can be turned into twelve 375mL bottles of 100% apple distillate (made by the same distillery) bottled at 80 proof.
In the fall, the beet yields were again very low. Poor germination, late plantings, and a total crop failure from deer damage at one farm, resulted in just 100 lbs of beets harvested. At the distillery, the decision was made to try a different distillation technique with the smaller quantity of beets. Instead of fermenting the beets to convert their sugar into alcohol, and then distill the ferment, they instead did a re-distillation, similar to how gin is made. Using this method, the alcohol yields were much improved, generating 24 proof gallons (enough for about 250 bottles); however, the product was no longer a “100% beet distillate.”
Going forward, the plan is to expose consumers to tastings of both recipes. While both have very strong beet aroma and flavor (the “earthiness” that many people associate with beets), the marketing of each and the process used to make them will be different. The farmers and distillery believe that it is worth it to continue to explore large scale beet plantings to ferment and distill the beets in 2019. If those plantings are more successful, we will have a better sense of the cost-benefit of a 100% beet distillate.
Educational & Outreach Activities
On September 24, 2018, two of the project farmers met with a group of representatives from North Central and Missouri SARE at the distillery. We gave an update on the project’s progress up until that point and offered samples of some of the 100% Beet distillate that was collected. Part of the SARE media team was on the tour and recorded a video of the project coordinator talking about the project. This was edited and shared on the SARE website. This encounter was not part of our original proposal for outreach, however it will undoubtedly increase the audience of people that we reach.
We have also informally begun providing customers with product tastings at the City Market in Kansas City, MO. For a few Saturdays in November and December 2018, we had bottles of the re-distilled (2nd recipe) available to taste. However, we didn’t have any formal way of collecting feedback, such as a survey.
The plan for the spring of 2019 is to create a more structured outreach effort with the general public at the distillery tasting room and at the City Market. This will include offering the two separate recipes to taste, explanations of the two different distillation processes, and a survey for customers to indicate their impressions of the distillates. We also hope to engage with a local bartender to create a “signature cocktail” using the beet distillate. This exposure will also help to develop an article narrative that we will submit to publications that may publish it or follow up with their own story.