Kevin Ely traveled to Bavaria for work some years ago. He figured he’d take the opportunity to bike around the countryside and visit the small breweries that dot the landscape. He was a master brewer for a large brewery in Salt Lake City, and the Upper Franconia region he was in has one of the highest concentrations of breweries in the world.
You can walk or bike to brewery after brewery, the youngest of which was 120 years old. It was a dream for a guy who devoted his life to brewing beer.
As he toured the area, he took photos of some hairy pigs and the pastoral fields that surround the villages, and sent them home to his wife, Jael Malenke.
“The photos he sent me, it looked just like Coshocton County,” Jael said.
Years later, when the couple was looking for a change of pace, an opportunity came up to buy a farm that was near Jael’s childhood home, in Fresno, Ohio. It seemed like a no-brainer.
They bought the old Norman farm, located just off of U.S. Route 36, in late 2014, with Jael’s brother and sister-in-law, Aaron and Lauren Malenke, and turned it into Wooly Pig Farm Brewery. The goal was to bring the authentic Bavarian brewery experience to central Ohio.
The story starts with the Norman family, decades ago. When talking about how the brewery came to be, Jael, Kevin and Aaron remember Ronnie Norman. Ronnie managed the family dairy farm after his father died when he was 14. He was an only child. He never married. He just ran his small dairy farm on top of the hill.
Jael and Aaron grew up nearby. Jael remembers going caroling at Christmas time and singing to Ronnie and his mother, at the farm.
About 10 years ago, the Malenke siblings both lived out West. Jael and Kevin were living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Jael worked in academics and Kevin worked at a large brewery. Aaron and Lauren were living in Colorado, while Lauren attended veterinary school.
Jael said they were all at a transition point in life. She and Kevin had two young children, and while they had a great friend group in Salt Lake City, they missed family support.
Then, Ronnie Norman died in 2013, and his farm went up for auction. The Malenke siblings and their spouses decided this was the sign they needed to move back home and start the next chapter in their lives. They closed on the farm in early 2015.
Inspired by Bavaria
The brewery opened in December 2017. A metal pole barn with a dirt floor that used to hold tractors and equipment became the brewery and attached taproom.
Reclaimed wood from another barn on the property was turned into lighting. Fallen trees on the farm were sawed up and used as a bar top and tables.
“We wanted to be in a place where we used what was there, and we weren’t taking advantage of anything,” Aaron said.
Brewing creates a lot of waste. Many craft breweries give their spent brewers grains to farms to use for feed. Wooly Pig does that too, but the trip from the brewery to the feed trough is a lot shorter.
That’s why in Bavaria it’s common to see breweries attached to small farms, Kevin said. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Usually, there’s a restaurant too. He and Jael recognized these similarities between rural Coshocton County, with its small farms and small towns.
Wooly Pig Farm Brewery is home to several Mangalitsa pigs, named after hop varieties. The boar is Herr Fuggle. The two sows are Galina and Willamette. There’s also a flock of sheep on the farm. Aaron manages the livestock.
Putting a craft brewery in the middle of nowhere might seem like an odd choice. But Kevin recognized that there was a gap to fill in that region. They would be the only brewery in the area.
They weren’t sure what to expect when they opened their doors in late 2017, but there was obviously a need, Jael said. They were busy through that winter and into the summer.
They expanded that first year by building an outdoor pavilion for more seating. They put sides on it and heated it in the winter. This past year, they built eight “salettls” or small pavilions that are typically placed in gardens in Bavaria. They’re about the size of a typical restaurant booth, but can be enclosed completely in the winter to provide socially distanced seating.
The beers too are German-inspired. Unlike a lot of craft breweries that hit the high-alcohol, hoppy IPAs hard in their line-ups, Kevin prefers more traditional brewing techniques and beers.
Kevin said that when a lot of the locals came in for the first time, they’d ask what to get. These were guys who would regularly drink Bud Light or Busch Light.
They’d introduce them to their Helles, a pale lager, to start. That’s one of their top sellers. Their other four standards they always have on tap are the Keller Pils, a pilsner; Schwarzbier, a dark lager; and the IPL Eins, an India pale lager.
Kevin does some experimental stuff, too. He brews beers using seasonal produce, like paw paws that Jael’s father grows, or local peaches or persimmons.
But more than anything, they want to provide easy drinking beers. Ones you can enjoy on a Sunday afternoon with your family. And that’s the type of environment they’ve tried to create at the farm.
People make trips from the city to visit the brewery, but they get a lot of locals, too. It’s fun when people share that they learned how to bale hay on the Norman farm and share stories about Ronnie.
“It’s a nice place to drink beer,” Kevin said. “That makes it taste even better.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or email@example.com.)
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