Person of the Week
Alex DeFrancesco: A True ‘Steward of the Land’
North Branford’s Alex DeFrancesco, proprietor and head brewer of Stewards of the Land Brewery, has brought a “true Connecticut farm brewery” to his hometown, while also serving up a special place to create community. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Long before opening Stewards of the Land Brewery in North Branford on Nov. 1, 2019, Alex DeFrancesco was brewing up ideas to bring a “true Connecticut farm brewery” to his hometown, while also serving up a special place to create community.
The new brewery, which sits on DeFrancesco family farm land between North Branford and Northford, is doing all of that, and more.
A True Connecticut Farm Brewery
“Our concept was using ingredients that were available going back centuries ago, when you could only obtain them by horse and wagon,” says Alex, founder, proprietor and head brewer for Stewards of the Land Farm Brewery, located at 418 Forest Road (Route 22).
Pretty much every beer at Stewards of the Land contains 95- to 100 percent Connecticut-grown ingredients, by volume, far exceeding the requirements (minimum, 50 percent) of the state’s 2017 farm brewery legislation, which Alex helped to pen.
“If you look at our [tap room] chalk board, at least six of the eight beers are 100 percent Connecticut ingredients, and this also goes beyond just your basic ingredients of beer—malts, yeast, hops, and water,” he says.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) tags water as a resource rather than ingredient, he notes.
Along with locally sourced ingredients, the brewery has a 2020 goal of 100 percent recycling of spent materials from the brewing process. Alex is currently working on receiving a DEEP permit that would allow spent water to be used to irrigate some of the DeFrancesco farm crops. The family has been farming in town since 1907.
When it comes to brewing and flavoring his beer, for Alex, if it grows here, it could make a great beer. He’s had success infusing the likes of hot peppers and lavender, and has plans for sunflowers, berries, and more of what’s grown seasonally by the DeFrancesco family and other Connecticut farms.
“One beer we’re going to be showcasing in February is our maple stout, [which] uses the maple syrup from our sugar bush [maple trees] right across from our farm market,” he says, pointing down the road a piece toward DeFrancesco’s Farm Stand, located at 349 Forest Road.
The stand features produce and more, much of it from the family farm.
“In the fall, we did a sweet potato stout that used a bushel of our sweet potatoes right from the field,” says Alex. “We will be doing a sunflower beer this summer. One of the beers we have on right now is our lavender bee balm; that’s in our apothecary series.”
He’s also connected with other area farms and those in the state that can supply tree fruit and other produce not grown at the family farm in North Branford such as cherries and nectarines, two fruits he’s looking forward to using to flavor some warm weather brews.
“We already are working with a lot of business in town and our local towns, too,” says Alex. “We’re working with Pastry Fusions on a Valentine’s event dessert pairing. They’re using our beer to make the pairing, and we are going to be making a few pastry stouts with the products they make. I’m working on a cinnamon roll stout right now.”
A Place for Community
Stewards of the Land’s tap room features red oak ceiling beams and timber accents salvaged from the building’s original 19th century farmstead. There’s also a stone fireplace. A lot of the feel is based on North Branford’s first tavern, located a few minutes away on Old Forest Road. The tavern, now a house, is situated just behind DeFrancesco’s Farm Stand and is the home of one of Alex’s brothers, Joe.
“My brother’s house, behind the farm stand, was built in 1708 and it was the original tavern in town. It has beams all over—you can still see the names carved by patrons,” says Alex. “I wanted to do something similar to that. And this house had seven fireplaces, so we had to have a fireplace, which immediately gives that sense of gathering and community. We also did that by building a bar that was open, but cozy, by using granite tops and wood, and with stone finish on the walls. It gives that warming atmosphere—that tavern-esque atmosphere. It brings that sense of community, the gathering place that I think our town was missing. And being where we are, we’re almost in the middle of [North Branford and Northford]—it made sense.”
The brewery is on the Connecticut Craft Brewery Trail and is part of the Connecticut Brewers Guild. Open Thursday to Sunday and on holidays, the tap room has been drawing steady crowds of locals and many traveling in from across the state and beyond, with plenty of great reviews and returning guests, notes Alex.
“A lot of people want to see the new brewery and they’re almost stunned when they first come in. It changes the whole atmosphere and the mood, where they can relax, take their coat off, and enjoy everything with their friends and their family.”
Although the brewery offers 21-and-over service, families can bring their kids; just bring the kids’ beverages and snacks, too, says Alex.
Food is generally available from food trucks, but guests are also welcome to bring their own or to order local delivery (nearby Giovanni’s Pizzeria in Northford is a popular choice, says Alex). The brewery is licensed to sell dairy cheeses and will be offering farm produce in season.
“During growing season we will have our fruits and vegetables here, so that way people can come in and can get the fresh produce. We have our dairy license so they can get local cheeses and can choose to make a picnic and go sit on the hillside or out on the patio. They can even make their own charcuterie board if they want to. And it’s supporting all Connecticut businesses. So whether it’s our farm, or other farms or cheeseries, it’s supporting Connecticut and getting back to the farm roots,” says Alex.
All of the details involving days of operation, what’s available, and when can be found online at www.stewardsofthelandbrewery.com.
All Stewards of the Land beer is served up from small casks, at the bar.
“It’s how beer used to be served,” says Alex, who also uses an old-school brewing method, called “cold crashing,” to clarify each batch of beer once its fermented. “We have two flagships: Rustica is our house IPA [and] Chocolate Swallow is our chocolate stout.”
Rustica is actually the Latin species name for the barn swallow, mascot of Stewards of the Land Farm Brewery, he notes. Like everything he’s done along the way, a lot of thought and research went into his choice for the brewery’s avian representative.
“That’s our animal steward. That’s the Steward of the Land,” says Alex. “The fun thing with the barn swallows are they actually are the farmer’s helper in the fields. They can tell you the weather, barometric changes—especially when rain’s coming. If you’ve just cut grass or hay, they eat all the insects. They love human establishments and they love nature, too. They constantly roost in the farmer’s barns and other structures and they’re family oriented. And when we were looking into what animal occurs naturally in our area, the barn swallows always came up. When we were building this, we always had a family doing swoops at sunset; they’d constantly go over the brewery. So the barn swallow translates into a lot of our names.”
Getting His Start
About nine years ago, Alex started brewing small batches of craft beer for family and friends, spending hours working on recipes brewed up in a barn.
“I’d work in the fields or greenhouses, and then I’d do that at night, and every now and then my brothers would come over to help, and friends would come over,” says Alex. “Anytime you cook, you’re looking for that critique, so my friends and family were my guinea pigs, and that’s how I figured out what was worth pursuing or if I needed change it up and do something else.”
Four years ago, working at the state level with the Connecticut Farm Bureau and Connecticut Department of Agriculture, Alex help generate the language that went on to become the state’s new farm brewery legislation, signed into law two years ago.
“It took us two years to craft that, and finally the Department of Agriculture with the Connecticut Farm Bureau really pushed to get the governor to sign that bill, and it happened in the summer of 2017,” says Alex.
At about the same time, Alex launched his own successful effort to receive permission from the town to open and operate a farm brewery. As a member of the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission, he recused himself from the agenda item when the brewery was being considered for approval.
In November 2019, following a year’s work to renovate the homestead building and convert it to a brewery and with a beautiful tap room, Alex opened the state’s second farm brewery to operate under the new legislation.
But, as he proudly notes, this is the first farm brewery where the owner/operator was involved in crafting state legislation and putting that into play.
“We’re the only farm that worked to create the farm brewery legislation, and followed through to get a license. No other brewery in this state did that,” he says.