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The Delicacy Of Beer: What is a cover crop?

Maggie Young

When consumers only see the results, it can be easy to forget the intricacies of the process required to make goods. When it comes to beer, everything goes back to the very first step: growing the ingredients.

A brewer can have the best facilities, inspiring ideas, and a mind for business, but it all wilts away when they’re only provided shriveled up, molting, dirty produce and malt. Farmers are given the laborious and time-consuming task of consistently making the best crop over several years. There’s an ever-growing amount of thought that goes into these processes, but one tool that many farmers rely on is cover cropping.

a field of cover crops

An SARE Cover Crop Guide

Andy Clark from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) provides an umbrella definition for cover cropping. “A cover crop is a plant that is used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, help control pests and diseases, increase biodiversity and bring a host of other benefits to your farm.”1 Some state they’re a waste of already sparing time; why does someone need to pay attention to the weeds slinking in between the fruits of their labors. Simply put, the best cover crops do the work for them.

Imagine any wild place on earth, barely touched by man, the ground is rarely sparse, in perfect rows, and only ripe with one kind of plant for acres and acres. That’s not how normal plants function, and it shows in our need for bug killers and additives. While these are logical additions, they’re not the best or only solution. Cover crops don’t mimic nature but properly utilize its laws and utilities.

cover crops covered in frost

What are the benefits of using cover crops?

One of their more needed benefits in this day and age is the cover crop’s ability to appeal to dry climates or areas under scrutiny from global warming. Cover crops save and preserve water, Clark explains. “Alternatively, if facing drought or practicing dryland farming, cover crops still help boost yields while being very efficient with water use. If you use no-till farming, the cover crop mulch increases water infiltration and conserves moisture into the summer.”2 Water crises all over the country can benefit significantly from cover cropping, and these plants can accommodate almost every tilling method for the more versatile farmers.

These select plants provide a cornucopia of different benefits and long-term treatments to the farmland. But what do cover crops do? One method is called the Cover Crop Cocktail, which sounds like the perfect method for farmers in the brewing industry. Clark lists off this method's ups and downs, stating Cocktails can be hard to control because they need complex management and are hard to seed. Still, the benefits include more biomass and nitrogen, better under challenging conditions like winter survival, ground cover for water and weeds, and attraction of beneficial insects.3

Cover Crop Cocktails

Unlike the drink in your hand, mixing plants provides a bio-diverse environment, something nature intended. But, from a farming perspective, a cover crop is like a long-term GMO or growth formula; it makes the harvest healthy and wealthy and repeats for years! Farmers need a plant or chemical that increases nitrogen levels in the soil when growing barley, wheat, or hops for beer. Dr. Heather Darby, from the University of Vermont, explains in detail that hops use that nitrogen for chemical reactions, and getting the goldilocks amount needs exact measurements.4 By this logic, having a cover crop is adequate for growing plants used for breweries and can also prove to be more vital than GMO or other chemical additives to the soil.

Making a cover crop cocktail requires focusing on each plant’s talents and downsides. Let's imagine barely covered crops as platelet cells. As detailed by the Earth Observing System blog, the Grass cover crops help protect against erosion in the soil with robust root systems. They quickly accumulate nitrogen from the soil.5 While grasses are helpful for the ground, they don’t provide nitrogen.

Legume cover crops

Legume cover crops

According to Earth Observing System, another plant we can add to the cocktail that may be the best cover crop are plants like soybeans or lentils. “Legumes enjoy the fame for nitrogen enrichment as nitrogen-fixing cover crops. Their vigorous taproot system aids in tacking undesired undersurface compaction when plants grow big. Also, the bigger the plant is, the more nitrogen it can fix.”6 These plants can better take care of and defend your harvest. Imagine them as the red blood cells in your body, spreading oxygen through the soil and allowing good growth and balance.

Buckwheat crop

Buckwheat cover crops

Finally, there’s the protection of the farm. Where are the white blood cells? What plant can provide more nitrogen and encourage biodiversity? Andy Clark and their focus on sustainable crop rotations recommend non-legume (buckwheat) cover crops. They specialize in collecting nutrients, protecting the soil, quelling weeds, and giving off residues that add organic matter.7 With all these plants, we have a balanced farm with nutrients being given protection from erosion and damage, and a defense system for invasive weeds. Eureka! While all these plants will need different accommodations and careful attention, they will pay off in the long run and give valid reasons to ignore additional chemicals put into the farm.

Cover crops aren't a new concept. They’ve been present in farming practice for decades. But due to modern science, we now know what each plant contributes on every level. Of course, there are some downsides if you’re a glass-half-empty person. Without biodiversity and the contributions of cover crops, farms would be co-dependent and thus unable to adapt to extreme flooding, drought, and lack of pollination. You get the idea. It’s all about risk and reward, the most beautiful outcomes always show in the final taste.

Don't believe us? Put it to the test! Sign up for a subscription to The Original Craft Beer Club and explore all kinds of different beer styles from different parts of the US. Who knows, you might just discover a new favorite!

1. Clark A. (2015). Cover Crops for Sustainable Crop Rotations. SARE Outreach.
2. Ibid
3. Ibid
4. Dr. Darby H. (2013, May). Nitrogen Management in Hops. University of Vermont Extension Agronomist.
5. NA.(2020, 29, 09). Cover Crops: Types And Benefits To Use In Agriculture. Earth Observing System. AGRICULTURE.
6. Ibid
7. Clark A. (2015). Cover Crops for Sustainable Crop Rotations. SARE Outreach.