I’m chatting with Nick, my college roommate, on the phone. He called me –as he often does –to brag about his recent victory over me in fantasy baseball this week. After an appropriate amount of gloating, we begin to catch up on life, love, and work. Being a beer enthusiast, Nick is often curious about what’s changing in the beer scene. He’ll ask which styles are popular, how long production takes, what distribution looks like, etc… before remarking that ultimately, he prefers Shiner Bock –A Texan through and through.
“So what beers are you working on now? What’s the latest project.” Nick asks as I hear him pop the lid of a can.
“Well, it’s the end of summer in Maine, which means Oktoberfest style beers and pumpkin beers are about to flood the market. We just released our take on a Marzen for market release, and we’re tinkering with some other recipes. Actually, we just brewed something really cool. We collaborated with a local seaweed farm to make a kelp gose.”
There’s silence on the other end of the line as Nick is trying to process what I just said. Being over 500 miles from any coast Nick isn’t well versed in the burgeoning aquaculture enterprises popping up over coastal Maine.
“You did what now?” He asks stupefied.
“You know, kelp. It’s like a sea vegetable.” I say realizing I’m not sure if Kelp is actually a plant –it’s not; it’s a macroalgae, if you are wondering.
“You’re telling me, that people farm seaweed.” I can tell Nick is trying to decide if I’m lying, like when I convinced him real Mainer’s eat softshell lobsters with the shell on.
“Well, yeah. It’s not all fisherman and lobstermen up here. There are salmon farms, oyster hatcheries, rope-grown mussels, and kelp, too.”
Nick proceeds to pepper me with questions about kelp farming. What is kelp used for? How do you grow kelp? How long have people been growing kelp? And more questions I am woefully unprepared to answer.
“It’s used in a lot of food products, maybe cosmetics too. I think they grow it on ropes in the ocean. I could be wrong, but I think Native Americans used to eat kelp or use it for medicine.” I stammer, realizing I really don’t know a ton about the kelp industry in Maine. Our conversation continues for a bit before we say our goodbyes.
I’m left with a feeling that in order to accurately talk about and sell this new collaboration beer, I’ll need to do a little research. Luckily, I know a great place to start –our friends at Atlantic Sea Farms in Biddeford who provided the kelp we used for our beer.
*Cracks fingers, dust-offs the old journalism degree. Dons a tweed jacket and trilby hat. Furious typing as the camera fades out*
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of my exchange with Jessie at Atlantic Sea Farms as they patiently describe the process of Kelp farming and its usage to an ignorant beer guy. Enjoy.
Q: First off, thank you for spending your Friday answering a few questions for me. Would you please introduce yourself to Baxter Brewing’s audience.
Happy to! I’m Jesse Baines, the CMO at Atlantic Sea Farms. We are a vertically integrated seaweed aquaculture company based in Biddeford, Maine, and work with fishermen up and down the coast to farm kelp in their off season from lobstering.
Q: How long have you been a part of Atlantic Sea Farms? What does a day to day look like for you?
I’ve been with Atlantic Sea Farms since 2019, which is when we transitioned from just farming kelp to working with Maine’s working waterfront communities to make kelp aquaculture a viable way for fishermen to diversify their incomes in the face of climate change. Every day is different, as you can imagine when your work spans a vertically integrated supply chain, but one constant is that I’m always sharing how Maine is perfectly positioned to continue to lead in this exciting new industry, and that kelp farming is an example of how we can adapt and improve our food systems to better serve farming and fishing communities. More than ever, people want stories of hope and positive action as we face an increasingly volatile future. I’m always happy to share how seaweed aquaculture in Maine is leading the way.
Q: What services or assistance do you provide to the farmers you work with? How do you identify potential kelp farmers?
All of our partner farmers are part of a community that thrives on collaboration and innovation, and so ensuring that we are all working closely together throughout the year is important to sustainable growth. We provide all of our partner farmers free best-in-class kelp seed, technical support throughout the lease process and growing season, as well as at harvest. Most importantly, we guarantee purchase of every pound of kelp that they grow before they plant out. This entire process mitigates as much risk as possible for farmers, and provides them with the space they need to continue to improve their own farming and harvesting systems, and share that knowledge with each other.
Q: Can you briefly talk about the different species of Maine grown kelp. How do they differ and what each varietal is used for? Which type is used in Baxter Brewing’s Kelp Gose?
We work with skinny kelp and sugar kelp, both of which are in the kelp gose. These are both native species to the waters in which they grow, which is an important step in ensuring that open ocean aquaculture continues to be a viable opportunity for Mainers in the future.
Q: I just had one of your delicious Sea-burgers at Sopo Seafood in South Portland. I’ve also seen your fermented seaweed salad in local stores. How can having a kelp rich diet improve your health? How would you describe the taste of kelp to someone who has never eaten it?
Kelp is so tasty! Plus, it’s one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet, and is a great source of iodine, micronutrients, calcium, potassium, and other essential nutrients. But making sure that, when eating seaweed, you know where it is grown is important for so many reasons. 98% of the seaweed eaten in the US is grown overseas and often in compromised water with questionable labor practices. By growing kelp in the clean, cold waters of Maine, we are ensuring the highest quality product, and you can taste the difference! Often people associate seaweed with a “low-tide” taste, but by harvesting our kelp at the perfect time, in early spring, and growing it in clean water, our kelp has a more vegetal flavor with a hint of umami. And when you ferment it into a gingery, scalliony, umami bomb seaweed salad? It’s my favorite thing.
Q: What are some other products that contain kelp?
Kelp in everything! Right now, our kelp is found all over the country in restaurants and grocery stores. You can find us in everything from our own Sea-Chi (kelp kimchi!) and Kelp Cubes (smoothie cubes!) but also nutritional supplements, granola bars, marinara sauces, and even high-quality pet food. One of my favorite ways to eat kelp is in what we call a “Seagreen Goddess” dressing, which is basically just a vegan ranch, and it’s amazing.
Q: I often find that the beer space is more collaborative than competitive in nature. Although we are competing with each other for cooler space and draft lines, at the end of the day, we also sell hops/malt to breweries that need it, and provide technical assistance when asked. Is it similar in the Kelp world, or is there a tension between kelp farmers and the fisherman/lobster industry? Or kelp farmers and animal rights activists?
We think that it’s really, really important that kelp farming opportunities are there for those already working on the water. There are a few important reasons for this. First, the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of oceans worldwide, and our coastal economy is singularly dependent on one species – lobster. By working with lobstering families to grow kelp in their off season from fishing, and making sure that working waterfront communities are the first in line to activate this opportunity, we are helping to ensure a better future for those most vulnerable to climate change. Second, because of this work, lobstermen lead in kelp aquaculture nationally! In fact, Maine lobstermen represented over 80% of the domestically cultivated seaweed in the country last year. Additionally, they are just going to be better at farming kelp than anyone else. Fishermen have a generational understanding of working on the water, and already have the working infrastructure necessary to be profitable out of the gates. Our community of partner farmers represents over 95% of the kelp harvested in Maine last year, and they are collaborative, innovative, and just darn great at their work. They are leaders in the fight against climate change, and helping to make sure there are opportunities for their kids and grandkids to work on the water for generations to come.
Q: I’ve heard kelp can help clean the water and reduce CO2 emissions –are there other environmental benefits to kelp farming?
Glad you brought this up! Kelp farming captures carbon (the verdict on what it sequesters for carbon is still out, and we are working in partnership with organizations like Oceans2050 to develop and fully understand the science) and nitrogen with every harvest, which also helps to mitigate effects of ocean acidification, a biproduct of excess carbon in the atmosphere. Additionally, kelp is a zero-input crop, which means it requires no arable land, fertilizer, pesticides, feed, or even irrigation to grow! When all of the foods we eat are extractive, kelp actively improves the health of our oceans with every harvest with zero inputs. It’s the most climate friendly food you can eat!
Q: How long have people been growing and eating kelp?
So long! People have been farming seaweed since the 1600s, and eating it well before then. Kelp may be “trending” right now, but it certainly isn’t new. Atlantic Sea Farms just figured out a way to farm it better at scale here in the US, but people have been foraging for seaweeds here for hundreds of years. Plus, the biggest sellers of seaweed are Costco and Trader Joe’s so it isn’t exactly “niche.”
Q: Okay, walk me through the process of kelp farming –from seeding the lines to harvesting. How long does it generally take. What’s a typical good yield. How is raw kelp processed?
We’re in the process of getting our Cultivation Center (aka kelp nursery) season started up as we speak! We’ll use a very small amount of mature kelp, think 10-20lbs, that is ready to spore off to ultimately seed enough lines for a million plus pounds of kelp at harvest. We work with our partner farmers in the fall to prep and seed their farms. Over the course of the growing season, we are working together to do in person farm checks, check growth and quality, and maintain the farms throughout the following few months. When harvest season begins in the spring it’s a swarm of activity. Our team here organizes all logistics under strict food safety standards, and our partner farmers meet our refrigerated trucks at the dock with thousands of pounds of harvested kelp a day. We weigh their harvest right there at the dock together, and from there the kelp is either being flash frozen or becoming a value-added product before the sun goes down that day to continue to ensure the highest quality products. Then once the kelp harvest is wrapped up late-spring, it’s time for most of our partner farmers to start lobstering again. It’s pretty perfectly countercyclical to the lobster fishery here, which is another part of the beauty of farming kelp in Maine.
Q: If I wanted to start a kelp farm, what tools/equipment would I need?
Well, first we suggest having a fully equipped lobster boat. And from there, kelp farming requires much of the same infrastructure needed for fishing. Lines, moorings, buoys, hauling/harvesting equipment. Many of our partner farmers use their scalloping equipment for harvest, many use their hauler and block from lobstering. Both work great. It’s also really important to have landing infrastructure available to you, which is again the same infrastructure used for fishing.
Q: What did the kelp industry look like in Maine 5 years ago. What do you hope it looks like in 5 years?
There has been wild harvest kelp in Maine for years and years. Our friends at Maine Coast Sea Veg have been around for 30+ and are a great company. As farmed kelp goes, our founders started the first commercially viable seaweed farm in the country back in 2009, but the industry didn’t really scale until the last few seasons. Four years ago, we had about 40k lbs of kelp at harvest, and this last season we had just under a million pounds, which represented over 95% of all of the cultivated kelp in Maine, so it’s grown quite a bit in just a few short seasons! And Maine is uniquely positioned to grow and continue to lead in the seaweed aquaculture space. With 4000+ lobster license holders and more coastline than California, Maine is uniquely positioned to be THE state for seaweed aquaculture. It’s a great opportunity for our working waterfront communities to continue to lead in climate action and developing food systems, while ensuring that future generations also have the opportunity to work on the water.
It seems that there is a lot to learn about kelp farming and the industry as a whole in Maine. In some ways, it reminds me of the early days of craft beer in Maine, and in other ways it differs greatly. Maine has become one of the premier destinations for craft beer in the world –it sounds like we are well on our way to becoming the kelp capital of America as well.
With this in mind, Baxter Brewing is proud to have collaborated on our Kelp Gose with Atlantic Sea Farms. Kelp is a perfect additive to a gose beer, as goses tend to be a little salty with a twangy sourness. The malt and hops –usually the stars of the show in the beer world –are complimentary to the kelp and lactic acid. Personally, I think it pairs best with raw oysters on the half shell, but I’m sure it goes down easy with a lobster roll as well. Or have it with some BBQ –I’m not your dad.
Like my college buddy Nick, I too like to enjoy an easy drinking lager in the summer heat. That being said, I’m continually impressed by Baxter Brewing’s brewers. The men and women behind the scenes are the real heroes of the beer space. Like award-winning chefs, they are always thinking about new recipes and new ingredients. It’s an art more than a science. Their ingenuity is the tail that wags the dog.
-Blog by Jonas Burke
Try our Kelp Gose, made with kelp from Atlantic Sea Farms, exclusively at The Pub at Baxter! To learn more about kelp, Atlantic Sea Farms’ mission, and where to find their products, visit Atlantic Sea Farms!