A Square Peg for a Spare Keg

Digging into a farm-to-keg brewery on a growth track

Grain School in the Field, Day Two. San Luis Valley, CO.

It’s pretty common these days for Colorado breweries to tout Colorado grains and malts in their offerings. Even Coors built its back on Colorado-grown grains and Rocky Mountain spring water, Colorado’s beer before the craft beer explosion we have today.

But how many breweries can point to a field and say, “Come by the taproom and drink that barley we grew”?

Square Peg Brewerks, based out of Alamosa, brings Colorado barley to its brewery straight from owner Derek Heersink’s farm. The farm provides the grain, which is brewed by co-owner Mark Martinez, and served up in taprooms in Alamosa and Creede.

Derek Heersink discusses the trials and tribulations of barley growing in the San Luis Valley.
Download permissions. (Photo credit: Matt Maenpaa)

Neither Heersink or Martinez has a background in fermentation science. Martinez studied geography and taught social studies, while Heersink earned his degrees in crop science and agricultural business.

“We started out homebrewing in Mark’s backyard every other weekend,” Heersink explains.

For Martinez, it started with beer tastings in college—regular beer drinking evolved into sampling any craft brews they could get their hands on. From there, it turned into brewing, which produced more beer than they could get rid of throwing parties for their friends.

The business came from an overabundance of not just beer, but the barley itself. Heersink was growing barley for Coors and had some serious overage, he explains. Coors didn’t pay very well for anything over their pre-ordered allotment, so Heersink suggested they find a malster and brew with it themselves.

“We made some pretty damn good beer, but it still took a couple years of twisting Mark’s arm to convince him to quit teaching and just dive in, but we got it going,” Heersink says with a laugh.

Five years later, surviving not only a pandemic but the life of farming in a region that gets less and less water every year, Square Peg Brewerks is on an upward trajectory. Production and equipment have scaled up by necessity to meet an increasing demand from surrounding areas.

“We pivoted our business model away from a small-scale tap room into canning and exploring the distribution side,” Martinez says. “That was a COVID necessity to keep our doors open, but thankfully it’s been a successful change for us.”

Beyond navigating the hazards inherent in any brewing business, the brewery also has to contend with crop yields, soil quality and water rights. Heersink has about 200 acres of barley growing any given year, moving more toward no-till farming and efficient irrigation methods to contend with increasing diesel and water costs.

“Some of the innovation we use on the farm, we’re trying to get by with using less equipment. More efficient tractors, less tillage,” Heersink explains.

Heersink currently grows most of his barley for Proximity Malt, which has a malthouse in nearby Monte Vista. He mostly grows Genie and Odyssey barley varietals, because that’s what his market needs, but Heersink is also working with newer genetic strains of barley that are more drought tolerant in both yield and water usage.

“We’re always trying to be innovative and find the next best genetics,” he adds. “Technology is good and science is here to help us. We’re getting less and less water here every year and paying more for what we do get. It’s out of necessity that we have to find a new way of doing things.”

Square Peg only uses about 50,000 pounds worth of the barley they grow, so the rest goes to Proximity and lands in breweries and distilleries around the country. Heersink’s innovation-focused regenerative farming has also landed him in conversations with other breweries looking to spearhead more sustainable brewing practices.

Being able to go out on the tractors and ride the combine with Heersink has also helped Martinez connect better with the beer.

“There are a few other breweries like us, but I think it definitely sets us apart,” Martinez says. “As a brewer, I have a little deeper appreciation now. Homebrewing, you just order it online or go to a supply store, but with this I’m out with the harvest, planting in the spring. This is cool.”

Cans of beer haven’t made it up to the Denver metro area yet, but Martinez says the plan is to cover the whole state, once they navigate some of the growing pains. The biggest one is the name itself, Square Peg. When they originally started the business, it wasn’t an issue, but with expansion on the horizon they went to trademark the name and found it was already taken.

So, relaunching in October, the brewery will be known as Spare Keg Brewerks, to avoid any legal entanglements with a vineyard in California. 

“So buy all the Square Peg merch we have left,” Heersink says, “it’ll be a collector’s item.” 

Email: mattmaenpaa@gmail.com

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