Entrepreneurial spirit(s)

Illinois farm taps into a new home-grown revenue channel with bourbon production.

Craft spirits are a multi-billion-dollar industry, and the ingredients needed to make them are already being grown on farms across the country. So it may come as no surprise, then, that more farmers are branching into a new area of expertise and distilling their own crops into profitable new products like bourbon, rye or vodka.

One such farmer is Adam Stumpf, a millennial farmer on an eighth-generation operation in Columbia, Ill., a quiet town just across the river from St. Louis. Stumpf’s brainchild is Stumpy’s Spirits, which started producing bourbon and other craft spirits starting in 2015.

Stumpf worked out an arrangement with his father and uncle to rent 350 of the family operation’s 4,000 acres to grow corn, barley and rye to distill. In exchange, he gets access to their farm equipment throughout the season.

“My dad got a puzzled look when I first came to him with my idea and wondered if I was crazy,” he says. “And he gets it – it’s a big investment.”

Incidentally, Stumpf says growing his own grain to distill doesn’t even provide much of a cost advantage to producing bourbon. That’s because the glass bottles, taxes and even the label all cost more than the grain he uses.

In addition, some craft distilleries buy ethanol, dilute it to 80 proof and sell it.

“I can’t compete anywhere close to that on price,” he says. “My advantage is the selling story and quality control.”

Learning curve

Stumpf’s challenge has been threefold – he is in turns a farmer, a distiller and a salesman. Graduating Missouri S&T and Washington universities with degrees in engineering and business helped set the stage, as did a four-year stint working off the farm for Anheuser-Busch.

To make bourbon that adheres to its legal definition, it must have a mash bill that contains at least 51% corn and be stored in new charred-oak barrels. The other 49% of the grain used is typically a blend of rye or wheat plus malted barley.

Most liquor leans on No. 2 Field Corn, but Stumpf has been experimenting with different heirloom varieties such as a white corn and a purplish-red hybrid ominously named “Bloody Butcher.”

Growing malt-grade barley has taken a bit of finesse, Stumpf admits. He’s relatively new to the crop, and he had to tweak his fertility program with a lower nitrogen rate so the crop would develop more starch and less protein (which can cause a lot of unwanted foam during the distilling process). Once the barley is harvested, he has to ship it to Indiana to get it malted because there’s no local infrastructure in place to do so.

Stumpf also buys a particular variety of rye from Germany. He used to grow cover crop rye but says it was harder to grow and was sometimes susceptible to getting flattened when it stormed.

Next comes the distilling process. Stumpy’s Spirits has upgraded its capacity four times since it began, with a current capacity of 100,000 gallons of product. Each batch of spirits uses about 10,000 pounds of grain and is handled with a mishmash of unique equipment.

For example, the distillery uses a 1962 grain cleaner Stumpf bought off Craigslist. Grain starch is converted to sugar using an old cheese vat, with cooling tubes repurposed from an old Chobani yogurt plant. And Stumpf’s newest still is a one-off prototype that combines some best practices from the ethanol, oil refinery and bourbon industries. (“I finally got to use my engineering degree,” he jokes).

Once the spirits have been adequately stored and aged, they can be bottled. Many of the processes from start to finish require some manual precision, keeping the pace mostly slow and steady.

“Being a small bootstrap operation, there are opportunity costs with time, not just with money,” he says.

Selling is the final and sometimes most difficult step, Stumpf says, because you have to convince a distributor to buy it, who in turn convinces a retailer to buy it, who in turn convinces a consumer to make the final purchase.

But through some hard work and persistence, Stumpy’s Spirits are now sold at more than 300 locations in the St. Louis area. Stumpf and his wife, Laura, also run a storefront outside of Columbia where they can make some additional direct sales. They are also planning an expansion for a venue to host parties, weddings and other social gatherings.

It’s been a wild ride so far, Laura says: “This is completely different than anything I ever expected to be doing.”

The work has been hard but rewarding, Adam adds.

“If this wasn’t our passion, we wouldn’t be doing it,” he says. “I’m having a lot of fun.”

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