For sharp-eyed travelers along the Three Rivers Wine Trail, they may spot an uncommon creature known for its friendliness, camraderie and ability to create a party at a moment’s notice.
It’s the “Mangalitsa Pig,” or, in this case, the Wooly Pig Farm Brewery where Kevin Ely and the extended Malenke family raise wooly pigs and raise the spirits of those who visit. While the address is 23631 Township Road 167, Fresno, the brewery is just one mile off a stretch of U.S. 36 a few miles west of Newcomerstown.
Brewmaster Ely started the Wooly Pig Farm Brewery at this location because he said it reminded him of the hills of Northern Bavaria, where he’d developed his taste in classic German beers and a skill in cutting-edge brewing techniques. Ely, a former brewmaster of Salt Lake City’s Uinta Brewing Company, a top-50 craft brewery in the U.S. by volume, holds a degree in brewing science from UC Davis. As their website says, “In short, he knows how to brew good beer.”
“2014 is when we started to seriously consider opening a brewery on the farm,” Ely said. “In March of 2016, Jael (his wife) and I moved from Salt Lake City, Utah, to begin work on the brewery. It took a solid 18 months of work to realize our plan. Pigs and breweries have enjoyed a long and traditional relationship. Pigs eat the spent grain that is a waste product from the brewing process, and brewers and their families or customers eat the pigs. We sidestream as much of our solid and liquid waste to the wooly pigs as possible. The wooly pig breed is technically called Mangalitsa, and I had seen these in Bavaria in 2011 on a bike tour visiting breweries. We knew we wanted to do German-style beers and so, we decided to showcase some German-style pigs as well. We chose the name to reflect the unique breed and our pride in the farm.”
Ely said that operation of the brewery is very much a family affair. The Malenkes have been in the Fresno area for over 35 years. Jael, Nate and Aaron all left the state to go to college but eventually they all returned to be full or part-time residents in Fresno. When the 90-acre farm became available in 2014, Kevin and his wife, Jael Malenke, who grew up on a homestead less than a mile away. teamed up with Jael’s brother, Aaron Malenke, a farmer, and Aaron’s wife, Lauren Malenke, a veterinarian, to purchase the site.
Jael and her “beer-loving family” have been involved from day one, helping plan, build, and run the brewery and tend the 90-acre farm that surrounds it. This includes Jael Malenke, a biologist-turned-businesswoman and mother of Astrid and Soren; Aaron Malenke, a farmer and fix-it-man; his wife Lauren Malenke, a large animal veterinarian; Todd Malenke, a blacksmith artist and carpenter; and Patti Malenke, museum curator and “grandma extraordinaire”; Nate Malenke, a blacksmith knife-maker; and his wife Lucy Bryan Malenke, a writer and college professor.
“Our family and the community that surrounds and supports us is one of the fundamental reasons why we built the brewery where we did,” Ely said. “We are slowly growing with the addition of two more cousins in the last 12 months. Family allows us to be dedicated yet flexible, and to be able to spend at least some of our work time as family time, also.”
But there were bleak times on the way to Wooly Pig Farm Brewery being up and running.
Ely said the largest challenge was getting the primary brewing and fermentation equipment manufactured. The family chose a manufacturer in Canton, which combined local, USA manufacturing and good prices. Unfortunately, before the manufacturer completely finished the brewing system, the business went under. While the company was able to pick up its primary tanks, family members had to do a number of fixes on their own. Ely's experience in building breweries allowed him to do much of the work himself or to be able to give detailed instructions to specialty workers (like welders) to make the necessary changes. In addition, the family had arranged to do the final cladding of all the tanks in wood from the farm, rather than stainless steel. As a result, Ely said there was one fewer step to completion for all the tanks, “which means we got to pick them up earlier. We came out much better than some other breweries that lost the majority or all of their down payments with nothing to show for it.”
“The other major challenges we faced were less interesting,” Ely said. “As a rural brewery, we had to think outside the box when it came to major utilities. There is no municipal water or sewer supply. Likewise, we needed more electrical power to the site. We were able to find solutions to all these hiccoughs with the help of local expertise.
“The Wooly Pig has become a social hub for the local community, and we love that quality. We have met and become friends with neighbors from in and around Fresno that we never knew before. It is a place where people bring their out-of-town guests. They meet old friends here to catch up, and bring their kids to play. We didn't necessarily expect to meet that need in our very rural area, but it has become a pleasure and an honor to help foster pride-of-place in Coshocton county.
“Being off the beaten path has its advantages. We have no cell phone service or public wifi or televisions in the brewery. As a result, people in the tasting room have to talk to each other, think about the beer they're drinking, and look around at their surroundings. We were worried that that would put people out, but instead it seems to be a good thing.
“Craft beer doesn't have to be for beer nerds. The more traditional German lager styles we focus on tend to be clean and drinkable beers reflecting the fact that they have been drunk for decades (or even centuries) by men, women, old and young across Germany. We want the Wooly Pig Farm Brewery and its beers to have the same broad appeal. We have had soooooo many people in here tell us they have never tried craft beer before and ask us where to start. We point them to the Rustic Helles, and often, in no time, they are trying the Keller Pils or Dunkel or Schwarzbier. We love making converts to craft beer and to these very approachable beer styles.”
And breweries all over the country are experimenting with different tastes.
The Associated Press, in a recent article, wrote, “Anyone for steak and onion Kolsch? Or a macaroni and cheese pale ale?
“Those were among the flavors at the Strange Brew Festival in Reno, Nevada, this month, where competition for attention has intensified as craft beers have boomed.
“Brewers have always experimented, from the medieval Belgians who stirred sour cherries into their beer to newer varieties like the white IPA, a marriage of Belgian and American styles that was developed about a decade ago.
“But today’s brewers have kicked it up a notch as they try to distinguish themselves from everyone else trying to distinguish themselves.
“Visitors at the festival in Reno could sample a peanut butter and pickle pilsner, a tamale lager and a smoked carrot stout. There were concoctions from big brewers like Sierra Nevada and smaller local brew pubs, sweet beers brewed with Jolly Ranchers and spicy ones that tasted like garlic bread or mango salsa.”
The U.S. had 7,346 craft brewers last year, up 93% from 2014, according to the Brewers Association, an industry trade group. Craft beer sales rose 7% to $27.6 billion last year, about one-fourth of the total U.S. beer market.