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Colorado barley farmers aim to brew a sustainable future with novel grains

By Tiney Ricciardi, The Denver Post
Published: December 17, 2023, 6:09am

On a sunny day in late September, Todd Olander was out in the fields of a 90-acre farm in Berthoud planting rows of barley.

Typically, Olander would let the soil rest through the winter months, but in recent years he’s begun experimenting with new varieties of barley that have been specifically adapted to withstand cold temperatures. Growing in the winter means the crops will absorb precipitation through the spring, a vital advantage as weather in the Western U.S. continues to get hotter and drier.

As the proprietor of both Olander Farms and Root Shoot Malting, which supplies Colorado breweries and spirit makers with locally grown and malted grains, Olander has to innovate to sustain his family’s 97-year-old farm. About five years ago, he began taking proactive steps to prepare for what he expects to be the next big challenge: the water crisis.

That looming threat was enough to begin cultivating the winter-friendly Lightning, Thunder and Buck barley without yet having customers for them.

“I can see the writing on the wall just with everything going on with water in Colorado. There’s a possibility of a reduction in our allotment and also the possibility of not having runoff we typically see from snowpack,” Olander said. “That’s why I’m trying to be ahead of the game.”

As the Colorado River continues to dry, local barley growers and maltsters are seeking out creative solutions to sustain their businesses in the face of climate change. Some are embracing nontraditional and drought-resistant grains while others are investing in technology to become more efficient. Their innovations aim to reduce water usage and bring the supply chain for craft beer and spirits closer to home, in hopes of ultimately building a resilient ecosystem that supports farmers, brewers and distillers in Colorado.

In 2022, local farmers grew 4,440,000 bushels of barley, the sixth most in the nation, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. A large portion of that is purchased by Coors Brewing, which contracts with around 800 growers in the Western states and Canada, according to the company’s website.

But Colorado is also home to several craft malthouses that kiln and roast barley for smaller brewers and distillers to use in making beer and liquor. Still, buying local has yet to become the norm since craft malt usually fetches a premium price.

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Brewer Eric Larkin has been working with Troubadour Maltings in Fort Collins to procure custom malts since he opened Cohesion Brewing Co. in Denver two years ago. It’s not the cheapest option, but it works because the brewery specializes in specialty Czech-style lagers.

Larkin’s other options would be to import malt from Europe or use European-style malts grown in the U.S. While sourcing local might present unique challenges, the benefits of keeping his dollars in the local economy outweigh any potential downfalls, Larkin said.

“Every crop I get from Troubadour, the malt changes and I have to make adjustments in the brewhouse,” he said, acknowledging it’s easier for a small operation that focuses on a limited portfolio of styles to do that. “Keeping your dollars with local and small producers, the impact it can have really multiplies. It stays a little closer to home. That idea has always been really valuable to me from an economic standpoint and environmental standpoint.”

Spreading the gospel of local grain

The nonprofit Colorado Grain Chain aims to spread that ethos more widely with a variety of projects that connect local producers and makers, and incentivize collaboration. For example, the organization is currently building a digital marketplace where farmers can connect with companies or entrepreneurs seeking to purchase locally-grown grains.

Project manager Lisa Boldt, who also co-owns Primitive Beer in Longmont, sees a unique opportunity to amplify the Grain Chain’s message in the beverage space. That’s why the organization recently offered $4,000 “microgrants” to brewers and distillers who used novel grains in a new product.

Cohesion and WeldWerks Brewing Co. in Greeley received one grant to team up on a special release, Foamies Czech-style pale lager, using custom malts from Troubadour. The beer debuted in August and a second batch is due for release in November.

WildEdge Brewing Collective in Cortez earned a grant to experiment with a Munich wheat from Root Shoot Malting, with which it created a Dunkelweizen-inspired beer called From the Fields. Steamboat Springs’ Routt Distillery, another grant recipient, leveraged a trial batch of barley grown in Montrose by Proximity Malts for its new West Slope Sarvis Gin, which also features locally foraged sarvisberries.

Perhaps the most intriguing microgrant project came from Dune Valley Distillery in Mosca, which will release a vodka made from quinoa in January. The distillery, which opened this summer in the historic Mosca Community Hall and Gymnasium, shares a campus with a local food hub and a potato and quinoa processing plant. It specializes in making potato vodka specifically because of the resources at its disposal, said managing partner Nicholas Chambers.

“The local food approach is that you learn to consume what’s grown right near you,” Chambers said. “We are at literally the center of North American quinoa right here. It’s such a good crop for us because of low water use and it fits with our valley.”

Reducing water usage

One underutilized opportunity Audrey Paugh, marketing and networking specialist at the Grain Chain, sees for beverages is in millet. Colorado is the country’s top producer of proso millet, a gluten-free and drought-tolerant ancient grain. The state is also home to Grouse Malt House, one of the few U.S. maltsters dedicated to gluten-free grains.

Twila Soles founded the company with her late partner in 2013 after years of having celiac disease and being dissatisfied with gluten-free beer options. Malting even gluten-free grains requires a lot of water. Recently, Soles upgraded her system to include a steep tank that uses up to 40% less water than her original equipment.

Soles sources most of her grains within 200 miles of the malting facility in Wellington and has seen her producers weather unpredictable and sometimes devastating growing seasons.

“Using a crop (such as millet) that takes less water to thrive is important now and will be even more important as climate change continues to impact weather patterns,” said Soles, whose biggest Colorado client is the gluten-free Holidaily Brewing Co. “I’m hopeful that the use of more drought-tolerant crops for craft beer grows.”

In Alamosa, Jason Cody knows the value of diversifying crops and revenue streams. Cody saw firsthand the desire for local, craft malts when he opened Colorado Malting Co. in 2008. At one point, Cody had more than 100 breweries waiting for the opportunity to buy his products. The venture saved his family farm, which first began growing barley for Coors in the 1990s.

But business has slowed amid economic pressures and larger companies cashing in on demand for cost-effective malts. So these days he focuses on serving a niche base of distillers and brewers.

Water usage is always top of mind for Cody, who manages the 300-acre farm his ancestors purchased nearly a century ago. In 2018, Cody began making original beers at his Colorado Farm Brewery, which highlights sustainable practices from grain to glass. He grows and malts his own grains, uses an original strain of yeast and recycles all the water from the brewing process to irrigate his farm.

“Every single gallon of water we use in the brewery that goes down the drain, goes out to the center pivot irrigation sprinklers and is injected into the line that the sprinkler is running on,” Cody said.

An added bonus: The brewery’s wastewater repeatedly tests high in nitrogen, sulfur, potassium and other compounds that reinvigorate soil, so he needs fewer fertilizers to keep the ground healthy.

Back in Berthoud, Olander has yet to malt last year’s winter crop, so he doesn’t know what it tastes like or if brewers will be interested in using it. Olander is hopeful Lightning in particular will be an apt pilsner-style product and catch on, but he’s not waiting for feedback to continue his experiment.

Last year, he planted 15 acres of Thunder, 15 acres of Lightning and seven acres of Kernza. This year, he planted 20 acres of Lightning and 10 acres of Buck.

“We decided, let’s roll the dice and go with Lightning,” he said. “Hopefully winter treats everything well and they’ll survive.”

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