With climate change looming, Colorado farmers pilot grains for beer

Under bright sunshine in the late September fields of a 90-acre farm in Berthoud, Todd Olander was hard at work planting rows of barley. Despite typically letting the soil rest through the winter, Olander has begun experimenting with new varieties of barley adapted to withstand cold temperatures, in an effort to absorb precipitation through the spring. As the proprietor of Olander Farms and Root Shoot Malting, which supplies locally grown and malted grains to Colorado breweries and spirit makers, Olander is constantly innovating to sustain his family’s 97-year-old farm.

Preparing for the looming water crisis, Olander and his team planted 20 acres of winter-friendly Lightning barley, designed to endure cold temperatures and soak up precipitation through the spring. As water in Colorado becomes increasingly scarce, Olander acknowledged the importance of being “ahead of the game.” Similarly, local barley growers and maltsters across Colorado are seeking out creative solutions to sustain their businesses in the face of climate change, such as embracing nontraditional and drought-resistant grains and investing in Technology to reduce water usage and bring the supply chain for craft beer and spirits closer to home.

In 2022, local farmers grew a total of 4,440,000 bushels of barley, making Colorado the sixth-largest producer of barley in the nation, with a large portion of the yield purchased by Coors Brewing. Yet, Colorado is also home to several craft malthouses that kiln and roast barley for smaller brewers and distillers, with the benefits of buying local outweighing potential downfalls, particularly for breweries specializing in specialty Czech-style lagers.

The nonprofit Colorado Grain Chain aims to connect local producers and makers and incentivize collaboration, such as offering “microgrants” to brewers and distillers using novel grains in new products, with the aim of amplifying the Grain Chain’s message. For example, Cohesion Brewing Co. and WeldWerks Brewing Co. teamed up on a special release, Foamies Czech-style pale lager, using custom malts from Troubadour, while WildEdge Brewing Collective used Munich wheat from Root Shoot Malting to create a Dunkelweizen-inspired beer called From the Fields, with hopes to expand the use of more drought-tolerant crops for craft beer in the future.

Ultimately, local farmers and maltsters across Colorado are employing innovative strategies, such as using less water, diversifying crops and revenue streams, and focusing on sustainable practices from grain to glass, to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change on their businesses.

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