Monte Vista, Colorado –
Mention Coors Light or Miller Lite and I would be willing to bet most readers of this blog will immediately think of this:
Rather than this:
We came to the San Luis Valley in Colorado to cut malt barley for farmers who had contracted with MillerCoors. We once cut a small patch of barley in Montana but I’m fairly certain it was used for feed, not for brewing purposes. So, I was excited to see what this was all about. We’ve had harvester friends talk about the Valley for quite a few years and I’ve always wondered what it would be like.
Once here, I found the Valley to be so interesting and each time we passed the MillerCoors Barley Elevator, I knew a story was waiting to be told.
I had the opportunity to meet Kim Hayden (Regional Manager) one day when Casey and I went inside the office to get a sample tested for moisture. I was determined to find out if I could tell the story – the story of field to product – so, I asked. She said she would have to get in touch with someone at the headquarters in Chicago, IL first and would let me know. The next thing I know, I’m receiving a phone call from Jonathan Stern (Director of Media/Investor Relations) and a time is set up for a conference call for the three of us. I told them I wasn’t a real journalist but I write a blog and I wanted to share with the general public what it takes to get the barley from the field to the brewery.
This is the story as told by the harvester, who sat in the cab of the combine, who cut the barley, that was dumped in a truck, that was driven to the elevator, that was dumped in the pit, that ultimately became a can of Coors Light or Miller Lite beer.
The Company and the Farmer
MillerCoors contracts with 151 farmers in the Valley to grow 45,000 acres of barley which will be used exclusively for the MillerCoors products. Every one of these acres are grown under an irrigation pivot which supplies the life-giving water from ancient, underground aquifers. The aquifers are replenished by the snowpack in the surrounding mountains. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, the Valley (the largest and highest commercial agricultural valley in the world) is a high altitude desert (7,500 feet or more) and receives an annual rainfall of less than 7”. Shoot…we sometimes get that much rain in one storm in eastern Nebraska. It’s the warm, sunny days and cool nights which provide the perfect growing conditions for the barley in this area.
Most of the custom harvesters who are in the area have been here for years, some are multi-generational – just as the farmers who grow for MillerCoors. According to Kim, they have been contracting directly with the same local barley growers for almost 70 years. They consider their growers family and have been working with two or three generations of the same family.
MillerCoors also contracts 8,000-10,000 acres of barley with 50 growers in northern Colorado – Longmont and Ft. Collins. They also have facilities in Idaho, Montana (Billings and Power) and Wyoming (Worlund).
Harvest and Tests
Barley harvest begins in August and will continue into September. MillerCoors has very strict tests that every truckload of barley will have to pass in order to be used for their product.
When the truckloads of barley leave the field and make their way to the elevator, the wait between entering the yard and actually sitting on the scale can sometimes be quite long. According to harvesters who have been coming here for quite some time, the wait time has been greatly reduced from what it used to be. However, the line can still be several hours to most of the day, depending on the number of trucks making their way to the facility. The elevator closes the gates at 5:00pm…period.
When the truck arrives at the scale, a probe is used to obtain a sample of the grain. They will test moisture, protein, plumpness of the barley and physical analysis. Physical analysis includes diseased and damaged kernels, chemical damage, insect damage, mold or fungus, skin and “brokens” (primarily due to combine) and foreign materials (wheat, rocks, beards). They want to guarantee they are purchasing high quality barley.
The samples are kept in clear plastic bags identified by the grower’s name. At the end of harvest, a Grower Composite includes every sample saved from each grower’s truckload that entered the facility. This also provides the facility with a form of traceability in case a problem shows up later.
A Daily Composite is created by keeping a portion of each grower’s sample brought to the facility each day. At the end of the day, all samples are combined together and a daily analysis is run. This analysis can be provided to MillerCoors’ malting and brewing customers. Through these daily composites, they can let their customers know the quality of the barley and how the harvest is progressing.
The barley is stored and conditioned by running air through the grain pile to bring the temperature down to 40 degrees to eliminate bug issues and can be stored for up to a year. The ultimate goal for the elevator in Monte Vista is to purchase a high quality product and take care of it until it’s needed for the next step – malting. The elevator will ship throughout the year to the MillerCoors facility in Golden, Colorado for the malting process.
Headed to the Malt House
100% of the barley contracted in the San Luis Valley will go to the MillerCoors brewery in Golden, Colorado. Once it arrives in Golden, it is stored in silos to be cleaned and prepared for the malting process. The brewery owns their own malt house.
The malting process is basically tricking the barley into growing or beginning the chemical process of breaking down complex starches into simple sugars without growing a plant. So, in other words, to trick the grain to start growing…but not really. Yeah, I didn’t quite understand that either until Kim explained it to me in more detail.
There are three phases in malting – steeping, germination and kilning.
- Steeping – The barley is soaked in big tanks filled with water to encourage it to grow before the water is drained. The moisture is allowed to go from 12% to 45%.
- Germination – The wetted grain is allowed to grow under controlled conditions. This is where the complex starches break down into simple sugars without growing a plant. You want simple sugars so the yeast can consume the sugars to produce the alcohol for the beer.
- Kilning – Before sprouting goes too far, the barley is toasted with warm air in a kiln. The kiln can be used for more than simply stopping growth. Time in the kiln controls color, from pale gold to rich chocolate. It also controls flavor, creating beer that’s sweet and mellow or dark and bitter.
After the kilning takes place, the malted barley is stored until it is ground into malt flour, called “grist.” Milling cracks the tough outer hull of the grain so water can get in and dissolve the starch and sugars inside.
I found the remaining steps directly from the MillerCoors website (their website is beautiful, by the way):
Mashing – Mashing is the final process of converting any remaining starch into fermentable sugar.
Hot water is added to the grist to produce a mixture called “mash.” The combination of heat and natural enzymes from the barley breaks down the starches into fermentable sugars. This process takes place in large kettles called mash tuns. When the sugar content is just right, the mash is filtered to separate the solid husks and germ of the grain from the sweet liquid. The solids, which make nutritious, high-protein animal feed, are sold to local farmers. The sweet liquid, called “wort,” is transferred to another kettle. The wort is heated to a boil to clarify it and reduce excess water. Hops are added at this stage for their aroma and spiciness, and to balance the sweetness. After boiling, the wort is strained, cooled and transferred to a fermentation tank.
Fermenting and Aging – When the wort cools, yeast is added, and fermentation begins. It takes a while for the yeast to multiply, but once there’s enough, it consumes the sugars and produces alcohol and CO2 (carbonation). The fermentation tank is constantly kept at cool temperatures for the yeast to do the best job. Fermenting typically takes eight to 10 days. After fermentation, the filtered, fermented wort is officially beer. But at this stage the young beer needs to mature. For most beers (and all lagers), the next step is aging and secondary fermentation in large tanks. A term for this stage is “lagering,” German for “storing.” During the aging process, the beer matures, develops its natural carbonation and its unique flavor. Ale yeast likes warmer temperatures than lager yeast. So the ales ferment and go through their aging at less icy temperatures than their lager counterparts. It’s why lagers and ales taste different. When aging is complete and the flavors found in the beers are in perfect harmony, it’s time for their ultimate destination.
We all know this fun fact about wheat – A bushel of wheat yields 42 one-and-a-half pound commercial loaves of white bread OR about 90 one-pound loaves of whole wheat bread. So, I thought it would be fun to know fun facts about barley and something to think about the next time you open a beer.
What Goes Into My Beer?
On average, a single 12 oz. serving requires:
72 oz. water
0.0700 lb. malted barley
0.0260 lb. unmalted rice or corn
0.0003 lb. hops
One bushel of barley produces approximately 565 12 oz. beers.
Our truck averaged 1,000 bushels of barley OR 565,000 12 oz. beers.
Now, let’s go a little bit further…
45,000 acres of San Luis Valley barley x 150 bushels per acre =
6,750,000 bushels of barley
6,750,000 bushels x 565 = 3,813,750,000 12 oz. beers
THAT’S A WHOLE LOT OF BEER!!
Thank you, Jonathan and Kim, for providing me with the details I needed to tell the story. I will forever think about what it takes to produce a bottle of beer – from the field to the fridge!
All Aboard Wheat Harvest™ is sponsored by High Plains Journal and New Holland Agriculture. The Z Crew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org