Farm to quaff: How a Colorado nonprofit connects beer and spirit lovers to local sources

Farm to quaff: How a Colorado nonprofit connects beer and spirit lovers to local sources

Farm to quaff: How a Colorado nonprofit connects beer and spirit lovers to local sources

Story first appeared in:

Many consumers of craft beers and spirits pride themselves on being able to draw a clear line from their beverage to a local brewer or distiller. But a Colorado nonprofit is trying to help extend that line further up the supply chain, so consumers can trace their drink all the way to the farmer.

The Colorado Grain Chain has funded a small number of beer and spirits projects with the idea of promoting Colorado-grown grains, like wheat, barley and quinoa, while helping consumers to broaden their view — these beverages aren’t just made locally, but sourced locally.

Despite being in a state that’s a leader in the craft beer and craft spirits industries, the vast majority of grain used by Colorado brewers and distillers comes from out of state, sometimes even from Europe and Canada, Grain Chain project manager Lisa Boldt said.

“There are a number of breweries that dabble,” she said. “There’s a couple that use a majority or all Colorado grains. But it is by-and-large commodity grains being used by brewers and distillers in the state, because it’s what everyone did, and it’s easy, and it’s cheaper.

“There’s no story to it, and you don’t know who you’re supporting. It’s probably not a small family farm like your brewery is a small family-run brewery.”

She’s speaking on the topic as someone with skin in the game. Her work at the Colorado Grain Chain is in addition to helping run Primitive Beer in Longmont, where she and her husband, Brandon, use all Colorado grain, grown within 30 miles and malted in Fort Collins. She said the benefits range from lower transportation costs and a smaller shipping carbon footprint, to the ability to work directly with the farmer and the maltster to get a product dialed in to the brewer or distiller’s particular needs.

“If we as brewers and distillers want the local community to support us, to buy our products and come to our tasting rooms, I think it’s important that we support the local ingredients that go into our products,” she said. “The flavors are incredible, we get such a high-quality product, and you’re supporting local farmers who are running businesses just like you. By keeping them in business, you’re keeping the whole food system working.”

A clipboard tracking production of WildEdge Brewing Collective’s Colorado Grain Chain collaborative beer, From the Fields, hangs on a wall near fermentation tanks. (Corey Robinson, for WildEdge Brewing Collective)

It’s connecting you back to where you’re living.

Audrey Paugh, Grain Chain’s marketing and networking specialist

Support for growers is becoming essential as the pressures of commercial development and the commodity grain market continue to squeeze out small farmers who can’t match the razor-thin margins of a large farm leveraging greater economies of scale, said Audrey Paugh, marketing and networking specialist for the Grain Chain. 

The nonprofit is member-supported and, among other things, helps small-scale farmers to network and market their products. Many of them include heritage varieties of small grains in their crop rotations and produce high-value types of barley, wheat and rye that are appealing to artisanal brewers, bakers and distillers who, in turn, can charge a bit more for products that have a local story attached.

“It’s connecting you back to where you’re living,” Paugh said.

She also noted a 2022 survey by Colorado State University that showed an overwhelming level of support for local food and agriculture among Coloradans. 

“Nationally, we’re losing farmland every day, and the more we can have local farms in Colorado profiting, being channeled into our local food and beverage industries, the more they’re going to be able to survive,” she said.

Win-win

Sometimes the level of support that drinkers want to offer to producers and producers want to offer growers runs up against financial constraints, Boldt noted. This can be reflected in higher prices for ingredients grown locally at a smaller scale, or in the increased risk when using new ingredients that a brewer or distiller may not be as familiar with.

“Everyone has to watch their bottom lines, and there are pressures from all sides, and you can only raise your prices,” she said. “We decided, let’s take away the risk, let’s give people these microgrants, let’s see what kinds of beverages they come up with using all Colorado grains. We’ll help market it, they’ll help market the Grain Chain in return, so it’s a win-win that way.”

LEFT: WeldWerks Brewery in Greeley. RIGHT: Jordan Wheeler monitors beer canning at WeldWerks on Nov. 10. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun). (Photographer credit)

TOP: WeldWerks Brewery in Greeley. BOTTOM: Jordan Wheeler monitors beer canning at WeldWerks on Nov. 10. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun). (Photographer credit)

To that end, the Grain Chain used part of a $109,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation to support four beverage collaborations — two beers and two spirits — with $4,000 microgrants.

The selection committee prioritized grain-forward products and different grain types and sources when choosing which projects to fund. They also considered other factors, such as collaboration among multiple producers or with other supply chain members, and assessed aspects of the projects that may contribute to sustainability.

The breweries and distilleries are able to leverage free ingredients toward a profitable product, while the Colorado Grain Chain receives free advertising and marketing, and the grantees will report back on information regarding the grain itself, handling and yield, customer feedback, with write-ups available for members.

“If another brewery or distillery wants to take a risk and use quinoa or a specific type of special wheat, they have this report they can turn to and say, ‘Let’s see what their experience was,’” Boldt said.

The two beers were the first to hit the market, starting with Foamies, a Czech-style lager that came out of a collaboration between Denver’s Cohesion Brewing and WeldWerks Brewing in Greeley. Eric Larkin, brewer and founder at Cohesion, said the project with WeldWerks’ head brewer Skip Schwartz had been long in coming. 

“I’ve been wanting to brew with Skip and the WeldWerks crew. We’ve been colleagues going back five years or so,” Larkin said. “It was an easy fit with some of the core values that we started Cohesion with and want to do, and he was on board.”

They’d been discussing a collaboration for a couple of years, Larkin said, but the effort was delayed with the installation of a new brewhouse at WeldWerks. He had gotten used to brewing with local grain when he worked at Odd13 Brewing in Lafayette, and when he started Cohesion to focus on Czech lagers, he began working primarily with Troubadour Maltings. Like other malting companies, Troubadour prepares grains for brewing, steeping, germinating and sometimes roasting the grains used in the fermentation process. The malting process differs depending on the type of beer.

“We built a custom base malt with them, we work with them a ton,” Larkin said. “When we do collaborations, I try to advocate for local malt, craft malt. I think there’s a variety of benefits — economic, relationship, diversity of flavor profiles.”

Colorado Sunday issue No. 113: "A local link to your drink"

This story first appeared in
Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members.

Experience the best in Colorado news at a slower pace, with thoughtful articles, unique adventures and a reading list that’s a perfect fit for a Sunday morning.

Schwartz had also worked with Troubadour while at the now-defunct Black Project Spontaneous and Wild Ales in Denver. WeldWerks uses more malt than a craft maltster like Troubadour can provide, but he jumped at the opportunity to connect with owner Chris Schooley on this project and use the bespoke Cohesion base malt.

“We always like when we get the opportunities to work with smaller craft maltsters,” Schwartz said. “I’m always excited to work with him and his team and his malts. It was really cool to be able to pull that in and do something that we don’t normally do with the craft stuff.”

The recipe they created, like all Cohesion beers, is designed to showcase the more intense flavor that Troubadour created for Larkin. “If I’m paying a premium for the malt, if I’m building something for malt-forward beers and beers that aren’t really showcasing hops in the way that an IPA might, I want as much flavor as possible,” Larkin said.

Their special base malt, dubbed Super Pevec, isn’t proprietary for Cohesion, but it’s not a big focus for Troubadour. It’s designed to mimic a more robustly flavored, traditionally made European malt, and Larkin said he’s pleased with any opportunity to share the malt and their methods with other brewers.

“I love that we have a malt that we can say, ‘Hey, you don’t need to bring in a European malt.’ There’s more options now than when we opened Cohesion just two years ago,” he said. “The more customers and brewers can learn about this style and use as close to the correct ingredients as possible, the better off we are, because we’re already seen as a leader in this.”

Compared to commodity malt, he said he’s sacrificing a certain level of consistency for that additional level of character. He said he enjoys the technical aspect of having to tweak his recipes or processes based on the variability of an agricultural product, rather than sacrifice flavor to make processing easier.

“For us, it’s not about replicating exactly the same flavors to a T every time,” he said. “If the malt changes, my beer is changing, and that’s OK. That’s something that we embrace.”

The two breweries may seem like strange bedfellows. While Cohesion is so heavily focused on traditional, malt-forward lagers, WeldWerks is known for experimental and hoppy beers, such as their flagship Juicy Bits hazy IPA.

“I prefer hoppy styles, personally. I’m more of an IPA drinker than a lager drinker, except for Eric’s lagers,” Schwartz said. “At WeldWerks we don’t make a lot of malt-forward beers that often, even our stouts are kind of adjunct focused.”

They made some adjustments for using Schwartz’s yeast, upped the level of hops a little from Larkin’s normal range, and decided to give it a shot. If something went wrong, if they skewed a little from target, he said, it’s just a learning experience. They made a 30-barrel batch — a little more than 900 gallons — but came in shy of their targets. Once it came out, they set to work almost right away making a second batch to iron out the kinks.

“It’s a really cool project to have the Grain Chain linked into, and something different to talk about,” Larkin said. “There’s a little bit more of a story to this beer.”

Foamies first came out in mid-August, with the batch split between Denver and Greeley. Cohesion sold out in five or six days, and WeldWerks in two weeks. A second batch was packaged Nov. 10, with more put into cans than the first time; Schwartz said the release should cover WeldWerks’ entire Colorado footprint.

Tucker Robinson, owner and brewer at WildEdge Brewing Collective, near fermentation tanks at his brewery in Cortez. (Corey Robinson, for WildEdge Brewing Collective)

In Cortez, WildEdge Brewing Collective leveraged its microgrant to partner with Root Shoot Malting to make a German dunkelweizen-inspired beer for the fall. 

The Front Range malthouse had reached out earlier in the year to ask about collaborating with the brewery, according to brewer and owner Tucker Robinson. He said he talked to the staff about what they were excited about at the malthouse, which turned out to be a new Munich-style wheat malt — slightly darker and richer than regular wheat malt, made in the style of a traditional Munich barley malt that forms the backbone of German Oktoberfests and other malt-forward beers.

“Whenever I work with producers, I always like to take inspiration from what inspires them as far as what I’m going to create,” Robinson said. They set a brew date for late summer to have a fall release, and he crafted a recipe inspired by the amber to brown German wheat beer, using all Root Shoot malts and substituting a large portion of Munich-style wheat for what would normally be malted white wheat.

The nontraditional malt addition “contributed some pretty cool notes of honey and crusty bread, a little bit of cocoa powder,” he said. “It just made it kind of a more interesting beer. As with many of my beers, I take inspiration from traditional recipes, but then modify them, trying to make them unique.”

In keeping things as local as possible, Robinson also sourced a German weizen yeast from Denver yeast lab Inland Island. He targeted a milder version of a beer that can have strong — and for the beer novice, possibly unexpected — flavors. It yielded a beer with notes of crusty bread, a touch of cocoa, stone fruit, and some baking spice character.

The brewery, which opened in 2017, has long focused on local grain, sourcing about 15,000 pounds of grain each year from in-state (as well as developing a relationship with local hop farm Billy Goat).

“I saw a need in our small town here in the southwest corner of the state for a community space built around high-quality, creative, locally made craft beer,” Robinson said. “It is a core tenet of our business, to source a majority of our grain from Colorado producers. We’ve worked with Root Shoot, we’ve worked with Proximity, we’ve worked with Colorado Malting Company. Pretty much all of the base malt that goes into our beers is Colorado grown and malted. That’s something we’ve done since day one.”

WildEdge also offers local wine and runs a small kitchen, and Robinson said it’s been humbling how the business has been embraced as a local hub. 

“The thing I’m most proud of about the brewery is that we have been adopted by the community, between groups of friends gathering after work, to board meetings, people hosting birthday parties, we seem to be increasingly in the fold of Montezuma County here.”

The brewery, in turn, is getting more involved with the Grain Chain. Robinson has met up with another local producer in the area, a farmer who just opened a bakery, and the nonprofit held its Grain School in the Field, an immersive field-to-consumer program, in Cortez this year.

“It’s been a great experience working with the Grain Chain, to be honest I didn’t even know they existed prior to applying for this grant,” Robinson said. “It’s been cool to get into that community of like-minded people a little bit more.”

The beer itself — dry, refreshing, and drinkable, a little darker without going into the realm of a heavy winter style — also fits into WildEdge’s embrace of seasonality. With 12 taps, 11 for the brewery and one for a local cidery, Robinson only keeps two beers available year-round, a pale ale and a porter. The rest rotate frequently, with a new beer on at least once a month. “I’m a very seasonal drinker myself,” he said.

From the Fields was released Oct. 6, and Robinson said they threw a big release party with live music and local baked goods.

“We just tried to make it a good community event, and it turned into a nice Wednesday night. We got to spread the good word about what the Grain Chain is, its mission and how we worked with them over the last six months or so,” he said.

The first of two spirits funded by a Colorado Grain Chain microgrant that will hit the market is a sloe-style gin made by Routt Distillery in Steamboat. The distillery has been open for about a year and a half and was focused on developing clear spirits — gins and vodka — followed by whiskey, until they caught wind of the Grain Chain program, owner Brad Christensen said.

Inspired by the tradition of infusing gin with sloe berries, the ripe fruit of the blackthorn tree, he applied for support to create a gin built instead around locally foraged sarvisberries, aka serviceberries, which grow bountifully in the area.

The tap room at WildEdge Brewing Collective in Cortez has 12 taps — 11 for the brewery and one for a local cidery. (Corey Robinson, for WildEdge Brewing)

“The sarvis gin was a project we’ve been thinking about for a while. This was my kick in the pants to get it up and running,” he said. “People use them for baking, for making jams, lots of things, and I wanted to make something out of it. The first thing that came to mind was a version of a sloe gin.”

He partnered, along with the Grain Chain, with local nonprofit Yampatika, which focuses on environmental stewardship via educational programs in the area. “They do nature hikes where they teach about wild and edible plants, and they also do lots of kids outdoor education programming,” he said.

Christensen went out with their foragers and harvested about 50 pounds of berries, then froze them to help break the fruit down to facilitate infusing the gin.

While harvesting berries was the most labor intensive stage, he also had to work out his grain source. The neutral spirit — which is the base for the distillery’s winter and summer gins and its vodka — is a 50/50 blend of wheat and malted barley.

“I really like the flavor there, it has a unique grain character that you don’t get from other grain sources for vodkas,” he said. “I love barley as a crop. It’s a great Colorado crop, it’s great to work with, it’s easy to work with, I’m familiar with it. We make a single-malt whiskey here at the distillery with it.”

Barley for the gin came from pilot projects that Proximity Malt in Monte Vista was doing with farmers in Montrose this year. While the barley was ultimately blended with other San Luis Valley barley sources for malting, he said he worked with the malthouse and waited for a batch that had the highest percentage of Montrose barley possible.

“For all of our products, we use 100% Colorado grain and really try to embrace Colorado agriculture,” he said. “I think our grain and our grain supply chain is awesome here.”

Once he got that special batch of neutral spirit done, and the base gin distilled, he soaked the berries in it for five weeks. He yielded 93 bottles of gin — at more than a half-pound of berries per bottle — that that recently received federal label approval and are sold for $42 in the tasting room. He said the berries bring a hint of sweetness, but not to the level that sloes provide. “I’d probably call it an off-dry style.”

Along with the sarvis gin, which might only be sold through the tasting room but which Christensen plans to make an annual fall release, they harvested “a bunch of other stuff” including crabapples and sweet anise root that he extracted in vodka. They’ll be standalones for people to try, and potential ingredients to use in the future.

LEFT: Routt Distillery owner Brad Christensen picks sarvisberries for his Grain Chain collaboration. RIGHT: Routt Distillery’s Sarvisberry Flavored Gin, which sells in the tasting room for $42 a bottle. (Photos courtesy Brad Christensen)

TOP: Routt Distillery owner Brad Christensen picks sarvisberries for his Grain Chain collaboration. BOTTOM: Routt Distillery’s Sarvisberry Flavored Gin, which sells in the tasting room for $42 a bottle.. (Photos courtesy Brad Christensen)

Quinoa! It’s not just for dinner.

In Mosca, Dune Valley Distillery sits at a crossroads of agriculture, tourism, the local food system, and Colorado wine and spirits history. After operating Valley Roots Food Hub for several years, Nicholas Chambers started the distillery earlier this year. The distillery space shares part of an old community events center and school gymnasium with potatoes and quinoa, feedstock for his current and future spirits and inspiration for the venture. “The valley is second in the nation for potato exports, and we’ve got this wonderful quinoa stock,” he said.

White Mountain Farm, also in Mosca, is “essentially the farm that brought quinoa to North America,” Chambers said. “This is really the seedbed for the field trials, genetics, the trial and error to develop a good seed stock from the Andes that works well for us.”

Many years later, he now sees semitrailers of quinoa going out of the valley. He sat down with Paul New, whose father, Ernie, first brought quinoa to the San Luis Valley in the late 1980s, in his White Mountain office one day. New pulled out a quinoa vodka from France. “We poured it in dirty coffee cups, and it was, at that point: ‘This we must do.’”

Chambers has a family history in Colorado wine and spirits that traces back more than a century. He said his great-grandfather had the first wine and liquor license in Colorado after Prohibition ended, in 1933, and prior to that the family had set up shop in Denver in 1903 to sell their wine and distribute spirits.

I think our grain and our grain supply chain is awesome here.

— Brad Christensen, Routt Distillery owner

But he’s “really from the soil.” Chambers is well tied into the local food vein and already very familiar with the Colorado Grain Chain. He has a store in the gym that sells local food, and a revived family wine brand, Carbone Wine, that is produced in Palisade. The distillery was opened as an extension of that embrace of local ingredients. He focused first on dialing in his potato vodka, and will eventually expand that to multiple vodkas and gins.

“Given what our feedstocks are, we want to showcase potatoes. I’m doing a russet as our flagship, but I want to do a purple, and a fingerling,” he said. “Quinoa would be our standby, always available, we’ll just continue to optimize it, get the process better and better.”

He’s using the Grain Chain grant to work through a series of lab-scale quinoa maltings to dial in starch conversion, then scaling up the malting and producing a 35-gallon batch, and finally scaling up to a 395-gallon mash for a final run in an 80-gallon spirit distillation. “It’ll be foundational,” he said, describing a product line that relies on quinoa vodka for fruit infusions and an “apothecary line.”

“By next summer we’ll have this baby bottled up and ready to go,” he said.

The copper still at Dune Valley Distillery stands out against a mural of sandhill cranes in flight painted on the ceiling. (Handout)

He’s using local quinoa varieties that don’t have a fancy name. “It’s probably something scientific like A1234,” he said. Multiple varieties and blends are going into the trials, whatever White Mountain has some excess of. A lot of it is a blend named casually “McCamant Special Blend,” after University of Denver professor John McCamant, who first helped to bring quinoa to Colorado.

“Quinoa is such an amazing crop,” Chambers said. “It truly is a superfood.” It’s high in protein, minerals and vitamins, with 58% to 68% starch that can be converted for fermentation and distillation. “I think for the yeast, too, it’s going to have a very diverse diet, just a well-balanced environment for yeast to thrive in.”

While the distillery opened in June, he said they’re still working on the steam system and the building overall. It’s a renovated adobe building from 1933, “a tremendous construction project,” he said. Dune Valley has partnered with guest chefs for occasional five-course dinners and closed out the season with a big producer appreciation event, serving about 150 people at the end of October.

“We’re probably only using 30% of the facility, so we have a lot more to open up and be able to accommodate more people, more events,” Chambers said. Along with building out the distillery, he’s working to develop the campus as a renewable energy park, using methane gas, solar and thermal energy and a biodiesel plant.

“I really want to be that sort of eco-destination resort, where people can come and we’re showcasing what our region has to offer,” he said.

Type of Story: News

Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *