Montana barley growers keep beer flowing
By Jason Stuart
Ranger-Review Staff Writer
Farmers in Eastern Montana are doing their part to slake the thirst of a nation.
That thirst is for beer, and to make beer, you need barley, and the northern Great Plains is the perfect place to grow the base ingredient of your favorite brew.
The region’s climate is the primary reason barley does so well here.
“Cereals like wheat and barley grow better in cooler summers,” said Rhett Nostdahl, field representative for Busch Ag Resources’ Sidney Elevator.
The cooler climate has also largely kept corn at bay. According to Nostdahl, barley grown in ground where corn has been can develop various problems which lead to an inferior brewing product.
“This area is ideal for barley because corn hasn’t really moved in,” Nostdahl said. “Barley and corn don’t really mix well.”
The final factor that makes Eastern Montana ideal for barley growth is reliable irrigation.
“This area’s good in particular because you have good irrigation so you can better monitor your (water) draw,” Nostdahl said. “Irrigation causes the barley to grow more consistently and produce a more consistent seed. You can control the climate better so you have a better idea of what you’re going to get.”
All things considered, Eastern Montana farmers produce a lot of barley, and much of it makes its first stop on its way to becoming beer at Sidney.
The Sidney Elevator is a subsidiary holding of brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, and every single kernel of grain received at the station is destined to become beer. From Sidney, it is shipped by rail to a malting plant in Moorhead, Minn. After being malted, it goes to one of two Anheuser-Busch breweries, either to St. Louis or Fort Collins, Colo.
According to Nostdahl, in the last five years the facility has taken in an average of 3.5 million bushels of barley a year.
Do the math, and that’s a lot of beer for tailgating, frat parties and backyard barbecues.
To produce barley for Anheuser-Busch, producers enter into a contract with the company for its production. This year, Nostdahl said Sidney Elevator has around 80 producers under contract.
Many of the producers under contract have been producing barley for the Sidney Elevator for years, Nostdahl said, but the company is periodically on the lookout for new growers, so they work to keep a high profile in the region through advertising, attending regional ag expos and even holding grower meetings “when we’re really looking.”
“We try to maintain a good presence in the community and make sure our name is out there,” Nostdahl said.
Getting under contract with Sidney Elevator isn’t particularly difficult either, according to Nostdahl.
“Our contracts require that (producers) have proof of certified seed, and that’s pretty much the only thing they need to start out,” he said.
After that, it’s only a matter of properly tending to the barley’s needs to ensure the protein levels stay in range so that Eastern Montana-grown barley becomes the well-balanced, frothy brew it was meant to be.
Reach Jason Stuart at email@example.com.