MOORHEAD - Anheuser-Busch raised a toast to the region’s barley growers at its annual Grower Days celebration Thursday, July 11, at the Moorhead Malt Plant.

Several hundred people showed up to enjoy some grilled food and slake their thirst at a sunny, celebration just outside the plant at 2101 26th St. S. that included an awards ceremony, tours of the plant and barley test plots, and a close-up view of the company’s iconic Budweiser Clydesdale horse team.

The malting plant makes the “pale malt” that is the base for Budweiser and Michelob beer.

That malt is “the lifeblood of beer, the workhorse,” plant General Manager Paul Bolin said.

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The plant processes 130,000 metric tons of barley (about 8 million bushels), gathered from 265 farmers in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota.

Nearly 100% of that malt made goes to A-B brewers on the East Coast and in the Midwest, with a small amount of the malt going to Goose Island Brewery in Chicago, Bolin said.

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Nikki Zahradka, the Midwest Regional Agronomy Manager for Anheuser-Busch, said the focus of this year’s event was on the new generation of men and women growing barley; those people taking over farming operations or starting out as first-time growers.

The awards included honors for soil stewardship, sustainability and women in the barley field, she said.

More farmers are turning to barley, over soybeans and corn, Zahradka said.

Anheuser-Busch chemist Alicia Nicholls explains part of the brewing process and shows a sample of pre-beer known as wort during a tour of the malting plant in Moorhead on Thursday, July 11. David Samson / The Forum
Anheuser-Busch chemist Alicia Nicholls explains part of the brewing process and shows a sample of pre-beer known as wort during a tour of the malting plant in Moorhead on Thursday, July 11. David Samson / The Forum

“Obviously, the markets were pretty affected this year by tariffs and input costs. So, I would say a lot of people look at us not only as a specialty crop with a specialty contract, but also, soil health is becoming a really huge issue in the region. A hot topic to talk about,” Zahradka said.

It also is a good crop to fit into a grower’s rotation.

“We have a lot of this ground that’s been rotated soybeans, corn, needing something to grow in some of those more saline, tougher areas to grow, and barley is a great fit. So, yeah, lots of demand for barley contracts in this region,” she said.

A-B has also done a great deal of research and is developing strains of two-row barley that it hopes will catch on in North Dakota and Minnesota, where six-row barley has been traditionally grown, said Zahradka, whose family grows barley near Park River, N.D.

Two-row barley is more drought tolerant, and produces bigger, more symmetrical kernals.

“We’re a little behind on our breeding curve, but we’re getting there,” she said.

The malting plant uses a multi-step process to go from raw barley to malt ready to help make beer.

First, it is cleaned and graded. It is then steeped in tanks that use wet and dry cycles to bring the moisture content of the kernels from 13% to 45%.

It is then transferred to four massive germination boxes, where over about 70 hours the grains are allowed to germinate, creating the enzymes to break down starch and proteins.

After that, the barley is sent to a two-stage kiln-drying process. The first stage of the process brings the moisture level from about 48 % down to 15%, while keeping the enzymes.

The second, higher-temperature kiln, brings down the moisture content from 15% to 5% to produce the needed consistency of color and flavor for the malt.

Throughout the process, samples of each batch of barley from start to finished malt are tested in a laboratory.

When ready, about 90 percent of the malt is shipped to its destination by rail.

One production run of 9,000 bushels will eventually be used to make a couple million bottles of beer, company officials have said.

U.S. producers harvested 1.95 million acres of barley in 2017 according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. About three-quarters of barley production is used for human food or malt purposes, with the rest used as animal feed.