Organic Barley

Grains are also hard to come by. Crosspath’s recipe includes oats, buckwheat, and a base malt made from barley. The malted barley was a specific challenge because a lot of the organic barley in the US is grown for animal feed, which means it’s not the ideal quality for malting. Perkins worked with Blue Ox Malthouse to find local, organic barley that was high enough quality to malt, and then “they had to figure out how to malt this stuff effectively.”

And like hops, very little of the barley grown in the US is organic. In 2016, 51,254 of 2,565,000 harvested acres were organic. That’s .02 percent. 

Most of that barley is grown in Montana, North Dakota, and Idaho, where Jessica Newman, the Director of Agricultural Procurement & Sustainability for Anheuser-Busch (which is owned by AB InBev), is based. Newman leads an agronomy team that works with farmers and others across the supply chain for more than 300 beers, including about 800 barley farmers. And since the launch of Michelob Ultra Pure Gold in 2018, she’s been concerned with the US supply of organic barley.

At first, Newman said, the company was able to go through their malt houses to find farmers that were already growing using organic methods.  “What’s been exciting about the growth of Michelob Ultra Pure Gold and the entry of other competitors into the space is that all of a sudden, there is a lot of demand for organic ingredients,” she said. “So then my team has really shifted to ‘How do we grow the organic acreage in the US?” 

Newman said they identified three main barriers barley farmers faced in switching to organic production: uncertain markets, the financial stress of the three-year transition, and a lack of technical and peer support. To address those challenges, the company is offering farmers four- to six-year contracts and paying premiums for “transitional” barley. (Organic certification requires that conventional farmland be farmed organically for three years before it can be certified, and during that time period farmers face increased costs, often without the higher income the organic market provides.) The agronomy team is also being trained to offer technical support.

Of course, Anheuser-Busch also turned the program into a marketing campaign to engage beer drinkers in the mission. During the 2020 Super Bowl, the company ran a commercial that declared for every six-pack of Michelob Ultra Pure Gold purchased, it would convert six square feet of farmland to organic. However, the Contract for Change program is currently capped at $1 million dollars, which means if it hits that maximum, 300 million square feet of land — or 6,887 acres, a small number — would be converted. (It’s worth noting that it’s estimated that the company spent $10 million on the ad alone, money that could have helped farmers convert a lot more farmland.)

Newman conceded that the $1 million committed would “not cover the kind of the growth that needs to occur in the markets,” but insisted that “we’re going to keep pushing.” She also said enthusiasm for the program has been strong so far. “We did our first set of in-person, on-the-ground organic barley 101 trainings open to the public and our own farmers a couple of weeks ago, and the response was tremendous,” she said. “We were expecting 30 or maybe 40 people, but at both of our Idaho locations, we got 100.”

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