In the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a small farm is preparing for the end of summer. Irrigation canals that were full to bursting months ago are slowing with the changing season. This spring, just outside Alamosa, Wayne Cody and his son Josh jumped a ditch to check on their rye's progress.
"This is our rye field, and it actually feels like summer today, which is the first day all year," Josh said. Wayne knelt down to check on a small section of grapes, which the Cody's are growing in hopes of making their own fruit infused beer. "Look Josh, that's a little grain. They're just so slow."
36-year-old Josh Cody and his brother are fourth generation San Luis Valley farmers, following in the footsteps of their great grandfather, who homesteaded the land in the 1930's. Josh says his family spent many of those years growing barley for big breweries, until they couldn't stay profitable. The family barley farm was on the verge of collapse when they came up with a new business model: instead of selling barley to big breweries like Coors like they always had, they thought they could start malting new types of grain and selling to craft breweries in Colorado for better rates.
"My great grandfather, and my grandfather, and my dad all grew barley for Coors brewing company for over 50 years," said Josh.
Coors discovered the San Luis Valley's grain potential in the early 1900s, and has been a big part of farming in the valley ever since. The beer giant works with farmers on an industry standard contract basis, but Wade Malchow with Coors said all agriculture, including barley, has been trending toward bigger operations.
"If you're spending a half a million dollars on a combine harvester, you've gotta have a lot of acres to run through that thing to pay for it," Malchow explained.
The Cody's said the price of barley was quickly outpaced by the costs of producing the crop, and the farm was in a tough spot. Coors said they still work with many family farms, and help with crop planning, but after Wayne's dad died, he said it was up to him and his mom to keep the operation running. They almost went bankrupt twice and sold off land to keep the original farm. Then, Wayne put the farm up for sale.
"I had it sold to a neighbor, and the night before my mom said 'I can't sign those papers.'" Wayne said he didn't see any other way and he was already exploring a second career. "I tried to tell her, we can't do this. I had already enrolled in college."
But with mom unwilling to sell, Wayne called up his two sons and asked how they could make it work. The Cody's said they knew they couldn't stay profitable growing for industrial malting operations like Coors, and Josh's brother suggested they try something unheard of in 2007.
"My brother knew a lot about craft beer, was into craft beer, and said 'what if we started malting our own barley and selling it to microbreweries? Maybe we could add some value to our agriculture that way," said Josh.
In the mid 2000s, the Codys said craft malting didn't exist. Craft brewing was just coming into its own, and companies needed specific and different kinds of malts. Even more importantly, they were willing to pay for quality. The Cody's couldn't find any malting equipment that would process less than 10 tons per batch, so they built their own out of old dairy equipment.
Thus began the Colorado Malting Company, and in the decade since their business has grown exponentially.
"You pretty much can't find anyone in Western Europe or the U.S. that hasn't heard of us, maybe even worked with us," Josh said.
Demand for the Cody's malts has outpaced what they can produce, and the Cody's hire other family farmers to grow custom grains.
Keith Tolsma is one of them. He still grows for big breweries because of the volume, but says he gets more per acre with the Cody's. Tolsma said working with friends has other benefits as well.
"Compared with the big breweries I never get to see any of the end result. With the Malting Company I see the whole process," Tolsma explained.
In the last few years Josh said large competitors have moved into the craft malting business and even the San Luis Valley. Farming has never been easy, and the Cody's are trying to keep ahead of the game by moving into new markets, like gluten free grains. For his part, Josh is just happy to be home. Under their new model, he says there's space for him, his dad Wayne, brother Jason, and the fifth generation of farmers that's on the way.
You are one of the KRCC readers who wants to know what is really going on in Southern Colorado these days. We have got just the thing for people like you: the KRCC Weekly Digest. Sign up here and we will see you in your email inbox soon!