The yellow blinking light where Idaho state highways 20 and 75 intersect signals “almost there” to travelers bound for Sun Valley. It hangs in the southwest corner of a triangle-shaped swath of farmland that affords big-sky views of high-desert foothills that bleed into the Northern Rockies. A nearby mileage sign reads Bellevue 9, Hailey 12, Sun Valley 26. This August, I pulled off at a rest area next to the light. The air was still and warm. The sky was dulled by smoke from forest fires burning throughout the Pacific Northwest. I was road tripping to learn how the brewing industry sustains farmlands that surround our mountain playgrounds and wanted to soak in the view of them from here. My phone buzzed. Grumpy’s for a beer? Sure, I replied. I’m at the blinking light. Almost there.
At the northern tip of the triangle, near Bellevue, the Big Wood River courses over porous soils. Much of its water seeps underground and flows southeast until impermeable sediments and rock force it to emerge in a series of springs. Some of the springs refill the Big Wood; others feed Silver Creek, a world-renowned trout stream. Dayna Gross, the Idaho conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy, explains this hydrology while pointing out landmarks on a tattered GIS reference map on a wall in the cluttered office of the Silver Creek Preserve. The spring water is clean and nutrient-rich. Wetlands and wildlife abound. “That is why we have these epic hatches,” Gross says with a hint of in-the-know cool. “People come from all over the world to fish here.” Rough calculations by The Nature Conservancy suggest that visitors to the 851-acre preserve contribute more than $6 million to the local economy each summer and fall.
“Barley,” Bill Coors is famous for saying, “is to beer as grapes are to wine.” Barley supplied to brewers of beers such as Coors, Miller High Life, and Budweiser grows on farms that surround the Silver Creek Preserve and contribute around $20 million to the local economy. The relationship between the farmers and environmentalists is uneasy. Sediments wash and blow off the farms and cloud the creek’s waters. Wetlands are scarce. The valley’s aquifer is sinking from decades of over pumping and, as a result, the springs trickle with less vigor and creek waters are warming. MillerCoors contacted The Nature Conservancy in 2009 in search of ways to help growers of its barley be better neighbors. Gross suggested a fencing and wetland restoration project on a farm along Stalker Creek, one of the feeder springs. The brewer bit. “It was a real success,” John Stevenson, who has grown malting barley for 43 years at his Hillside Ranch, says while standing in a tractor shed to avoid the sun. He wears jeans, a blue work shirt, and a grey, fresh-out-of-the box baseball cap advertising Coors’ high country barley. “And then we got more into irrigation,” he recalls. Agriculture, he notes, accounts for more than 90 percent of the water required to make a can of beer.
In 2011, the Stevensons’ farm manager Gary Beck started to use MillerCoors funding to experiment with water conservation. For example, he replaced and lowered nozzles on an irrigation pivot and turned off its end gun, which shoots water to the corners of the field where yields and quality are marginal. The moves shaved the pivot’s monthly power bill in half and saved millions of gallons of water. Impressed, MillerCoors branded Hillside Ranch the “Showcase Barley Farm.” Over the years, the program broadened to include more farms in the triangle and strategies such as variable rate irrigation, which alters the speed of pivots to accommodate mapped differences in soils throughout a single field. “We have gone from a showcase farm to a showcase valley that last year saved 550 million gallons of water,” Kim Marotta, the sustainability director for MillerCoors, says.
The brewer sources more than 70 percent of its barley from about 860 growers spread across Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. The irrigation practices pioneered in the Wood River Valley are now implemented with growers in other water-stressed regions such as the San Luis Valley in Colorado where the aquifer is nearly depleted. Water conservation is a common theme among brewers. After all, without water there is no beer. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer by volume, for example, recently funded the installation of weather stations around Idaho Falls on the west side of the Grand Tetons that supply growers of its barley there with information on when and how much to irrigate. Case studies conducted in 2014 with three growers using the system indicate a 9 to 20 percent reduction in water use. The program is part of the brewer’s efforts to help the more than 20,000 growers of its barley around the world “maximize the profitability of their barley crop,” John Rogers, the global director of agricultural development for Anheuser-Busch InBev, says.
Gross and I ate lunch at a fly shop and convenience store in Picabo on the southeast side of the triangle with Pat Purdy, the fifth-generation head of a 4,300-acre family farm that spans six miles of Silver Creek. He sports a groomed salt-and-pepper goatee and holds attention with stern brown eyes. We geeked out over data from MillerCoors-funded soil moisture probes that compelled him to cut back on irrigation in the early spring and again in the weeks before harvest. He was equally animated about his efforts to transition to no-till farming, which involves abandoning the plow for a seeding drill and a systems approach to raising crops. “It does a better job conserving water; it doesn’t completely eliminate, but it almost eliminates the soil erosion issues; it gets right at the soil health issues; it reduces inputs; and it improves the habitat because it leaves the barley stubble standing all winter long,” he says. The switch also protects another investment—the Purdy family acquired an outfitter’s license in 2013 and opened Picabo Angler. Guide fees reach $450 a day. Clients gain access to a private stretch of Silver Creek and skies clouded with waterfowl.
Beyond the gridlock, shopping centers, and casinos north of Seattle, Interstate 5 flows into an 80,000-acre tapestry of farmland stitched together by dikes and ditches on the Skagit River delta. On a clear day, the eastern view is dominated by Mt. Baker, the northern jewel in a string of snowcapped volcanoes that pop through the Cascade Mountains; the Salish Sea and San Juan Islands play peekaboo out beyond steam and smoke rising from oil refineries on the coast. Drizzle threatened on the August day of my visit to a malt house in the valley that’s riding a wave of evolution in craft beer and, in the process, fending off the creep of development from Seattle and Vancouver, Canada.
“The original mission was to keep farming viable in the Skagit Valley,” Wayne Carpenter, the founder of Skagit Valley Malting, says while seated in the reception room of his malt house. A cut-out quarter of a grain silo cradles the adjacent kitchen, its curve a soothing façade blended into rusty-red walls that silence the machinery at the heart of his venture. Malting is the process of converting barely grains into the germinated and roasted seeds full of nutrients that are useful for beer. Of the more than 21,000 known varieties of barley, the American Malting Barley Association recommends just a few dozen for malting. That’s because the grain must meet tight specifications to withstand the assembly-line like process largescale maltsters use to soak, germinate, then kiln 100-to 400-ton batches of grain at a time. “We started playing with those varieties that wouldn’t make the recommended list and found out that they actually do malt pretty well,” Carpenter says. What’s more, he adds, beers brewed with those malts, “were really good. They have different mouthfeel, they have different flavors.” The beers were so good, in fact, that they lured Carpenter out of retirement from a successful career in computer technology to design and build a self-contained, fully automated system that can malt any sproutable grain.
I first learned of Carpenter’s venture on a bright May afternoon in 2012 while strolling through thigh-high plots of winter barley in Oregon’s Willamette Valley with Pat Hayes, a silver-topped crop scientist at Oregon State University. We were looking at a variety he bred called Maja that mainstream maltsters were likely to reject due to its plump grains. “Only in a smaller-scale unit, which is what these people are trying to do up in the Skagit Valley, could they get away with [trying to malt] something like that,” he says. Craft and custom malt houses are opening across the country in a bid to help craft brewers distinguish themselves in a crowded and growing industry. Brett Stevenson, the second-generation daughter at Hillside Ranch in Idaho, for example, is building a malt house in the Wood River Valley to malt ancient barley varieties and sell them to brewers in search of new flavors. “Brewers have played around with lots of different types of yeast and hops and I think the whole malt front is a new area for them,” she says. The malt house will also provide the Stevenson family with a foothold in the fast-growing craft beer industry. “It is embracing a lot of what I am concerned about—that’s local communities, local food, connecting producers and consumers in a more abbreviated way,” she says.
Each April, tulips turn the Skagit Valley into a riot of color. The flowers signal spring’s arrival; the bulbs are sold worldwide. Berries and seed crops for dozens of vegetables follow suit. Farmers grow grains to break disease cycles and restore soils, but prices seldom warrant harvest. “They just take it in the teeth,” says Stephen Jones, a geneticist and wheat breeder at the Washington State University Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon. To raise the value of the grains, and thus compel farmers to keep farming, he established the Bread Lab in 2008 to breed and improve what he calls “funky” grains for Skagit Valley farmers to grow for bakers. “I have students who are developing purple and black wheats and there is no button for that in most grain elevators,” he explains. Wayne Carpenter first tasted beer brewed with these funky grains at a field day hosted by the lab that brought together farmers and other members of the community. “A nice conversation started on adding value where there is very little in the chain right now, and that is in the grains,” Jones recalls. “And one way you can do that is to malt with them and go from there. Wayne picked up on that.”
At the time of my visit to Skagit Valley Malting, commercial production was underway in the first of the high-tech malting machines. By the end of 2016, the malt house will contain six, each capable of independently malting 10.5-ton batches using a program written for the grain’s provenance. A new facility under construction will have the capacity for 40 machines, which, if all built, could handle the maximum natural grain flow from the valley. The potential is plausible, according to Charles Finkel, a godfather of the craft beer movement and owner of the Pike Brewing Company in Seattle. “We want a local beer that reflects the local agriculture and local terroir,” he says. In July, his brewery produced the first Washington State varietal beer made exclusively with the new local malt: Pike Locale: Skagit Valley Alba.
Hops are climbing, flowering plants that produce green cones full of resins and oils that give beers their characteristic bitterness and aromas. Roughly 75 percent of the U.S. hop crop grows on 30,000 acres in Washington’s Yakima Valley, a 450,000-acre patchwork of irrigated farmland on the sunny side of the Cascades. The snowcapped volcanoes Rainier and Adams punctuate the view. Mountain snowmelt fills the Yakima River, which farmers tap to water apples, pears, and cherries as well as corn, squash, and mint. Grapevines cover the surrounding hills. Hops were first planted in 1868 with rootstock brought west from New York.
Record-low snowpack in the Cascades this summer foreshadowed the long-term challenges for agriculture in the Yakima Valley. About 90 percent of the valley’s hop acreage experienced curtailments in water deliveries, according to Ann George, who runs the Washington Hop Commission. Emergency drought wells, surface reservoirs, and bartering got growers through this season, but all eyes are on El Niño, which portends another warm and dry winter. “That is where things start to get really dicey,” she says. What’s more, climate scientists expect routinely low snowpack by the middle of this century. “As a community, we have to be looking at the solutions to this,” Jason Perrault, a fourth-generation hop grower, tells me as we watch a forklift scoop freshly harvested hopvines out of a truck and feed them to a system of conveyor belts and fans that strip the cones from the vines. He wears jeans, a well-loved work shirt, and a beige and green mesh trucker hat that advertises Simcoe, the aroma variety being picked. “That may include more water storage or other similar issues. But certainly, hopefully, as individual businesses, we can adapt better irrigation technology.”
I came to visit Perrault because he finds solutions. When we first met in 2010, he was figuring out how to successfully grow organic hops. Conventional hops lean on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to climb up the 18-foot tall trellises that turn the Yakima Valley into a patchy forest of vines each summer. Early efforts to grow organic hops failed so miserably that the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed non-organic hops in organic beer until 2013. Perrault helped crack the code to organic hops and led the push to require them in organic beer. The organic market today, he says, is vibrant but niche. “A lot of craft beer drinkers respect the fact that the beer is local, it is already sustainably made,” he explains. “So, there is not a necessity to have organic.” He continues to invest in organics largely to learn techniques that can reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on his non-organic acreage. “Certainly the soil management,” he says. “We are seeing such a difference that it is pretty exciting.” A goal, he explains, is to improve the fertility of the ground to the point that synthetic fertilizers are applied only when necessary for a plant’s survival instead of as the primary source of nutrition, as it is today.
Building soil takes about five years of cover crops along with regular applications of compost and manure as well as fertilizers such as ground-up animal bones and fish emulsions. As we strolled through a cool, green field of Citra that’s been in organic production since 2008, Perrault scooped up a handful of the soil. “You just look at it and know there is a lot going on in there,” he says. “It has got a good smell.” But time and patience to build soil are limited in today’s hop market, which has exploded to keep up with demand from craft brewers. The Perraults recently more than doubled their acreage to 1,300 and all of their hops are under contract. The boom and financial security enabled the family to invest $15 million in equipment to harvest and package hops with greater efficiency. It’s an investment that portrays confidence in the future of Yakima Valley agriculture. “We are here for the long haul,” Perrault says. And, he adds, as long as the hop market remains strong and “allows us to spend a little bit more producing the hop to create a more sustainable system, I think you are going to see a pretty drastic improvement in the way we manage these things in terms of the sustainable practices that we bring over from organics.”
I played that line over in my head as I drove out of the Yakima Valley and over Snoqualmie Pass toward home in Seattle. The push and pull between profits and sustainability was a constant conversation during the course of my travels; both are necessary to keep the ingredients in beer flowing from the farmlands that surround our mountain playgrounds. The Nature Conservancy’s Gross put it this way: “Working with the farmers is really nice because they get a lot of pressure from companies, get a lot of pressure from people, to change. And they are not going to change unless it makes economic sense.”
Top image: Hop harvest gets underway in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Photo by John Roach.
This story was originally published in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of BigLife Magazine. The section on malt has been updated to correct the type of barley that Pat Hayes at the time described as too plump. It was Maja, not Alba, which he also bred and is malted by Skagit Valley Malting.