Bill Coors’ barley vision reaps rewards for 75 years

To brew more than 20 million barrels a beer a year, the Molson Coors brewery in Golden, Colo., relies on a steady supply of ingredients.

Fresh water, hops, yeast and barley combine in massive amounts to make some of the world’s most-popular beers, including Coors Light and Coors Banquet.

In the eyes of Adolph Coors II, however, nothing was more important than quality barley.

“My grandfather (Adolph Coors II) used to always say that beer was made in the malt house,” says Pete Coors, chairman of Molson Coors Beverage Company. Adolph’s son, Bill, took the idea further. “He said beer is made in the barley field, because if you don’t get good barley, you can’t make good beer.”

That’s why in 1946, when Coors was a smaller, regional brewer, its leaders determined that if the brewer would ever become the powerhouse it is today, it would need a reliable source of barley.

Seventy-five years ago this year, Bill Coors established the brewery’s barley program, which, through partnerships with growers across the Rocky Mountain region, gave the brewery exclusive access to good quality, high-yield barley.

Today, the barley program is a model for breweries nationwide, allowing Molson Coors to field a team of agronomists and barley breeders who work hand-in-hand with farmers to study and create barley strains that withstand the elements and deliver on quality and yield.

A matter of survival

After the trauma of Prohibition, the Coors family had one goal: survival. And the family realized there was only one way to ensure the brewery could withstand future challenges.

“We decided to concentrate on quality," Bill Coors said in 1999, according to Modern Brewery Age. "(And) quality was not to yield to cost factors or efficiencies."

The antidote to commercial maltsters’ sub-standard barley – which can lead to quality issues such as off flavors, discoloration and more – was simple: Control the supply, ensure high quality.

In 1937, the brewery took the first steps toward agricultural independence, acquiring some samples of Czechoslovakian barley – from the Moravian region, to be exact – that were then stored in Adolph Coors II’s rolltop desk. There they lay until a resourceful office manager named Ray Frost asked the brewery president if he could plant the barley in his garden to see how it fared.

Frost’s test barley performed well over several years in several different fields, including in fields owned by the Ulrich family in Loveland, Colo. By 1946, the same year Bill Coors joined his family’s namesake brewery, the results were clear: That barley Adolph Coors II squirreled away years ago – known as Moravian 2 row – thrived in the dry fields of northern Colorado.

In Bill Coors’ first year, the program yielded 250,000 pounds of seed that the brewery used to begin large-scale brewing.

Its home-grown barley, known as Old Moravian, kicked off the Coors Barley program, which today encompasses nearly 800 barley growers from across the Mountain West region and in Alberta, giving Molson Coors a pipeline to barley that meets exacting standards and provides a competitive and economic advantage.

“Brewing is science, but it’s also a real art to make the right kind of malt to make good beer,” Pete Coors says. “Having our hands on the barley process is really important.”

Breeding success

Growing is central to the barley program, but just as important is the program’s research arm, led by Dr. Bob Brunick, and based in Burley, Idaho. The company’s research team develops strains ideal for growing conditions in each of the six regions where barley is grown in the U.S., says Wade Malchow, senior manager of the barley program.

As Bill Coors explained in 1999, the company "developed barley strains genetically tailored to altitude, latitude and meteorological vicissitudes of the areas we deem suitable to grow barley."

Barley is a hands-on crop that is water intensive, accounting for perhaps 80% of the water used throughout the brewing process. And because the quality of the beer depends on the quality of the barley, Molson Coors has long had an intense interest in ensuring what’s planted in the field is going to pay dividends, for brewer and grower alike.

“We’re able to harness incremental improvement in yield, drought tolerance and quality to bring a new variety to a region every 10 years or so,” says Malchow. “We’re able to provide growers with barley with a high rate of success and great service through our state-of-the art grain elevators.”

Though the program has developed nearly 200 new varieties of the Moravian strain, fewer than 20 have been deemed suitable for release.

“We may still breed barley traditionally, but we’re using a lot of genetic tools and biology that have come along in the agriculture industry, and biology, to better understand the genome and allow us to make strategic crosses that get us the brewing and agricultural performance we want,” Malchow says.

That’s bred successful strains like Moravian 164, developed to outwit the climate in southern Colorado, says Mont Stuart, who ran the Molson Coors’ malting program for seven years. Moravian 164 is ready to harvest about a week before previous varieties, which allows harvesters a bigger window to avoid heavy rains typical at the end of the growing season that can damage crops and hurt yields in the region.   

“That’s two wins that come with an earlier maturing barley,” Stuart says. And with the successful release of five varieties since 2015, “I think we are in the golden era of the barley breeding program.”

‘Better barley, better beer’

Speaking to the Master Brewers Association of the Americas in 1999, Bill Coors reflected on how Prohibition had broken the heart of his grandfather, the brewery’s founder, Adolph Coors.

“The driving force for us has been to make my grandfather's dream come true. As to what's ahead, no one knows. We try to prepare ourselves for the worst, and hope it won't happen,” he said.

Preparing for the unknown is a key part of the program, which is an important part of Molson Coors’ sustainability goals.

Not only does it provide insurance of sorts for Molson Coors, the barley program helps farmers prepare for change and respond to the needs of the land through technology.

In the last decade or so, the company has spent upwards of $22 million on sustainability initiatives, including its “Better Barley, Better Beer” program, which has outfitted growers with soil moisture monitors so they can precisely irrigate their crops. In fact, 99% of Molson Coors’ barley is sourced from growers who recognize its sustainability standards.

By planting barley strains that use less water, growers can conserve their resources and spend less money, protecting their bottom line.

Molson Coors also is mapping barley farms using geospatial technology to understand how growers have tended their crops, analyzing data like plant dates, water usage and outcomes of the harvest. Company researchers also are working on an initiative to help growers better understand soil health.

When these tools work in tandem, “you start to look for relationships that impact your quality,” Malchow says. “If you’re doing the things to keep your soil healthy, you’ll use less water, and crops will be more resilient and more drought tolerant.”

And with a team of industry-leading agronomists on call to lend assistance and expertise, farmers like Lucas Spratling can feel confident that their fields will be bountiful, even in lean times, like this year, when fields across the West were besieged by drought.

“It’s helpful in the moment we’re growing to see the moisture content of the soil, and it’s going to be useful going into next year (if) we have a drought again,” says Spratling, whose family farm in Idaho has been part of the barley program for about a decade. “We can tell when a plant is stressed and can put more water onto it before it gets to a really bad spot.”

All this leads a steady supply of the quality barley Bill Coors envisioned in 1946. And the attention paid to growers, not to mention incentives for adopting sustainable practices, makes farmers like Spratling feel like partners in the quest to make consistent, high-quality beer.

“If Molson Coors made bad beer, they probably wouldn’t care,” he says. “Quality is such a huge issue, and it’s really easy to mess up barley. I think we work hand-in-hand wonderfully to make better beer.”

That partnership is valued at Molson Coors, too, says Pete Coors, who traditionally addresses growers at the annual Barley Days celebration in Idaho, which was canceled this year due to the pandemic.

“Their barley is hugely important to us making great beer. We appreciate what they do in their communities, and we appreciate the role they play is helping us be a successful company,” he says.

And after 75 years, the standing orders from Bill Coors haven’t changed: Source impeccable barley to make great beer.

“We are reaping the rewards of his vision,” Pete Coors says.