SAN LUIS VALLEY- Barely is one of the largest crops grown here in the Valley; coming in second to potatoes and Alfalfa. Several area brewers use the barley grown locally to perfect their craft. Alamosa’s SLV Brewery and Three Barrels Brewery in Del Norte are two of many neighboring breweries that take advantage of the locally grown crop. The two are known for their unique crafts including a malted beer that is derived by harvesting the barley just before it flowers and to grind it down into finer grains used to create the tasteful beer.
The barley plant contains high amounts of starch much like flour. The first step in preparing the plant for beer, is to remove the starch through a toasting process which breaks down the starch into a sugar. This process is what gives the beer its unique taste and can be combined with other grains such as corn which gives beer a milder taste. The toasting process also gives the beer its color depending on the amount of time in the kiln used for toasting.
After the barley has been steeped, toasted and milled into a fine flour, it is typically combined with fresh water, yeast and hops. Once the ingredients are combined, the beer is poured into a fermentation tank where the yeast produces alcohol and carbonation. The beer remains in the formation container for a period of eight to 10 days, depending on the type of beer the brewer is making. The last step is to let the beer mature before it is bottled or poured into kegs and shipped to a consumer.
Barley makes up over 85 percent of the Valley’s crops. The crop alternates with potato crops every two years. The two crops grow abundantly and aid each other in the process. Barley helps control weed infestations in the soil when potatoes are planted where barley once grew. Potatoes provide moisture and protein for the barley crops on opposite years. Both things are instrumental to a successful harvest.
A large majority of the barley crop within the Valley is distributed to several brewing companies. Miller Coors is the main buyer of barley grown in the Valley. Barley undergoes rigorous testing before it can be used for brewing purposes. Any portion of the harvest that does not pass the test is used as feed for animals. Miller Coors tests the barely for moisture content, protein amounts, skinned or broken kernels, or any type of foreign material. After successful testing is completed, barley can be transferred and shipped to its brewery destination.
Not only does barley provide economic stability for the residents and communities in the Valley, it also provides nutritious food for some of the Valley’s wildlife. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has contracted several fields of barely from growers to ensure the beloved Sand Hill Cranes have food when they migrate through the Valley every spring and fall. Through alliances between growers and CPW the Greater sandhill crane is provided with a safe temporary home during their migration periods.
The Sand Hill Cranes have been visiting the Valley for over 2,000 years. Petroglyphs in the area provide evidence that the massive birds have been coming to the area all this time due to the abundance of food and safe refuge. The birds attract bird enthusiasts from all over the world for a week each March during the Sand Hill Crane festival in Monte Vista. Barley growers help provide food and a safe haven for the birds, giving back to the community that supplies the crop to the nation.
Harvest for the barley began on August 25, according to reports from the USDA, and will be finishing up by the end of September.