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Truly Farm-to-Tap Beer

Colorado Farm Brewery in Alamosa, Colo., takes farm-to-tap to a new level as the only brewery in the world where every ingredient in its estate beers comes from the farm in which they brew.

 By Tori Peglar

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For those who say beer cannot solve all your problems, it’s likely they have not met the Cody family who has been farming in Colorado’s San Luis Valley in southern Colorado since the 1930s.  

In their wild, desperate attempt to save their fourth-generation family farm 11 years ago, they ended up becoming the world’s largest producer of craft malt and the only true farm-to-tap brewery on seven continents. For those who may be scratching their heads wondering what malt is, it’s an essential ingredient, often made from barley, for beer-making.

For 40 years, the Cody family in Alamosa, Colo., was one of the San Luis Valley’s biggest producers of barley for MillerCoors, the beer giant headquartered near Denver 200 miles away to the north. But as the years passed, the family’s barley profits dwindled, as did the size of their farm. When Josh and Jason Cody’s grandfather died in 2004, the family’s mountain of debt had climbed to seemingly insurmountable levels. The family was backed into a corner- sell the farm or hitch their hopes onto something totally new. Their grandmother, Phyllis Cody, threw out an idea: why not start a malting business?

 It was a shot in the dark. A deep darkness, literally. At night, there are few places in this country as dark as Alamosa County, home to only 16,551 residents scattered across the wide valley floor.

 The family knew how to grow barley, and they had run a dairy business for 30 years before it dried up in the mid-1990s. But malting was a new enterprise. Without getting too technical, it’s the process of soaking barley to stimulate the germination of the plant from seed and heating it to stop the germination. When the seed germinates, it jumpstarts enzymes that convert proteins and starches into sugars. It is these sugars that yeast feeds on, putting the alcohol in your glass of beer.

 Wayne Cody, Jason’s father, was skeptical. Jason Cody, on the other hand, headed to the former dairy barn on the property. When the dairy operation shutdown, the barn had become a storage area for anything and everything. Jason, then 30 years old, tossed the boxes out to make room for what would become the malting room. After repurposing their dairy equipment to make malt, the family formed the Colorado Malting Co. in 2008.

 

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Craft Malting Company Takes Off


That first shaky year, the family produced 10,000 pounds of malt. The craft batches they produced had a very special terroir, much like wine, based on the specific soils, sunshine and temperatures of the San Luis Valley. And this terroir was something that “budget malts,” the term the Codys use to refer to industrially produced malts, do not have. The San Luis Valley’s cool nights and warm days are great for growing rye, barley and wheat, all malting grains, making the Codys’ malt exceptional.

Their high-quality malt products caught on rapidly and as their reputation grew, so did their orders. In 2018, they produced 1.5 million pounds of malt for brewers and distillers. It may sound incredulous, but their malt made under the tremendous blue sky on this fourth-generation farm is sold on every continent, except Antarctica. Even MillerCoors buys malted wheat and chocolate wheat from them.

 “We were the first malting company at this scale in the world,” Jason Cody says. “When we first started, malting was really industrialized. We were the first craft malt company.”

 The Cody’s first malt customer was John Bricker, owner of Three-Barrel Brewing Co., down the road in Del Norte, Colo. Bricker’s Penitente Canyon Sour Ale collection of seven beers is renowned among Colorado beer enthusiasts. He’s been buying the Cody’s malt wholesale for 10 years.

 “They are an extraordinary family,” Bricker says as he stands outside on the Colorado Farm Brewery’s tap room patio on a warm spring day. “They loom big, but I see them from a different perspective. Josh had an influence on European craft brewing. He dragged me all over Denmark and Sweden. He’d just be going from place to place to see all these people who know him.”

 

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The Path to Colorado Farm Brewery

 

Bricker is surrounded by the melodious sound of hundreds of birds singing in the nearby farm fields, corn hole games, picnic tables, benches and a yellow and turquoise plastic toddler play structure. Once a storage shed, the modern tap room overlooks the patio with its long red-framed windows surrounded by corrugated metal. How did Josh Cody, a farm boy who spent his childhood milking cows in a remote valley larger than the size of Connecticut, get to know so many European brewers?

“From the very beginning, the plan was to have a brewery here,” says Josh Cody who has seven children and was working on a PhD. And teaching as a professor of graphic design at Concordia University in Mequon, Wis., before returning home to launch the brewing business in 2015.

But he was a graphic designer and professor, not a brewer. Fluent in German, he traveled to Munich, Germany, to study brewing under a friend who lived there. From there, he traveled to Finland to study brewing and the Finnish language and then to Norway to study smoked beers and Norwegian. As he spoke to European brewers about his family’s craft malting business, the brewers did a double-take. Craft malting? Everyone there was buying malt from huge industrial facilities. The notion of craft malting hadn’t even entered their imaginations. It was a eureka moment for them. And as Josh Cody traveled, it happened over and over again in breweries in Finland, Norway, Munich and beyond.

In a few short years, the Codys went from having a vision that grew out of an act of desperation to stave off financial ruin to being cutting-edge visionaries in an international craft-brewing scene. And let’s not forget much thanks is owed to grandma Phyllis Cody.

 

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A True Farm-to-Tap Brewery

Perhaps it’s the seemingly limitless blue sky that gives off an air of possibility that dusts the valley. Or the fact that some of the highest mountains in the continental U.S. sprout up on the valley’s eastern and western edges, displaying a brazen defiance of gravity every day. Wherever they get it from, the Cody family has an eternal optimism mixed with earnestness that courses through their veins. If the valley’s Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve can have the highest sand dunes in North America 1,003 miles from the nearest coastline, nothing is impossible, their efforts seem to say.  

So, when they had the audacious idea of sourcing every ingredient for their estate beers on their property from water to hops to malt, no one should have been that surprised. It would be the world’s first true farm-to-tap brewery. Yes, there are places in Belgium that are farm breweries, not all of their ingredients are sourced on their farms.

For Josh and Jason Cody, the concept was tied up as much in the philosophical trappings as the practical execution.

“No one else was doing it,” says Josh Cody. “It was like trying it for humanity’s sake. Was it possible to make a beer with all ingredients from one location? At traditional microbreweries, it’s the ale that’s brewed on site, but all the ingredients are outsourced. The quest was, ‘What if the origin of production really mattered?’”

The momentum to fully answer this last question quickened when Jason Cody, a Lutheran minister with 10 children, successfully raised a yeast strain out of the air and sent it to a lab to be isolated. There was a breathless wait before they got the news. It worked. Joshua also has transplanted nine hop varieties that are used in the estate beers.

It took two years and two months from 2015 to go from creating a strategic plan to opening the Colorado Farm Brewery’s tap room in February 2018. Every ingredient found in the family’s estate beers from the well water in the beer to the yeast, hops and malt, are produced on site.

Today, you can pull up to the family farm, park by the giant hay bales demarcating the parking lot and walk right into the tap room on Thursday, Fridays and Saturday evenings. Order a 100-percent estate beer like Wheatverly, a traditional German-style wheat ale made from 100-percent wheat, yeast, water and hops from the farm. Or try a craft brew like Farm Sahti, a hop-less Finnish-style beer made with juniper wood and bread yeast.  

The tap room’s interior is modern with shiny dark concrete floors and gorgeous benches, tables and a long bar countertop made from a spruce tree. The Cody brothers’ great-grandfather planted the spruce tree on the family farm during the 1930s. When the grand old spruce tree fell over in a strong windstorm several years ago, the Codys counted its rings, all 80 of them. During those eight decades, the tree had defied the odds of thriving in a valley that gets just 10 inches of rain per year. The brothers decided to hire a local Amish carpenter to craft furniture for the tap room from it.

“We have built this all from scratch,” says Jason Cody, whose other brother lives in Wisconsin but handles the social media for the company. “We didn’t have investors. We built it with the family on loans we secured. There have definitely been times where we were like, ‘Are we sure this is going to work?’”

 

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Riches in Alamosa

It’s been a long road from dairy farming and barley growing to beer. And in case it sounds like one giant, carefree adventure, you only need to spend several minutes with Wayne Cody, the patriarch of the family, to understand how often farming can make your heart seize up or soar, depending on the moment. It’s the many moments of getting knocked down that can take a man down for good or make him defiantly resourceful.

Wayne Cody falls in the latter breed. His gentle blue eyes have watched his family farm shrink from 2,000 acres to 300. He’s watched a year’s worth of fine barley crops grow mold in the fields after an unexpected rain. He’s watched the price of milk sink precipitously until every last profit ran dry. And he’s watched all three of his boys move across the country to pursue more viable careers only to boomerang back again.

Every step of the dusty path to Colorado Farm Brewery has been laden with potholes, detours and an omnipresent shadow of financial worry. What if all the time, research and passion poured into it would be another bust?

“There’s so much to this story that I’d need all day to tell it all,” says Wayne Cody whose creases in his worn hands tell the story of his life, starting with how he officially quit high school in Alamosa at age 16 to start his own dairy business. “Everything you see here that we’ve improved upon has been out of necessity. You have to be willing to risk a lot. All three boys gave up a fair share of their lives to see this through.”

But at the end of the day, there’s something the Cody family has that cannot be measured like their acres of barley, pounds of malt or liters of estate beer. Wayne Cody excuses himself from the patio to eat lunch in the tap room with a handful of his grandchildren, his sons, his wife and dear friend Three Barrel Brewing Co. owner John Bricker. Laughter erupts from the sun-filled room. What they have is something that would make even the world’s richest of people envious: a deep-rooted community.

“The most rewarding thing is working with my family,” says Josh Cody. “I always wanted to do this, but there was no room for two sons until now. Brewing has been a great space to work together.”

The bonus?

“I know this sounds funny because I grew up here, but I am also getting to know my neighbors better,” he adds, looking off to a distant neighboring house to the east. “I see them now because they come here all the time.”

Visit the Colorado Farm Brewery Thursday through Saturday nights. Learn more at https://www.cofarmbeer.com/

Tori Peglar writes about national park travel for National Park Trips Media and loved visiting Colorado Farm Brewery in Alamosa, Colo. She was truly inspired by the Cody family’s warm welcome and entrepreneurial spirit.

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