Montana is a grain-growing mecca, but with wheat prices falling, some farmers in the Helena Valley and elsewhere across the state are increasingly tapping a new grain not meant for a loaf of bread, but the bottom of a glass.
For the first time this year, Montana became the top producer of malt barley for making beer in terms of acreage in the country, with nearly 630,000 acres devoted to growing the grain while another 300,000 acres goes to feed barley for livestock, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Idaho produces more malt barley due to irrigation on fewer acres, but production has increased steadily in Montana in recent years, said Lola Raska, executive vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association.
“Contract offers have been good and getting better as growing areas become more concentrated,” she said.
While malt barley production has increased in Montana over the last two decades as North Dakota grows more corn and soy beans, the last two or three years have seen a big switch with lower wheat prices and major beer manufacturers shifting to Montana, Raska said.
“I think we’ll continue to see it as a trend as malt barley acres decrease in North Dakota and as long as prices expand,” she said.
Prices have remained high and will likely rise even higher with August rains that hammered this year’s crop. Growing malt barley can be much more difficult than other grains, she said. The crop must be harvested at a specific time before germination and dried quickly.
“That’s the risk of growing a malt crop,” Raska said. “It takes some time and experience to become a good malt grower.”
Helena Valley farmer Joe Dooling experienced the learning curve when he started growing malt barley three years ago. He started producing 70 acres per bushel his first year, now producing between 110 and 115.
“You get paid a premium for malt, and because we have Malteurop in Great Falls, lots of people have switched,” he said. “I’m just happy we can do it. Wheat’s sensitive in this area and doesn’t yield as much as malt barley does.”
Tucked in the hills just east of Lake Helena, Dooling devotes 120 to 180 acres to producing malt barley depending on the year. Cool nights make Montana an excellent barley state, he said, and the malt varieties have been the highest-dollar value crop the last two years.
“We’re all growing it more than in the past, and with more of us, it’s making it less of a risk and more of a demand,” Dooling said.
Producing a grain that goes into people’s beer in local breweries and big manufacturers is a nice bonus, he said.
“You do feel like we’re making people’s lives a tad bit better,” Dooling said.
Along with devoting the most acreage to malt barley production, Montana also claims the second highest number of craft breweries per capita in the nation at more than 50. Craft breweries now consume about 20 percent of the total malt barley used and account for nearly 8 percent or $14.3 billion of the total beer market in the country, according to the Montana departments of Agriculture and Commerce.
Montana craft breweries produce nearly 120,000 barrels of beer needing 7 million pounds of malt per year, according to the agencies.
Malteurop is Montana’s only malting company, which holds nearly a quarter of the U.S. market serving major manufacturers like Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Pabst, according to Montana Department of Agriculture statistics. Around 20 percent of the malt produced at the Great Falls plant now goes to microbreweries.
Because of the uptick in craft breweries in Montana, the industry has garnered the attention of the Montana Office of Tourism looking to lure people and money to the state.
“Increasingly, craft beer is a reason why people are coming to Montana,” said Dan Iverson with the tourism office.
Craft beer falls under the category of bar and restaurant sales, in which out-of-staters spent about $625 million in the state last year. The Office of Tourism highlights the breweries on the Visit Montana webpage and provides maps.
“We’ve seen some areas like Billings and Missoula really capitalize,” Iverson said.
Craft breweries have also spurred off-shoot business like retail sales, brewery tour buses and even a party bike in Missoula that takes several riders on a self-propelled tour.
The trend is one the Montana Grain Growers Association and craft brewers hope will continue as it has been good business for both.
“We just need people to drink more beer,” Raska said.