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One of three parachutists from the Patriot Parachute Team can be seen heading for a landing near a combine as spectators applaud and take pictures Thursday, July 20, 2017, at Grower Days at the Anheuser-Busch Malting plant in Moorhead. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

Food for beer: Budweiser's Moorhead Malt Plant celebrates farmers with Grower Days festivities

MOORHEAD, Minn. — A major step in the beer-brewing process that relies on growers across the nation is a lot like farming — with some important caveats.

During a media tour of the Anheuser-Busch Moorhead Malt Plant, Director of Midwest Malt Operations Alan Slater said the process comes down to steeping, germinating and kilning. But there's another way to think about it.

"Big picture, we're really farming without soil here," he said. "We're actually farmers, but we get to control the weather and the environment."

Slater and Senior Maltster Craig Mohr led a group of media representatives around the 8-acre, 39-year-old facility on July 20. The tour preceded the plant's main Grower Days festivities that included food, live music, an appearance by the Budweiser Clydesdales and Budweiser beer.

Slater said Grower Days aims to celebrate the farmers who grow barley that the plant turns into malt, which then gets shipped to Anheuser-Busch's 12 breweries in the U.S.

"This is the brand Budweiser sponsoring and wanting to tell the story and help the American barley grower tell the story at a high level," he said.

It's also a good way to inform the public about just what happens here, especially because Slater said there seems to be a lot of confusion about the plant's work.

He said the Moorhead facility gets frequent calls inquiring about beer tours, but because it doesn't brew beer, that isn't an option. In the winter months, steam from the smokestack often prompts people to ask if there's a fire.

Barley to malt

Mohr explained that the process of making pale malt at the Moorhead plant with 43 employees requires three steps. This facility has an annual capacity of about 8 million bushels, or 130,000 metric tons.

First, barley kernels are stepped in large tanks of water to hydrate the kernels up to about 43 percent moisture. Doing this also removes unwanted components in the husks and cleans the kernels.

"The most crucial thing we need to do in here is keep the barley alive," he said.

The steeping tanks are then drained, and after the kernels rest, they're filled again before being drained for good about 25 to 35 hours after steeping begins.

Wet kernels then move on for germination, a step that takes 60 to 90 hours. The idea here, Mohr said, is to get the kernels to start growing, which results in biochemical changes that break down the cell wall and make the protein inside soluble, creating enzymes that will convert starch to sugar.

"That's the reason we're here is yeast eats our malt," he said. "Malt is the food for the yeast."

Germinated kernels then move onto the kiln, where the temperature is carefully raised to drop the moisture content down to about 5 percent over the course of two days. This step preserves the necessary enzymes inside kernels but deactivates them, halting the growing process.

Mohr said the process takes six to eight days before the finished malt is sampled and tested in a lab and eventually shipped to breweries.

Mohr said the 9,000 bushels the Moorhead plant handles in one production piece will make a couple million bottles of beer.

Things have changed at the Moorhead plant over the past 39 years, Slater said. Formerly manual duties, such as draining steeping tanks, are now automated, and the facility has cut its water usage by 57 percent — enough water for 3,000 to 4,000 average homes in Moorhead, he said.

But the science of this process, and the ultimate goal of the Moorhead employees' work, hasn't changed, and that's all thanks to the farmers providing barley that ultimately keeps Budweiser and Bud Lite flowing in America.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson has been a Forum reporter since 2012 and previously wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

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