Anheuser-Busch malt exec Slater retires
MOORHEAD, Minn. — Alan Slater retired Thursday, Feb. 28, as director of Midwest Malting Barley Operations for Anheuser-Busch Companies, Inc. He's been with the company for 34 years.
In his current role, Slater, 60, has run the Moorhead malt plant, visible along Interstate 94 with its big Budweiser sign. The plant itself has about 50 employees. Slater also has overseen country elevators that supply the malt plant in North Dakota from West Fargo, Sutton, and in Montana at Fairfield and Conrad.
Paul Bolin, a North Dakota State University graduate who has headed up Busch's Jonesboro, Ark., rice mill will take over on March 1.
In his last few days at the Moorhead malt plant, Slater talked about how his plant takes 8 million bushels of barley per year and makes it into malt— a key constituent in some of Busch's biggest brands, to make more than 9 million barrels of beer.
"That is our finished product," Slater says, tasting individual "pale malt" kernels. "This is my harvest. Now I ship this to the brewmaster to make Budweiser." The malt is 4 percent moisture. It is ground and goes into the first brew kettle, and is turned into wort. "This is going to provide all of the energy for the yeast to ferment and make alcohol. This brings the color and flavor to our beers," he says.
Slater grew up on a small ranch between Hettinger and Mott, N.D. He studied agronomy and agricultural economics at North Dakota State University in Fargo. He became an intern and employee for Quaker Oats Co., where he became familiar with forecasting and estimating crops of interest — sugar beets, oats, and buckwheat.
In 1985, he hired on with Anheuser-Busch's seed plant in Moorhead. "They were going to venture much more into the vertical-integrated type of operation, try to get more direct with the farmer to influence quality."
In the 1988 drought, Slater showed his skill at estimating the crop. For 25 of his years, he was involved in procurement. He moved with Busch to Canada, working in Winnipeg from 2003 to 2005 to help establish an export status for barley products, which was under the Canadian Wheat Board. For the next five years, he did part-time assignments to China, where he traveled rural areas and helped build the Budweiser market and helped establish domestic Chinese supply for established rice and hops.
The malt barley industry is unusual in its collaboration and sharing, Slater says. Busch's "whole intent is to drive quality for our malt process and our beer process and help the grower have high acceptance rate and quality," he says.
Malting barley has become a specialty crop that has right-sized acreage to fit demand in the domestic industry. Busch supports research and work with checkoff programs to help with public and private research to compete with the research in other commodities that have genetically-modified organisms.
The U.S. barley industry has lost "one county every 10 years, from south to north," as GMO research has allowed competing crops to grow in ever northward climates, displacing cereal grains including barley, which don't have GMO traits. Thirty years ago, corn and soybeans stopped at Sisseton, S.D., but now have reached into Canada.
In the 1990s, the barley industry dealt with wetter conditions, the influx of fusarium head blight, or "scab," and the deoxynivalenol (DON). "That drove us to shift some of our production into Montana and western North Dakota," he said.
Today, the company has committed to becoming a 100 percent buyer of two-row barley varieties for this region and moving the production back into Minnesota and North Dakota.
(Two-row barley is known for its ability to produce more beer than six-row barley. It appears to have two rows of kernels when viewed from the top of the "spike." Six-row barley appears to have six rows of kernels when viewed from the top.)
In the past, the two-row varieties were more adapted to drier areas. They don't stand as well. Six-row varieties fared better in more moist areas such as the Red River Valley of the North.
In the past eight years, public and private breeding programs have worked to move two-row varieties eastward. "North Dakota State has been a leader. We use ND Genesis (variety). There's another variety out of Canada variety called AAC Synergy," he says. "We have some more that are coming."
Slater says one of the biggest trends he's seen is in identity preservation. Busch is a leader in that by contracting barley at the farm, handling it through their company elevators, and then malting it in their own plant, and then their breweries.
Another big change is a switch to no-till or minimum-till has helped with quality. He can now malt barley from Mott, Hazelton or south of Minot on non-irrigated land. "It gives me constant quality, constant yields, because of that moisture conservation," he says.
A third change in the past 20 years has been an increase in gender diversity in the Busch management. "Diversity of mind, of people is very powerful if you're going to be a growing company," he says.
Moving forward, the company no doubt will increase its collaboration with groups like the North Dakota Barley Council, Montana Wheat and Barley Commission, the National Barley Growers Association, and Minnesota Barley Growers Association.
In the past five to six years, the craft brewer area has expanded. "We're really excited about it because it's bringing increased sophistication" to beer enjoyment, rivaling what exists in the wine industry.
Busch has the leading core brands in the world with Budweiser and Bud Light. "We're all trying to master the millennial, which still is a mystery," he says. Social media means spreading marketing dollars beyond the traditional sports and television, into different media. "You want to be very positive in your corporate message," he says.
Slater says the company has committed to be "100 percent sustainable by 2025, globally," and are "really walking the talk." That includes farmers, so the company is encouraging irrigated farmers to lower their production costs and improve water efficiency. The Bush malt plant in Moorhead has ideas for solar and wind energy.
Sustainability is "important to our customers," he says. "In my 34 years, what hasn't changed is that the consumer is always the boss."
Slater's staff hosted a retirement party Feb. 21. In retirement he expects to work on the home ranch, photography, travel, and family pursuits.