Farmer’s Perspective: Growing Grains for Flavorful Spirits

In the second of two articles looking at a farm-to-bottle relationship between distiller and farmer—in their own words—Jason Cody of Colorado Malting discusses the challenges and benefits of growing and malting characterful grains on a small scale. As told to Ryan Pachmayer.

Jason Cody Feb 5, 2024 - 7 min read

Farmer’s Perspective: Growing Grains for Flavorful Spirits Primary Image

Photo courtesy Laws Whiskey House

Our goal with Colorado Malting has always been to drastically reduce the farm-to-glass supply chain. Having a malthouse on the farm—we’re harvesting the grain and then putting it in the malt tanks on site—has reduced a lot of the transportation and emissions.

At the same time, there’s this repristination back to what it used to be. Historically, in continental Europe, you wouldn’t have found a major malting company located in one area. The old model worked for thousands of years—a farm, a malthouse, and a brewery.

We’ve only seen the effects of the industrial models for 150 years now, tops. But we have seen the kind of tried-and-true, tested methods of these traditional models. Our whole business philosophy is a repristination—a restoration—back to what beer and spirits used to be.

Growing for Flavor

The development of heirloom grains for us was mostly based on what was available that we could plant here in the San Luis Valley. A lot of the rye available here was heirloom rye. We gave it a whirl, and we liked malting it, then we started running it through sensory and sending it to customers. We found that it had a really unique flavor, so we stuck with it.


We look at what we have access to, and we taste it. Our barley variety, Scarlett, is not the highest-yielding variety in the field. It has a couple of negative characteristics when it comes to lodging and grain-plant height. But we’re not really looking at that in our business. It’s more about the flavor we can bring the customer.

Bespoke Malt

With Laws Whiskey House, it’s very collaborative. Those guys will tell us what they want to do, and we’ll make it happen. It’s true for other distilleries, too. We make a lot of custom malts. One of the things we offer new customers when they come on board is the ability to have a malt that they design, instead of a malt that we design.

We’ll have customers come by and say that they’ve always wanted to make a malt out of smoked aspen trees, and we’ll talk together and figure out that malt. They’re able to have a unique product that their competitors don’t have.

Cottonwood grows here along the Rio Grande. A couple of distilleries—like 1874 in Del Norte and Durango Craft Spirits—have latched on to different versions of cottonwood smoke. These American single malts—rather than being traditionally smoked with peat like in Europe—are smoked in cottonwood, and they’re just awesome. It’s just really working well on the flavor-profile side.

On Deciding What to Grow

Deciding what to grow is challenging. We work with spring grains, such as barley and wheat, and then our rye is a winter rye, which means we have to plant it in the fall. So, we have to decide, when we’re harvesting barley, how much rye to plant. And it’s based on demand from customers.


Unfortunately, customers will have one plan in September, and by the time you get to the following year, they have another plan. So, we end up with surplus grains sometimes, or we end up way short of a grain. We try to avoid shortfalls just by growing extra. It’s a guessing game every year, though.

The soil type matters just as much as the variety of grain. With Laws, we are very careful to select the right variety grown in a specific type of soil. The way the plants get stressed, and the way they build complex proteins during their growing season, the soil type changes those variables.

For our distillery customers, we grow rye and wheat in a specific soil type. For the craft brewers, it doesn’t seem to be as big of a deal to them, so we can use wheat from whichever field, while isolating specific fields for the distillers.

Our farm is in the Rio Grande Basin. We have senior water rights on the river, but when we’re in a drought, it puts a lot of pressure on us to pump from the aquifer. That’s one of the reasons we like the rye: It gets going in early spring, and then we’re harvesting by July. So, some years we can raise an entire crop of rye just on surface water.


Part of the dream for the farm was setting up a brewery—the Colorado Farm Brewery. We’re constantly making different types of malt—our mantra is pioneering specialty malt. So, when we have a different type of malt, we’ll bring it into the brewhouse, and we’ll brew a five-barrel batch.


The tasting-room regulars love it because we’ll have this crazy beer on that they’ve never heard of. It’s good for the brewery, good for the community—and good for the malthouse side because we’re seeing customers react to the flavors in the new malt in real time.

Customer Base

Around 2015, 2016, we had 187 breweries on the waiting list to buy malt from us, and very few distilleries. Then the big next-door neighbors got recruited to Proximity Malt; they’re only 15 miles from our malthouse. Their prices are drastically lower than ours at the scale we’re at, so they took a lot of brewery customers away from us.

We understood—we’re still friends with a lot of them—we know they have to make money, too. That changed our portfolio drastically to where we are now: About 80 percent of our malt goes to distilleries, 20 percent to breweries. Before, it would have been the exact opposite.

We’re 100 percent direct-to-consumer. We don’t work with a distributor. The distilleries and breweries like it; we try to get feedback from them on what we’re doing well and what we can improve on.

A lot of the time the customer will get the malt, they’ll receive the delivery, put their hands in the malt bag, and the malt is still warm from the kiln. Customers love that.