This piece was initially published by Ag Journal in August, with an exclusive interview with David Coors, heir to Coors Brewing Co., and a tour of the MillerCoors/AC Golden brewery in Golden. I worked closely with Molson Coors executives and farmers to research the origin and history of the barley used by the beer powerhouse, and how the Colorado barley industry has evolved since then. The article also offers an inside look at the all Colorado ingredients used in AC Golden Lagers, subsidiary of MillerCoors. The piece also documents the late Bill Coors' dedication to Colorado's barley program; Bill Coors has since passed. - Jolene Hamilton
Nestled in the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains rests Golden, a historic gold mining town founded in 1859 and home to the Coors Brewing empire since 1873. A statue of the town’s original brewer, Adolph Coors, greets thousands of travelers each year, and signs throughout the city direct visitors to one of the largest breweries in the world.
The number of tourists that flock to the iconic brewery bears testament to the brand’s popularity on a global scale, but at the heart of the facility is a microbrewery that is dedicated solely to Colorado and supporting the state’s agricultural economy.
AC Golden is a subsidiary of beer powerhouse MillerCoors, yet operates as its own entity. AC Golden has a business strategy that is more reflective of a small business than you might expect, mirroring many of the same values as the Colorado barley and hop growers that they support.
“AC Golden was established 11 years ago and, instead of doing a national launch, we wanted to establish a segment of MillerCoors that is focused on patient growth, with limited resources, and fueled by passion. The idea was to let the new segment of the business grow organically and use only local ingredients,” explains AC Golden President David Coors.
AC Golden’s Colorado Native Lagers brand is a beer exclusive to the Centennial State. Their recipes include water that flows from the Rocky Mountains, the state’s oldest variety of brewing yeast, and packaging manufactured in Wheat Ridge and Golden. In addition to the all-Colorado ingredients, the lagers are only sold in-state. Though all of these factors contribute to Colorado’s economy and a smaller carbon footprint, perhaps the company’s most significant impact is on Colorado’s agricultural community through their barley and hop programs.
The history of the company’s unique Moravian barley dates back to the 1930s. Adolph Coors II toured the world looking for the right strain of barley for what was then Coors Brewing Company. Eventually, he purchased a breed of barley from the Moravian region of the Czech Republic.
According to Mont Stuart, Senior Manager of Brewing Materials and Malting for Molson Coors, the global parent of MillerCoors, samples of the barley were stored in Adolph Coors II’s roll-top desk until the office manager at the time, Ray Frost, requested permission to try growing the seeds in his garden in Golden. Fortunately, the plants thrived in the high climate, so they continued to grow and multiply the seeds. Eventually, the company picked two farmers in the Johnstown, Colo., area to raise the barley crops.
With the help of successful farming practices, Coors Brewing Company progressively increased the number of seeds and, by 1945, the first Coors beer was made with 100% locally grown locally malted Moravian barley. From 1945 on, Coors beers - such as the famous Coors Banquet and Coors Light - have always used the two-row Moravian barley.
Under the direction of Bill Coors, the barley program continued to thrive and expand. Bill created many opportunities and resources for farmers, which helped them cultivate strong barley operations.
“Bill Coors developed the barley program because of his firm belief that good beer does not start in the malting facility, but in the barley fields,” says Stuart.
As the Coors Brewing Company grew, they extended their barley program throughout the state and high country regions which include Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
In the 1960s the company realized that in order to be sustainable, Moravian barley had to be competitive against other crops. This notion was the catalyst for a joint breeding program with Colorado State University (CSU). The shared venture resulted in a better breed of Moravian barley through traditional breeding efforts; they crossbred the regional Moravian plant with another type of barley which was more disease resistant. By the 1980s, the company had their own breeding and research programs.
Currently, the most significant areas for the Coors barley programs are Southern Colorado, Idaho, and Montana. However, AC Golden’s Colorado Native Lagers are made entirely with the barley from Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
Jim Ford Farms in Hooper, Colo., has been growing barley for Molson Coors for three generations; a partnership that second-generation farmer Danny Neufeld holds in high regard.
“Throughout the years, Coors has been a fantastic partner. Without them, I don’t think our farming operation would be nearly as successful,” says Neufeld. “They take care of the valley, and they take care of the farmers.”
Every year, the company hosts Barley Days, a celebration for farmers in their barley program. Bill Coors, who will be 102 this year, established the ceremony as a way to create bonds between the company and the farmers; and to thank their growers for their contributions. Farmers and their families are served a delicious meal, Molson Coors Chairman Pete Coors gives a speech, and awards are presented to the best growers.
AC Golden not only supports the Colorado agricultural community through their joint barley efforts with Molson Coors, but they have also almost single-handedly created a new category of agriculture for Colorado farmers by establishing a market for Colorado-grown hop.
Driven by the brand’s commitment to local ingredients, AC Golden invested considerable money and resources into Colorado’s agricultural economy to complete their all-Colorado recipe.
“Because there wasn’t a hop industry in Colorado yet, we over-invested to establish the industry effectively. We paid growers a premium for hops, and over the past eight years, that’s equaled over $3 million that we’ve invested in our farmers, and our community, to help establish the industry,” explains AC Golden’s president.
Colorado’s Western Slope is the home of AC Golden’s hop growers. Up to seven hop varieties are used in Colorado Native Lagers beers, depending on the style. Carefully tended, hops are used to balance the sweetness of the malt, and are a finishing step to give Colorado Native Lagers their special flavor notes.
Ron Munger of Misty Mountain Hop Farm in Olathe, Colo., was one of the first farmers to grow hops for AC Golden and has had the thrill of expanding with the brand.
“There’s a lot that goes into growing hops, and AC Golden understands that. So, they knew at the get-go that to establish the Colorado hops, they’d have to throw in and pay above average to get this industry started, and they did,” explains Munger. “Colorado Native craft beers have been growing steadily across the state, so it has been really neat to grow my operation right along with theirs.”
Colorado Native prides itself on being the only Colorado beer that is indeed 100% local. According to Coors, the price of barley and hops within the state is more expensive than in other markets, but the cost has been worth it for AC Golden because it gives them a selling point no other Colorado brewer can match.
Coors admits that the limited variety of hops available within the state has created some obstacles; especially since other brewers have access to hundreds of varieties throughout other states and countries. However, the creativity and innovation of the brand’s talented brewers continue to overcome those disadvantages; fulfilling their promise of 100% Colorado beers remains their top priority.
When AC Golden’s Colorado Native brand was launched in 2010, it had one flavor. It has steadily grown over the years, and currently has twelve beers in its portfolio; there are four styles available year-round and four quarterly rotation seasonal brews, as well as up to four limited release barrel-aged sour beers. According to the company’s website tracker, 13,000 barrels of Native Lagers beer has already been brewed so far this year.
The Coors family legacy carries an undying passion for beer and agriculture, which has been passed down through the years. “We are a five generation business, and my dad (Pete Coors) is actively involved in organizations like the National Western Stock Show, and we truly value our farmers and the agriculture community,” explains David Coors.
For decades now, Coors Brewing and AC Golden lagers have been a beloved western tradition at branding-day dinners, tailgate parties, and rodeo celebrations nationwide. But for Coloradans, this homegrown company’s legacy goes even further- it is inscribed in the very soil of Colorado’s fertile farmlands. So this harvest season, tip your hat to the farmers who feed us all by cracking open a Colorado Native brew- then sit back and enjoy the refreshing taste of Colorado’s world-class agriculture.