Even as craft distilling takes off in Colorado, Nels Wroe, of Longmont, has found a way to stand out.
"There's only five of us nationally that do single-grain wheat whiskeys," he said recently. "Almost everybody blends the wheat with other grains."
As founder and president of Dry Land Distillers, Wroe makes a whiskey exclusively from Antero, a white wheat variety bred by Colorado State University. The name is right there on the label.
Another of his concoctions features White Sonora, one of North America's oldest wheat varieties, handed down and grown for generations in the Southwest.
By next year, Wroe is optimistic he'll be able to source White Sonora grown right in Colorado, thanks to a movement that is stirring up new interest in rare grains.
Wroe is part of a group of craft grain enthusiasts who came together recently to form the nonprofit Colorado Grain Chain, which aims to promote member businesses and raise awareness — and demand — for specialty grains.
So far the group consists of a few dozen farmers, millers, brewers, distillers and chefs. Consumers can also join for a reduced fee. The group has already started organizing fundraisers and educational events, using the tagline "community not commodity."
At the annual Slow Food Nations Festival, a huge foodie event held in mid-summer in downtown Denver, the Colorado Grain Chain hosted one of the largest exhibits inside the outdoor Taste Marketplace. Commandeering several adjoining booth spaces, members of the group set up interactive demonstrations of hand threshing, offered samples of grain-based food and drinks, and gave away small bags of unique grains, like Ethiopian blue-tinged emmer.
Eventually, they plan to publish a membership directory to showcase businesses that feature heritage grains.
Lifelong baker Andy Clark, founder and owner of Moxie Bread Co., is at the forefront of the campaign to give old grains new relevance. He's convinced coordinating efforts will bear fruit.
Moxie, which began in Louisville, Colo., and is now adding more locations along the Front Range, has proven the appeal of an old-world approach, even winning recognition from the James Beard Foundation.
"I think this is a really ripe moment," he said inside the Taste Marketplace booth. "People are becoming more interested in terroir (a French term for the expression of the natural environment in the taste of the product) and in distinct flavors," he said.
"We're just at the beginning of a grain revolution. It does take a premium to grow these grains, but that's something we can pass on to the consumer."
He compared shoppers' desire for small-batch bread with their increasing disillusionment with "the hamburger made from a hundred cows."
Clark sells his artisan loaves for $6. He said craft bakers and brewers are often willing to pay four or five times more to get unique, identity preserved grains.
But farmers who want to get involved should start with outreach to the market and by developing relationships, rather than jumping in and planting large acreages.
"It's a bit of a chicken and egg scenario," he admitted. "So start with a small test plot."
Also, be prepared to put a premium on personal relationships. Clark said he and others like him want to connect with the source of their ingredients, which might mean traveling to the farm to see the grain in the field or watching it being harvested.
"We've lost that connection to our food stuffs," he said.
Roy Pfaltzgraff, of Haxtun, refers to himself as the token "big farmer" on the Grain Chain board. He's there to represent the average farmer in Eastern Colorado, who farms thousands of acres using modern farm equipment and precision technology.
He believes there's also a place in the movement for big marketing players, like Denver-based Ardent Mills, one of the world's largest flour millers, to help drive the sales volume needed to get more farmers involved.
Even if a significant portion of the Denver population were to switch to buying heritage grains, the resulting demand would be huge, he said.
"People don't have any concept of the scale of the food industry today," he noted.
Pfaltzgraff is in a unique position to reach out to his peers in the farming community who might be skeptical about growing specialty grains. He can speak from personal experience about how to make it work.
Two years ago he decided to plant einkorn, an early wheat strain domesticated in the Turkish region 10,000 years ago.
"The yield was horrible," he said of last year's crop. "We were lucky to get our seed back. But this year we re-drilled it, and it looks significantly better."
That's because the plants that survived were the ones best adapted to his unique microclimate.
Through natural selection, any farmer can begin to develop a locally adapted specialty crop in just a few growing seasons, he said.
That's not to say the performance of ancient varieties will ever compare to modern varieties bred specifically for high yield. But Pfaltzgraff said it's important to keep in mind that the price is considerably better, too.
"If I could sell just one acre of production from each of my fields at the farmers' market, it would make a significant difference for our farm," he explained.