Brett Arnusch saw Dry Land Distillers’ Nels Wroe pouring Antero wheat whiskey on a news segment and got excited, he said in a phone call. Their farm was the only one growing that variety, and batches had been sold to Fort Collins-based Troubadour Malting. Through the malting company, Brett got in touch with the folks at Dry Land Distillers, and then a deeper partnership was formed.
Arnusch is the fourth generation to work on Arnusch Farms, based out of Keenesburg, sharing the family legacy with his father Marc. Both Marc and Brett strove for innovation in farming, with a mind to the integrity of their grains and ecological sustainability. As their partnership with Dry Land grew, so too did the opportunities for the farmers and distillers.
When Dry Land approached the Arnusch clan about growing an heirloom variety of wheat, there was no doubt in Marc’s mind. The Sonora wheat, the prime ingredient in Dry Land’s Heirloom Wheat whiskey, has a legacy in Colorado dating back 2,500 years.
Being able to trace a glass of whiskey all the way back to the ground it grew in was a new experience for the Arnusch, one they were proud to be a part of. Dry Land is the only distillery making a whiskey out of the Sonora, making it a uniquely Colorado product all around.
“It’s a great harmony to provide these great products in the Antero and Sonora, and it still keeps the farm happy and healthy,” Brett Arnusch said.
For Dry Land, investing in their grain directly is rooted in their values and principles as distillers.
“We helped pick the ground and the grain, so we can say our spirits are not just grain to glass, but ground to glass,” Wroe said. “It gives our customers full visibility of the process, which helps foster a connection.”
Wroe is a member of the Colorado Grain Chain, a non-profit organization that works to foster connections from growers, millers and malters all the way to the end-users like bakers, brewers and distillers. The Grain Chain has worked with farmers and agricultural scientists to restore ancient and heirloom grains and make them viable in Colorado’s current ecosystem, according to Wroe.
For the distillers at Dry Land it goes beyond just Colorado grains. Their gin is made with botanicals native to Colorado, a process that Wroe admitted was tricky. To get their best sources, the company started investing in orchards to grow the rediscovered Colorado orange apple and native crab apples, as well as farms to grow juniper and other herbs.
“Colorado is the product, so it just makes sense to us,” Wroe said.
Dry Land Distillers aren’t the only ones investing in the land to get their best product. Brandon and Lisa Boldt of Primitive Beer have been working with Troubadour Malting since their inception, and also make use of Arnusch Farm’s Antero wheat in making their beer.
Brandon Boldt explained that as part of their hyperlocal flavor goal, Primitive also invested in fruits. Since their method of brewing and fermentation can take one to three years in a barrel to yield a product, investing in local orchards made a certain amount of sense.
“We’ve invested in farms to start out, purchased the trees and bushes knowing that it will take a couple years before they start producing fruit. It’s been a good relationship for us, even with some trials,” Brandon Boldt said. “We had to get creative when the horrendous late frost affected stone fruit crops last year, so we didn’t get peaches and cherries. We had to experiment with melons and grapes, try new things.”
“We’re proud to choose local, even when it’s affected strongly by seasonal variability. We’d rather pay higher rates to support local farmers and malters, because it supports the community we live in.”
Seasonal variability, as well as water allocation and drought conditions, have a significant impact on crops. For growers, malters and producers, it carries a significant risk. For Arnusch Farms and Dry Land, the risk is shared in the partnership.
“It’s a challenge to grow an heirloom grain like the Sonora. It wasn’t as vigorous as we’d hoped, and it took some time to figure it out,” Arnusch said.
For Dry Land Distillers, the answer was to invest further into the farm. Wroe described it like consumer supported agriculture, or CSA, where consumers can get produce directly from the farm on a subscription basis. Only Dry Land pays for an entire field upfront, even if something tragic befalls the crop.
“There is a cost associated with buying local, but it’s worth it. The grower knows that the costs are covered, and we trust their quality. We’re happy to assume the risk that the crop won’t come through, if it helps the partnership,” Wroe said.
Todd Olander of Root Shoot Malting and Olander Farms in Berthoud, loves working with brewers and distillers.
“Starting out, I was surprised to find that a lot of brewers didn’t know where their grains came from. They were just ordering things out of a catalogue from one of the big distributors,” Olander said.
Olander Farms is a family venture as well, and Olander works closely with his father Steve. They grow all the grains that go to Root Shoot Malting. Olander explained that the transition from dairy feed to malting grains allowed for more value out of less land. Growing small grains instead of crops like corn and sugar beets use less water.
Olander is planning for the future as much as possible, incorporating new techniques in soil remediation and regeneration and efficient water usage. Working with alcohol producers is a key part of that, as Root Shoot’s website proudly proclaims their goal to farms “one beer at a time.”
Root Shoot Malting works with at least one hundred fifty breweries and more than a dozen distillers, including Longmont’s Pumphouse, Oskar Blues, Left Hand Brewing and Grossen Bart.
“Pumphouse has been using all our malts for about two years now. During the pandemic, Oskar Blues put in a big order of grains with us that really helped when everything seemed uncertain,” Olander said.
The support goes both ways for Root Shoot, particularly where the pandemic was concerned. The malters donated thousands of pounds of corn to the Colorado distilleries producing hand sanitizer in April, 2020. Colorado Brewers Guild and Left Hand Brewing Foundation collaborated to make the ColoradoStrong beer collaboration, using Root Shoot’s pale malt as the body of the beer..
“We work with all these breweries and distilleries, and a lot of them are pretty small so you’re dealing directly with the owners. You learn to rely on each other, not just for sales and growth, but for honest feedback,” Olander said.
Longmont’s Abbott & Wallace connected with Todd Olander as both companies were establishing themselves, around five years ago. Abbott & Wallace owner John Young, along with his partner H.K. Wallace, worked in breweries like Upslope before deciding to make whiskey in Longmont. Having seen both sides of production, the pair designed their equipment to handle working with whole and malted grains.
“We aren’t farmers, or scientists or engineers,” Young said. “We’re mechanics at best. But we knew what kind of things we wanted to do, and that we wanted to make whiskey the right way, on grain, so we planned on it from the start.”
Abbott & Wallace work with Root Shoot for their malted barley, while getting a lot of their raw grains from Schlagel Farms in Longmont. That includes the corn and wheat for their bourbon, as well as the sugar beets for their rum.
“We pay a premium for it, with Schlagel and Root Shoot, but we’re fortunate to have this partnership in our backyard,” Young said.