Colorado is home to a grain-to-glass approach when it comes to beer

FORT COLLINS — Before the bartender pulls the tap, before the brewer swirls the kettle with hops, before the maltster kilns the grain and before the barley sprouts from the dirt, a pint of Colorado beer increasingly owes its start to a laboratory in northern Colorado.

Inside greenhouses, under microscopes and out in the fields, scientists are studying how to make better grain seeds — and ultimately, better beer.

“Brewing a beer is a biological process,” says Adam Heuberger, an assistant professor at Colorado State University’s horticulture and crop science program who specializes in grain research. “There’s biological transition from barley to malt and a transition from malt to be used by yeast in beer. So the malt itself has to have certain chemical compounds to be used effectively in brewing systems.”

Behind Anheuser-Busch’s brewery in Fort Collins, a 24-member team at the barley research center is breeding new grain varieties to offer higher yields at harvest, use less water to grow and become more disease- and pest-resistant.

“We know the specifics of both parents, and we are combining them to try to get the best combination,” says Gary Hanning, the director of global barley research for a subsidiary of A-B InBev, as he surveys the waist-high stalks in a greenhouse.

In any given year, Hanning’s team — most of whom were trained nearby at Colorado State — will breed about 1,500 different combinations looking for just one or two that will move to the next phase of testing. Some seeds may get tested in the adjacent 110-acre research field near the brewery, while others are being bred to grow in different conditions across the globe.

From lab to bottle, the process takes at least 14 years. “Every year our varieties have to be better — better in yield, better in adaptability and better in malt quality,” Hanning says.

Much attention in Colorado is focused on what’s poured into the glass, but the state’s renowned beer scene is much larger, as a cluster of research facilities in Fort Collins demonstrates.

A-B InBev, the makers of Budweiser, announced this month it would invest $29 million in 2017 into the Fort Collins brewery, including a $1.4 million upgrade to the barley research center that concluded in April. The company touts 16 research centers worldwide, and Fort Collins is the hub for the United States.

The beer giant doesn’t grow any grain for its beers in Colorado, but others do.