A Career of Successful Growth

Catching up with Doug Peck, Idaho’s Anheuser-Busch Agronomist

Published online: Dec 23, 2021 Articles, Business, East Idaho Business Steve Smede
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Behind every great crop you’ll find a successful farmer, and behind every successful farmer you’ll find a strong research-driven mindset that leaves little to chance. Farming isn’t just a lifestyle or a livelihood. At its core, it’s an applied science, especially when it comes to growing varieties for a specific end-use product.

In the world of barley, Anheuser-Busch has a rich history in American brewing that stretches back 168 years. For nearly a third of that journey, the company has prospered thanks to a strong collaboration with hundreds of growers right here in Eastern Idaho.

For proof in the malt, look no further than Doug Peck. He’s the Idaho Regional Agronomy Manager for Anheuser-Busch, and has spent more than three decades cultivating a successful partnership between the world renowned brewer and top producers of its key ingredient.

A native of Eastern Idaho, Peck grew up in St. Anthony and relocated south to Idaho Falls 44 years ago. 

“Agriculture has always been a love for me,” Peck said. “I was a farm boy—spud harvest, moving sprinklers, cattle. All of it.”

Hired by Pillsbury straight out of high school, he learned everything he could about chemicals, fertilizer, plants and soils. He soon became a consultant, and landed a job in July of 1990 as a field coordinator for Anheuser-Busch.

“The regional manager at the time had asked me what I liked about the company, and I told him how I felt it was a company where I could really make a career out of it and then retire,” Peck said. “I remember thinking right afterwards, ‘Retirement? That’s a long, long ways away!’ Anyway, here we are. It’s been a good, long run.”

Peck’s 31-year career began in 1990 in near-lockstep with the development of the company’s growing footprint in Idaho Falls. That included a newly completed grain elevator in Osgood, a malt plant south of town and a seed plant on North County Line Road. (Anheuser-Busch first bought Eastern Idaho barley in 1965, then started contracting directly with local growers in 1976.)

Unsurprisingly, Anheuser-Busch owns the largest barley research facility in the world, and most of the varieties it uses were originally bred by Anheuser-Busch barley breeders. 

According to Peck, it’s a long, deliberate process. It takes about 12 years until the farmer even sees the varieties that fit the Eastern Idaho climate and fit the needs of the company in terms of malting specifications, high quality and yield. Idaho is a high plains desert environment with warm days and cool nights, minimal summertime precipitation, low disease pressure and rich plentiful soils.

To capitalize on this perfect “brew” of high agricultural potential, Anheuser-Busch has engaged in a number of innovative research programs with the region’s growers to help maximize yields and efficiency.

One of the most successful is SmartBarley. It started as a web-based, worldwide benchmarking program where the company would gather data from farmers about their production and practices and enter it into a database that can be utilized throughout the world. 

“Say you got a farmer 15 miles away from you that’s getting higher-yielding, better quality barley,” Peck said. “The grower information is confidential, but you can look at the practices and use the information to increase productivity.

Since its inception, the term has broadened to include sustainability projects, conservation, watershed improvement and site-specific fertilizer applications.

“As a company we’re always looking for ways we can be an advisor to growers, to help them to increase productivity and efficiency,” Peck said. 

Anheuser-Busch also has a strong track record working with state universities. 

“Presently we’re working with the University of Idaho on a model farm to identify certain regenerative ag practices. They also have what’s called a ‘cafe farm’ down in southern Idaho, doing a lot of work with variable rate irrigation. It’s called LESA—Low Elevation Sprinkler Application.”

Another successful initiative is Agrinet, a collaborative program between the company, universities and the Bureau of Land Management. 

“We had BLM install six monitoring stations in barley growing areas. They monitor weather as well as ET, or the evapo-transpiration rate of the crop,” Peck said. “This way growers know just how much water their barley is using each day, and adjust their irrigation application accordingly. It’s also a great tool for gauging soil temperature at different levels.”

University of Idaho is an especially critical part of agriculture. Every year, they do trials with all the barley varieties, including Anheuser-Busch’s, so they give the company an opportunity to compare its varieties with others to see if the yields and qualities are comparable.

In Idaho Falls, over 100 employees operate the two malt plants. The facilities run 24/7, delivering to breweries across the country and even to Mexico.

Peck didn’t delve too deeply into the chemistry behind the company’s product, but he did provide some interesting insights about the multi-step process from truck bin to bottled beverage.

After the farmer harvests the barley, it comes into the elevator where it is probed and graded. The separate varieties are then shipped to the malt plants as needed. The malting process starts as the truck is unloading. That involves cleaning out and separating the barley from dirt, chaff and tiny ‘thin’ kernels. The clean barley is then ready to go into what’s called the ‘steep.’ 

“When the barley is delivered to us, it’s about 10 to 13% moisture, but in order to start the malting process, you need to bring that up to about 48%,” Peck said. “When you steep barley, you’re moving the barley into steep tanks where the barley sits in water for a certain amount of time, and there’s also air injected into the tanks to keep the barley alive. As the barley soaks up this water, that initiates growth.” 

The next step is the germination beds, where the barley continues to grow. As it does so, it converts the starch in the kernel into sugar. From there, the barley is moved into kilns, where hot air is pumped through the barley and moisture drops to about 4 or 5%, killing the growing process. Afterwards, the barley goes through a machine that takes the rootlets off it and the finished product goes into a storage tank, where it awaits transport to one of the company’s many breweries.

“When I started working for the company, I actually thought malt was a liquid,” Peck said. “It’s really just that the barley has been growing, and then it was stopped, and now it’s just a dried up barley kernel with some sugar in it.” 

Beyond the processing itself, Peck says his real source of fulfillment in his career has been the opportunity for relationships, especially with growers.

“When I started, I was fortunate enough to already know a lot of the producers who grew barley for Anheuser-Busch, so it was just a continued relationship with a lot of them,” he said. 

That roster included some old-timers whose grandchildren now run those same farms today. 

“It really is a partnership between the company and these growers. It takes good, conscientious farmers to produce barley for Anheuser-Busch, and I think it will continue to be a great partnership for years to come,” Peck said. “ I think it’s fair to say that Idaho produces the best barley in the world. We produce around 50% of all the barley that is used in Anheuser Bush products. Idaho is a big deal. It is crucial to the company.” 

Why Barley for Beer?

Glad you asked. Barley is actually the perfect grain for making beer. 

“Malted barley gives beer its color, malty sweet flavor, dextrins to give the beer body, protein to form a good head, and perhaps most important, the natural sugars needed for fermentation,” notes beer educator Marty Nachel, a former beer evaluator at the Beverage Testing Institute. “Barley’s role in beer making is equivalent to grapes’ role in winemaking: fundamental. Malted barley comes in a variety of colors, flavors, and degrees of roastiness that profoundly affect the color and taste of the beer.”



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