Food & Drink

These Businesses Are Turning Beer Waste Into Bread

Globally, we waste 42 million tons of edible grain used for beer-brewing annually. Here's how we can "tap" into spent grain upcycling to curb climate change.

In August, there was an explosion of alarming headlines: “Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns,” cried The New York Times, and “Report Finds Agriculture a Leading Cause of Climate Change,” said the Rodale Institute. The World Resources Institute also released a report called Reducing Food Loss and Waste: Setting a Global Action Agenda, and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Special Report on Climate Change and Land, in which agriculture was repeatedly called out as both a problem and a solution.

To mitigate global threats to food and water security, the report called for immediate, drastic shifts in production and consumer behavior, noting that at least a quarter of the world’s food is wasted annually. As the United Nations Foundation explained, “An additional 1 billion people could be fed if food waste was halved globally.”

Food waste reduction is a worthy goal, but where to begin? Many chefs and entrepreneurs are turning to beer ― but not in the way you’d think.

From Seed To Stein

Food waste includes farm-level surplus, produce that fails supermarket vanity standards and food spoiled at home. But some waste streams are so hidden that consumers might not realize they are complicit in perpetuating the wasting of edible food. Take brewers’ spent grain, the main byproduct (representing about 85%) of the beer-making process.

Spent grain comes out of the filter press after the wort has been sent along in the brewing process to make Colorado Native Lager in Golden, Colorado.
Spent grain comes out of the filter press after the wort has been sent along in the brewing process to make Colorado Native Lager in Golden, Colorado.

To brew beer, malted barley is milled and mashed in hot water. The sugary liquid that is then drained off, wort, is boiled and then ready for fermentation. The leftover cereal mash and grain husk, known as spent grain, is often sold as cheap animal feed or dumped. According to research cited in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, every gallon of beer produced nets about 1.7 pounds of wet spent grain. But “spent” is a misnomer, as the remaining substance is low in sugar and rich in fiber, protein, biotin, folic acid, riboflavin and minerals such as calcium and magnesium.

If properly handled, this grain could serve a higher purpose than feedlot or landfill. Thankfully, technology and creativity have intersected within the past few years, and a cohort of chefs and entrepreneurs are turning spent grain waste into wealth, capturing nutrients and flavor, and diverting food from the trash.

How Brewers’ Spent Grain Can Be Reused

At Hewn Bread in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, creative reuse is literally baked into the building’s foundation. The space is built in part from repurposed materials, a design effort driven by co-owner and director of business operations Julie Matthei.

Ellen King, co-owner and director of baking operations, turns out loaves in delectable flavors, such as caramelized onion rye, garlic Parmesan and polenta pumpkin seed. The pair was approached by a local brewer with spent grains that would otherwise be trashed. Now, their weekly lineup includes spent grain loaves, a favorite of retail and wholesale customers. They source spent grain from local breweries Temperance, Sketchbook and Peckish Pig, folding it into their country dough after squeezing out much of the moisture.

In her cookbook “Heritage Baking,” King said: “The spent grains give the bread a very soft crumb and there is a slight chewiness every now and then when you hit a berry. It does not taste like beer, but you do get some added fiber.” Matthei described production limitations as one challenge to expanded use of spent grains, but hopes their efforts inspire others to try it. “It is, indeed, a great way to reduce food waste, and hopefully even more bakeries will follow suit and use spent grain in their products,” Matthei said.

Peter Reinhart's cookbook "Whole Grain Breads" features a recipe for a flavorful loaf that can reduce food waste and feels avant-garde as ever.
Peter Reinhart's cookbook "Whole Grain Breads" features a recipe for a flavorful loaf that can reduce food waste and feels avant-garde as ever.

Peter Reinhart is also on board. “I wrote about this as a way of getting more bang for our buck from the ingredients we are already using,” he told HuffPost. The cookbook author and baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University literally wrote the cookbooks on unconventional bread-baking, including James Beard Award-winning “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.” His 2007 book “Whole Grain Breads” includes a recipe for spent grain bread. “We were leaving flavor, nutritional functionality, and money on the table by discarding these previously forgotten ingredients,” he said. “I love what Dan Kurzrock and his team at ReGrained are doing.”

Beyond Bread

Kurzrock, co-founder and chief grain officer at ReGrained, realized that brewers’ spent grain was going to waste, so he rescued and built a brand around it. The company’s star ingredient, SuperGrain+ flour, is milled from spent grain; it has 26% fewer calories and 55% more dietary fiber than wheat flour. SuperGrain+ serves as the basis for the ReGrained line of functional snack bars, but Kurzrock shared ambitions much grander.

“The consumer brand is really an education vehicle to help build the market for a novel ingredient supply chain and get us closer to a more sustainable food system,” he told HuffPost. As the Bay Area-based company works to launch the world’s first “regrainery,” that will process tons of brewers’ spent grain daily in Berkeley, California, Kurzrock explained that the new facility will help overcome one of the greatest challenges to this business: scaling. Between the need for equipment, tight logistics and the instability of the raw product, processing challenges abound. But “our equipment can energy-efficiently stabilize the grain in a modular, scalable way,” he said. “Soon, we’ll make baking mixes, so people can use our flour at home in pizza doughs, muffins, and more.”

“Spent grain has an incredibly short shelf life,” echoed Chris Drummond, co-founder of Good Things Brewing Co. in the United Kingdom’s county of East Sussex. So the entrepreneur with 15 years of experience in sustainable engineering solved for that problem. An on-site dehydrator powered by green energy now means Drummond’s team “can take an entire batch from our brew kit, dry it overnight, return in the morning, and the dried spent grain is ready to be milled, packaged and sent off to become tasty pizzas, fresh pasta and beautiful malted sourdough,” he said.

Drummond, too, is driven by a desire to capture as much value from ingredients as possible while doing right by the environment. “We currently work with restaurants to bring down the amount of new grain they are having to buy and, in-turn, decrease their impact,” he said. “It means less waste, less need to grow and irrigate grain crops for human consumption.”

In Copenhagen, chef Matt Orlando takes the use of brewers’ spent grain several steps further. At the new brewery Broaden & Build, flavor takes center stage but creative food waste use permeates every corner. Spent grain from the brewery is converted into biofuel, which powers the brewery; crisps made from spent grains are served alongside their partner beers at festivals; the trimmings from brownies made from spent beer grains are collected and then brewed back into Brownie Loop stout beer. “Deliciousness has to be the driving force behind this,” Orlando insisted.

You might call brewers’ spent grain the best thing since sliced bread.

Other businesses flipping the beer industry on its head:

  • Rise Products (New York): brewers’ spent grain flour and snack producer

  • Going with OURgrain (Rhode Island): spent grain flour startup

  • Woodstock Brewery Inn (New Hampshire): repurposes spent grain into bread, beer soap and beer lotion

  • BareBites (Maryland): wholesaler of dog, cat and horse treats including Brew-Yahs

  • Doggie Beer Bones (San Diego): create dog treats using spent grain from local craft breweries

Banana Bread