Beyond The Barnyard: Breweries Find New Uses For Spent Grain

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By Greg Kitsock

This article was originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of The New Brewer, the journal of the Brewers Association.

Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Mo., has joined the ranks of breweries who’ve gotten rid of their dumpsters.

“We don’t make it front and center of who we are, but we’ve transitioned to a zero-landfill policy,” said Jeff Krum, president of Boulevard. That means repurposing every bit of waste, including the approximately 5 million pounds of spent grain (so estimates brewmaster Steven Pauwels) that the brewery generates over the course of a year.

“It’s been going to the same guy for the last 15 years,” says Pauwels of the cattle farmer who drops by several times a week to pick up the soggy, odoriferous, but nutrient- rich leavings from the brewhouse.

That seems to be par for the course, converting spent grain into meat by feeding it to barnyard animals. Some breweries are happy to give it away; others receive remuneration. Dave Colt, vice president of brewery operations for Sun King Brewing Co. in Indianapolis, Ind., arranges for an independent farmer to drop by on brew days. “He picks up the grain in two International Harvester dump trucks, and he brings us fresh eggs.”

It’s not just cows who like to chow down on the barley. Josh Chapman, owner of Black Narrows Brewing Co. in Chincoteague, Va. donates the bulk of his spent grain to “a biodynamic farmer raising, among other things, Heritage breed pigs.” Other brewers have used spent grain to nourish chickens, sheep…even fish.

Fish Food

On a farm in western New York State, Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing in Westfield and TimberFish Technologies are partnering to convert the distillery/brewery’s daily 600 gallons of waste grain into seafood.

TimberFish Technologies in New York mixes spent grain with wood chips and uses it to nourish a diverse assortment of microbial life. Here, watercress grows on the chip filter above the fish tank.

The used grain isn’t fed directly to the fish. As Jere Northrop, managing member of TimberFish Technologies, explains, it’s mixed with wood chips and used to feed a diverse assortment of microbial life. These microbes nourish invertebrates like worms and snails, which in turn provide food for the fish. This ecosystem occupies a series of concrete, plastic, and steel tanks housed in a 60×100-foot building on the farm that was constructed in 2017.

Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing is raising rainbow trout, largemouth bass, channel catfish, and yellow perch, along with river prawn. “They taste terrific,” asserts Northrop. Because the microbes and invertebrates are taken from the surrounding environment, the seafood tastes just like it was caught in the wild. Beginning in 2021, Northrop and Mario Mazza, general manager of the distillery/brewery, intend to begin serving the fish and prawns in Five & 20’s onsite restaurant called Bird. Longrange plans are to furnish the seafood to offsite restaurants and supermarkets, or even sell it directly to customers at the farm.

They intend to produce a lot of fish. “Our retrofit next year will get us up to 50,000 to 100,000 pounds,” estimated Northrop. Longer-range plans are to increase that figure to 1.5 million pounds.

“The oceans are pretty well maxed out, and we’re looking at a rising population,” observed Northrop. “If you can produce food from spent grain and wood chips, you’ve got a whole new source to feed them.” The project, he believes, will even fight deforestation by creating a new use for wood chips.

And, he stresses, “If we can generate a profit, this will become a viable business on its own.”

Moving Up The Food Chain

But what of breweries without access to traditional farms or high-tech aquaculture ventures? Holidaily Brewing Co. in Golden, Colo. used to donate to a local rancher. The brewery specializes in 100 percent gluten- free beers using buckwheat and millet, but the non-traditional grain bill didn’t make the waste any less appetizing to the cows, says Holidaily’s vice president of operations Laura Ukowich.

Holidaily Brewing Company in Golden, Colo., is currently trying to find more uses for its mash-pressed gluten-free spent grain, including donating a small amount to a local dog biscuit company.

What caused the brewery to rethink its policy was their acquisition of a Meura mash filter, which uses cloth filters and pressure to separate the grain from the wort, returning the sugar-rich liquid to the kettle. The device, uncommon among smaller craft brewers (Ukowich knows of only two others in Colorado that use it), offers much higher efficiency in extracting sugar and allows brewers to avoid stuck mashes when working with grains that lack a husk.

One consequence, however, is that the process yields a relatively dry, crumbly solid waste that — to quote Ukowich — “almost comes out like cement.” She continues, “Cattle literally inhale their feed, and we don’t want to have an issue with them choking on it.”

As of press time, Holidaily was sending most of its spent grain to a landfill while it sought out an establishment to turn it into compost. But the brewery is recycling a small amount — a pound every month — into pet food.

Ken and Mary Hertle founded Barking Dog Beer Bones in Arvada, Colo. in 2016. They refashion the spent grain they receive from four or five Colorado breweries (and sometimes Ken’s homebrew) into four different flavors of canine treats, adding other ingredients like peanut butter, pumpkin, and carrots. (Or — in the case of Holidaily’s gluten-free grain — honey, mint and parsley.)

There is no storefront. Barking Dog sells at a few local outlets (including Holidaily’s taproom) as well as by mail. “Dogs go wild over our bones,” insists Ken. “We get a lot of repeat business — I go to farmers’ markets and see the same customers again and again.”

One caveat of the pet food business, he emphasizes, is that dog treats must contain no hops. “There’s something about hops that when dogs ingest them, it causes their body temperature to skyrocket.” Mash-hopping would render the grain unsuitable for making dog bones.

DC Brau donates most of its spent grain to a local farmer, pumping it from the mash tun into a steel silo where it remains until pick-up. But every year for the past eight years, as the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays approach, the brewery donates some of that grain — “just a couple five-gallon buckets,” estimates owner Brandon Skall — to Pizzeria Paradiso, a D.C.-area chain with extensive beer menus.

There the grain is baked into a special pizza crust. The restaurants charge a little extra for a pie with that crust; the money is donated to Bread for the City, a D.C.-based charity that offers food, clothing, and medical and legal help to the underprivileged. Since the program began, Pizzeria Paradiso has raised $15,000 for Bread for the City, according to the pizza chain’s beverage director, Drew McCormick. A portion of the grain is also used to bake loaves of bread, which are donated to the charity; this year the partners expect to generate 250 loaves.

McCormick notes that the grain “is used as an added flavor and does not take the place of any main ingredient such as flour.” She adds that it’s easy to cook with, and adds “nutty, sweet, and  fermented flavors.”

Culinary Ventures

Spent grain is also finding its way into for-profit culinary ventures.

Kyle Fiasconaro recalls that he began cooking with spent grain about seven years ago when he was a chef at a restaurant across the street from Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. in Greenport, N.Y. “We needed crackers for cheese plates and charcuterie boards,” he explained. “I took the concept to every restaurant I worked for afterwards.”

With some mentoring from brewmaster Will Meyers of Cambridge Brewing Co., Fiasconaro was able to spin off a business, Brewer’s Crackers. He currently markets six varieties; he says his biggest client is Whole Foods, which markets his crackers at 55 stores between New Jersey and New England. He receives his spent grain gratis from Zero Gravity Craft Brewery in Burlington, Vt., hauling away some 8,000 pounds of used-up barley roughly twice a month.

Kyle Fiasconaro uses spent grain to create six varieties of Brewer’s Crackers, which are distributed regionally by Whole Foods.

Fiasconaro anticipates expanding his product line. “My plan was to make a product that people trust. Once I’m in their lives as a recognized brand, I’d like to introduce a pretzel or a cereal or a dense German bread.”

Daniel Kurzrock began homebrewing in college, baking his spent grain into loaves that he sold to his fraternity brothers under the name Brewin’ Bread — a word play on the UCLA Bruins. Since 2016, Kurzrock has been working full time for ReGrained, a company he founded to “upcycle” brewery waste into tasty snacks. His Bay Area-based business currently markets three flavors of energy bars (“like an adult Rice Krispies treat”) and five varieties of puffs (“like Cheetos®, but with more nutritional value,” full of protein, fiber, and minerals). They’re available in about 1,500 stores (mostly along the West Coast) and online.

Kurzrock picks up spent grain from three San Francisco breweries —  Fort Point, Standard Deviant, and 21st Amendment — totaling “thousands of pounds per week.” Transporting it is a challenge, he says: since spent grain is 90 percent water, it’s very heavy, and spoils easily, but after dehydration, it’s milled into a powder. Kurzrock works with about a dozen companies to convert spent grain into munchies.

By the end of this year, Kurzrock plans to open a plant in Berkeley that will be capable of processing one ton of spent grain per hour. Looking further into the future, he wants to set up his drying and milling operation in the breweries themselves, eliminating the cumbersome process of trucking the grain offsite. Like Fiasconaro, he wants to come up with more products, envisioning not just baked goods but other culinary uses like a breading for meats or a thickener for sauces.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface,” he enthused.

Currently, Kurzrock’s brewery partners donate their spent grain, but eventually he’d like to pay them. Creating “shared economic value” is a goal.

As he ramps up production, Kurzrock isn’t worried about running low on raw material. He estimates that each six-pack generates about a pound of spent grain, and that breweries throughout the United States produce about 20 billion pounds of the stuff every year. As more and more breweries set up shop in urban areas, they’ll find it harder to find farmers willing and able to accept their waste.

Up In Smoke

When Juneau’s Alaskan Brewing Company was young and small, recalls communications manager Andy Kline, it donated its spent grain to a community garden for use as compost. But then the brewery upscaled from a 10-barrel to a 100-barrel brewhouse. “We would have buried them!”

Unfortunately, “there are no cows in Juneau,” Kline added. There are some small dairy farms in south-central Alaska, he adds, but these are essentially a cottage industry, unable to handle the 5 million pounds of spent grain that this 140,000-barrel-ayear brewery generates annually. Alaskan Brewing’s stopgap measure was to dry the grain, reducing its weight by over half, then ship it by barge to a farmer in Washington State. The grain drying, using diesel fuel, cost $200,000 a year; shipping costs added another $30,000. Even though Alaskan Brewing was paid $60 a ton, “it was still a net loss for us,” says Kline.

Brewery founder Geoff Larson finally came up with the idea of using his castoff barley as fuel. “It takes a lot of infrastructure,” admits Kline. After emerging from a mash filter, the waste grain is steam-dried to eliminate any trace of moisture. It’s then augured onto a vibrating platform that spills it into the heat source: a biomass boiler that Larson and brewery engineers designed specially, using a $500,000 grant from the federal Rural Energy for America Program.

The boiler was fired up in 2013 but was taken off-line in 2015 to remedy a glitch. It seems that the heat would cause the grain to clump into globs with volatile gases inside —  an explosive situation that created fireballs and “more black soot and ash than we were happy with,” recounts Kline.

The brewery mended the problem by installing an industrial fan to blow more oxygen into the boiler, raising the temperature to 1,700° F and causing the grain to burn more efficiently.

Currently, the smoke emanating from the brewery is “a wispy gray,” says Kline. He believes burning grain is less polluting than using fossil fuels. The carbon dioxide that’s released into the air is CO2 that the vegetation took from the atmosphere in the first place. “It’s not CO2 that’s being released for the first time in millions of years,” observed Kline. What’s more, the smoke contains no heavy metals or other toxic impurities found in fossil fuels.

“We’ve figured out that one pound of grain equals eight ounces of diesel fuel as far as BTUs are concerned,” said Kline. He does admit that the spent grain hasn’t entirely eased the brewery’s dependence on petroleum products. However, it’s reduced by 50 to 60 percent the volume of diesel fuel that the brewery uses. Alaskan Brewing’s goal is to reduce dependence by 70 percent.

The infrastructure didn’t come cheap, cautions Kline — he estimates the mash filter press, grain dryer, and boiler cost approximately $4 million. But he added that Alaskan Brewing is willing to work with any brewery seeking an alternative to dumping their waste grain into landfills. “It’s such a waste,” he sighs.

Barley Vs. Toxic Algae

Instead of becoming a pollutant, spent grain can help fight pollution. That’s the hope of Taylor Armstrong, a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Specifically, she’s targeting blue-green algae, a type of bacteria that’s been known to contaminate drinking water and pose a health threat. In 2014, Armstrong notes, an algae bloom forced a shutdown of a water treatment plant in Toledo, forcing the city to import bottled water for two weeks. Last August, newspapers nationwide reported the deaths of three dogs within hours of swimming in a North Carolina pond contaminated by the toxin-producing algae.

Armstrong recalls that years ago, when she was at Girl Scout camp, she helped to submerge 100 bales of barley straw in Lake Williston on Maryland’s eastern shore. She explains that when barley decomposes, it releases anti-microbial compounds — phenolic acids and flavonoids, researchers believe —  that inhibit the growth of blue-green algae. “It’s been used for that since the 1980s,” mentioned Armstrong. “There’s no literature I can find that says how it was discovered. Someone —  probably on a farm — threw it in and it worked!”

The problem, says Armstrong, is that lugging the barley bales is “very labor-intensive and time-consuming.” What’s more, “it takes a while for the barley to decompose. We had to put the bales out in March for a bloom that might happen in summer.”

The idea came to Armstrong that spent grain from breweries, which is already decomposing, might have a more direct effect. “It has five times as much phenolic acid as barley straw.”

Armstrong obtained spent grain from Diamondback Brewing Co. in Baltimore (“it’s walking distance of my home”). So far, she’s conducted her work entirely in a laboratory. It consists of letting water sit on spent grain for varying amounts of time, then exposing a strain of toxic algae (microcystis aeruginosa) to the water. “We collected water at day zero, two weeks, one month, and every month thereafter.” The inhibitory effect, she reported, was apparent from day zero. It didn’t start to flag until three months’ exposure, when only half the samples retarded growth.

Even better, the spent grain-infused water “seemed to inhibit toxic algae but not non-toxic algae.”

The next step, she added, is to isolate the specific compounds responsible for preventing algae proliferation. Simply dumping spent grain into a waterway could exacerbate rather than prevent algae blooms, she warned. “It’s all about the proper concentration. Spent grain has a high oxygen demand. It’s actively decomposed by bacteria that consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide, causing dead zones in lakes.”

Armstrong has yet to publish her findings, and it might take a lot of R&D before they find practical applications. But already, spent grain is being used to help grow crops and livestock, feed the hungry, generate energy, and spin off ancillary businesses. Trash becomes treasure when you look at it the right way.

Greg Kitsock is a frequent contributor to The New Brewer.