The average American drinks about 300 beers a year—that’s almost six billion pints nationwide. And all those lagers, stouts, pilsners and pale ales begin as a boil of grains that are discarded early in the process while they still contain some usable sugars, protein, and fiber. By some estimates, up to 92 percent of brewing ingredients are wasted. Sending thousands of pounds of damp, spent grains to the landfill is not only expensive, it’s a waste of resources, given the cost—in fuel and natural resources—of grain production.
The most common use for spent grain is as animal feed, a practice so long-standing and widespread that the FDA recently proposed a rule to regulate the practice the process. While animal feed is one way to divert used grain from the landfill, brewers have found other useful ways to get more value from their ingredients. Spent grains and brewing hops make great compost, but that’s just the beginning.
Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, which has an extensive sustainability policy, uses their grains in almost every area of its business. After brewing, some of the waste go to local farms where it’s fed to the livestock and poultry that end up being served back at the brewpub. Some of it goes to the baker who makes the bread and pretzels on their menu. Another portion is composted for use at their urban farm and another urban farm in the city. The grains, which are rich in the nitrates and sulfates on which fungi thrive, are also used by local mushroom cultivators to grow mushrooms that end up as toppings on pizzas or salads.
The agricultural re-use of spent grains is really only the beginning of what you can do with what remains a useful resource. Brewery kitchens across the country bake with their spent grain, creating edible bread bowls, baguettes, and even pizza dough. San Francisco-based ReGrained makes and markets spent grain granola bars. Other companies, like Brewski Bones in Minturn, Colorado, have found a niche turning out spent grain doggie treats.
In the energy-intensive brewing process, spent grains represent a byproduct that can be used to power breweries themselves. In Juneau, the Alaskan Brewing Company employs a bevy of cutting-edge, sustainable practices, including heating their steam boiler entirely with spent grains. The system, which became operational in 2012, is expected to lower their fuel use by 65 percent.
On large scale, spent brewing grains should be seen as a resource in their own right. Coors Brewing Company turns waste into commercial, fuel-grade ethanol, which is blended and sold at Colorado filling stations. Brewing giant AB-Inbev—formerly Anheuser-Busch—has partnered with Blue Marble Biomaterials to use “polyculture fermentation technology” to create biogas, generate electricity and even create chemical compounds used as ingredients in food and personal care products.
But what does all of this mean to the eco-conscientious, beer-loving consumer?
According to Patrick Gilroy, head brewer at both Listermann and Triple Digit Brewing Companies in Cincinnati, small-scale breweries whose products are locally appreciated and consumed are all too happy to give the stuff away. Many microbreweries don’t produce enough spent grain to offset the cost of installing systems that convert grains into fuel. “In much larger systems it’s actually cost beneficial to do that, when you’re already paying to have this stuff removed,” Gilroy says. Listermann’s also operates a homebrewers’ supply store, where employee Chris Mitchell hears about homebrewers making creative use out of their grains, from feeding it to backyard animals like chickens and pigs to baking. “There are some sugars in it,” he says. “And a lot of people are putting it in bread or making dog biscuits out of it—mixing it with honey and peanut butter.”
If you’re interested in what’s happening to the spent grains in your area, check into what local breweries are doing. They might be willing to give you some to feed your compost pile or nourish backyard chickens. If you want to experiment with spent-grain cooking, The Brooklyn Brew Shop devotes an entire blog to recipes you can make with the stuff. (Spent-grain brownies, anyone?) Although, be warned, spent grains decompose rapidly and, unless they’re immediately used, frozen or mixed with other organics, smell terrible.
Whether they’re producing biodiesel, feeding animals, or nourishing the soil, many of America’s breweries are great examples of how it’s possible to eliminate waste and create more sustainable, closed-loop systems. Cheers to that!
Sustainable America Contributor