Upcycling Spent Brewer’s Grains: Good for the Industry and the Environment
Like a hop vine that has finally found its ideal conditions, the craft beer industry is growing at a startling rate. In the past decade, the sector has grown from about 9 million barrels per year to over 25 million barrels in 2019. The increase in production creates more than just happy consumers; it creates measurable environmental impact.
The good news is that craft brewers are no strangers to sustainability efforts. Some of the largest craft beer companies in the United States, New Belgium Brewing and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company to name a few, promote sustainability as an integral part of their business models. For others, unique partnerships that create community contribute to their sustainability efforts. The challenges of creating sustainability and decreasing environmental impact vary widely depending on geographic location and size of the brewery.
The brewing industry is resource intensive. The three primary resources that must be managed in the craft brewing process are energy consumption, water use, and waste products. Energy is consumed both in brewing and refrigeration of the beer while water is consumed by both the brewing and bottling process. The majority of the waste that comes from the craft brewing process is wastewater and by-products (spent grains, yeast, etc.).
In order to address the environmental impact of Colorado craft breweries, the Pollution Prevention and Small Business Assistance Programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment undertook an initiative to provide pollution prevention and sustainability assistance to brewers throughout the state. They addressed each of the above areas of resource management and developed a report of findings. The report found that three-fourths of the participating brewers already had a culture of sustainability but half lacked formal programs.
In order to help craft brewers address their solid waste challenges, the Brewer’s Association published the Solid Waste Reduction Manual. This manual provides guidance to craft brewers of all sizes for how to reduce, reuse, and recycle their solid wastes. One important trend is re-harvesting spent grains.
What are Spent Grains
Spent grains are the used grains from the brewing process that can constitute up to 85% of a brewery’s by-product. Brewers are left with approximately a pound of spent grains for every six-pack of beer brewed. These grains provide the flavor and the necessary for the fermentation process of beer making. Since many of the sugars are rinsed out of the spent grains, the leftover grains are high in protein, high in fiber, and low in carbohydrates. They contain valuable nutrition for humans and farm animals alike.
Upcycling Spent Grains
The craft beer industry has always had an innovative approach to sustainability. In the early days, partnerships with farms were the cornerstone of this innovation. Not only through sourcing materials like hops and grains locally but also through returning spent grain waste products back to farmers for feed and compost. This excellent use of local resources presents challenges for urban craft beer producers. Sometimes, the resources required to transport spent grains back to a rural area where farms are located are greater than the resources required to simply dispose of the product. This is where the trend of creativity and innovation are growing to help consume brewing by-products, specifically spent grains, closer to the source.
An Interview with an Innovative Upcycler
In an August 2020 interview with Bertha Jimenez, CEO and co-founder of Rise Products, she revealed how she came to see value in upcycling spent grains from the craft beer industry. As an Ecuadorian immigrant, Bertha was surprised at the amount of usable food products that go to waste in the United States. While she was finishing her PhD in Mechanical Engineering, she and her partner entered a contest called Global Idea Exchange. The purpose of the contest was to look at the way that cities were run and come up with ideas for improvements. Bertha and her partner really wanted to explore by-products that could be used as a raw material for a different industry.
A local brewery tour helped them understand more about spent grains, especially in an urban environment. They explored upcycling spent grains into many different products from building materials and dog biscuits to fiber and flour. Bertha shared that since the flavors are so good and the spent grains are so nutrient dense, they settled on creating a process to make flour for commercial bakeries. She states that as an immigrant and a woman of color, she has largely found acceptance among the craft beer community. Bertha identified that the biggest bias that she experiences is at waste management conferences and competitions because she says many don’t feel that women belong in waste management. She also experiences biases when talking with investors because many still don’t feel that women should be in her position. She says that she is never afraid to turn down an investor that she feels is unethical or has a negative social impact.
When asked what advice she has for other women who would like to create innovative products in the craft beer sector she shared, “Try to figure out what you really like whether it is baking, building, or soap-making and then focus on that. Don’t be afraid to experiment, keep going, and adapt to the market. If you are creating a material for the end-user, keep simplicity in mind.” Bertha takes her own advice and has recently adapted her business model in response to market changes with COVID-19. About 95% of Rise Products sales were previously to commercial bakeries and professional food service businesses. Many of these businesses slowed down or shut down with restrictions required by Covid-19. In response to market changes, Bertha added baking mixes, brownies, and granola for the end-user to her product list. She says, “Spent grain flour can be more challenging to work with for the end-user,” and adds, “I should have added these products sooner.”
Upcycling at Home
There are many ways to upcycle spent grains at home. The first challenge is to find a local source of spent grains. Talking to smaller local craft breweries or friends who homebrew is a great place to start. Be sure to use the spent grains right away or dry in a low temperature oven to store for future use.
Following are just a few of the many ways that you can integrate spent grains into your home projects:
- Baking – both human food and dog biscuits
- Compost and mulch for gardening
- Substrate to grow edible mushrooms
- Worm box ingredients
- Soap making
- Home farm animal feed – cows, pigs, poultry
Whether you decide to purchase pre-made spent grain products at the local grocer or online or you decide to create your own spent grain delights, upcycling this valuable product has the potential to benefit the craft beer industry, your health, and the environment.