Can Beer Feed The World?

When Dan Kurzrock started home-brewing in his San Francisco kitchen, he made ales and saisons. He also made a lot of garbage—in the form of “spent grain,” the grain left over from the beer-making process. Feeling too guilty to toss it, he tried turning it into dog biscuits and baking it into bread, finally mixing it with nuts and chocolate and launching Regrained “Sustainable Brewer’s Malt Bars”.

Sound like a typical Bay Area eco-preneur story? Certainly. Though beer waste upcycling may be more than a granola-bar gimmick. If Dan and his partner, Jordan Schwartz, are right, spent grain could be the superfood of the future.

Kurzock and Schwartz have a mission to make the most of wasted grain. They call the bars “a Trojan horse for the base ingredient.” The future of spent grain, they say, is beer flour.

In the brewing process, the starch from the grain is fermented as part of the beer, while the protein and fiber are leftover—spent, as it were. The crushed, soaked grain is ideal animal feed and traditionally farmers have happily hauled it away for their livestock. The deal benefits both. It’s the most sustainable solution to excess spent grain and the system makes sense for breweries with farms nearby. Urban brewers, many spawned from the last decade’s craft brewing frenzy, more likely have to pay for disposal, either to compost or a landfill. Artisanal brewers could be the cause of excess waste grain. They use about four times more grain than commercial beer makers.

Industry research estimates about half of the US annual 6 billion pounds of spent grain go to landfill—that’s 900 million pounds of protein and 600 million pounds of fiber that could be turned into a sustainable source of nourishment. It’s a small reflection of the 30-40 percent of the global food supply that goes to waste in America.

The word may be new, but #upcycling edibles is old school. Meat bones and vegetable scraps are cooked into stock, the liquid gold of cooking. Overripe bananas become bread, imperfect and over-abundant mid-season produce are simmered to jams and sauces, sealed and saved or sold. The rest goes to compost. Connecting farm and kitchen is a classic closed-loop economy. In urban manufacturing, Brooklyn-based Artisanal yogurt maker White Moustache markets their waste product—whey—flavored and bottled as a probiotic tonic.

Kurzock refers to gathering the perishable grain from the brewery as “harvesting.” And there’s a lot to harvest and experiment with. Each six pack of beer yields about a pound of grain—that’s three cups of flour. Beer flour boasts 30% fiber and 20 percent protein, a warm nutty flavor, and the ability to play well in combination with all-purpose flour. He’s experimenting with baked products like cookies, pretzels and chips.

Regrained isn’t the only company upcycling spent grain. In September, start-up Canvas, backed by Anheuser Busch incubator ZX Ventures, is launching a line of plant-based smoothies from what they are marketing as “saved grain.”

Portland Pet Food sells beer-biscuit dog treats, Hewn Bakery in Evanston, IL sells a low-gluten, high-protein spent grain bread. Saltwater Brewery in Delray, FL has prototyped a 100 percent biodegradable and compostable six-pack ring made of brewers waste. Brewhouse Compostables does the same for tableware. Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau runs a custom $1.8 million furnace that burns their spent grains, making enough steam to power most of their brewery, offsetting their energy costs by about 70 percent, nearly $450,000 each year.

Whether human nutrition from spent grain is a solution or gimmick remains to be seen. Maybe the next innovation needs to be an app that connects brewers with fresh waste to farmers with hungry cows—or hungry entrepreneurs.

Or maybe we’re just drinking too much beer.