Walk into Fiddlehead Brewing outside of Burlington, Vermont, and—in addition to beer—you’ll find a freezer full of bacon for sale. The bacon comes from pigs that are raised at nearby Otter Creek Heritage Farm; they feast on spent grain from the brewery. Fiddlehead goes through about 6,000 pounds of grain each week. Upcycling spent grain as animal feed is a common way for brewers to get rid of a primary source of waste—spent grain typically accounts for approximately 85 percent of a brewery’s by-products. And for a brewery that’s surrounded by agricultural land, it’s not difficult to find someone who can use it.
More than 3 million tons of spent grain was generated by breweries in 2016, including more than 11,000 tons in Vermont and almost 370,000 tons in California, according to Commodity Specialists Company, an agricultural trade and marketing company with a group dedicated to brewer’s grain.
For urban breweries, however, such as those in a city like San Francisco, finding ways to upcycle their spent grain is a little more complicated. Farmers aren’t exactly clamoring to drive their trucks across the Golden Gate Bridge to pick up grain from Bay Area breweries, so the breweries pay to dispose of it.
Dan Kurzrock and Jordan Schwartz wanted to offer a more sustainable alternative to their local brewers, so they started ReGrained, a company that turns spent grains from 21st Amendment and five other San Francisco breweries into granola-like bars that are sold at retail outlets and breweries across the country. ReGrained picks up spent grains from the breweries at no cost to them. While 21st Amendment may save money by not having to pay to dispose of the spent grain that ReGrained picks up, that’s not what drives the brewery to upcycle it. The brewers appreciate seeing the spent grain repurposed into something new. “We are excited to be part of what the good folks at ReGrained have created,” says 21st Amendment’s brewmaster and cofounder, Shaun O’Sullivan. “It’s a win-win for everyone—and [the bars] taste great as well.”
Ren Weiner, a Vermont-based pastry chef and baker, has also built a business using spent grains for edible products. She has been baking with the by-product for the last four years and currently makes cinnamon rolls for American Flatbread in Burlington from the spent grain of Zero Gravity Brewery’s Green State Lager, as well as from the beer itself. She also bakes doughnuts for nearby Foam Brewers and is developing a line of cookies using its spent grains and hops. The cookies are intended to pair with the brewery’s beers. But Weiner is not just concerned about baking for craft beer nerds. She’s invested in creating a socially conscious and health-minded business. “Spent grain is mostly fiber,” she says, “and that’s a nutrient that most people don’t eat enough of, so adding it to the dough improves its nutrition.”
Brewers aren’t the only alcohol producers that can off-load their by-products for upcycling. Winemakers in Italy have long sent seeds, stems, and grape skins to distillers who make Grappa from them. Wine by-products can have a second life in nonalcohol products as well. Lydia Mondavi, of the iconic Napa Valley winemaking family, uses the wine’s grape-seed by-products as the main ingredient in 29, the cosmetics and skin care line she launched in 2007. “I wanted to create a product formula that protected the skin from environmental toxins and pollutants,” Mondavi says. “Grape-seed extract is a superpowerful antioxidant.”
By-products from spirits distilling can be used in a number of ways, too. A consortium of three universities—the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Montana State University, and Washington State University—that are focused on sustainable transportation are researching the use of barley residue from vodka distilling, along with grape and apple skins, to make greener de-icers. The Scottish biofuel technology company Celtic Renewables is now making biofuel out of pot ale and draff, the two by-products of whisky making.
While you may not use an apple-skin de-icer or whisky biofuel anytime soon, moisturizers and makeup formulated with upcycled grape seeds, foods prepared with spent grains, and other new products made from repurposed beverage by-products are on the rise. Weiner thinks plenty of partnerships are just waiting to be made. Producers of alcoholic beverages have only to tap into their community to find the right people to collaborate with. “We don’t know what came first—the alcohol or the bread—but they are the building blocks of civilization,” Weiner says. “Grain rules us all.”
Carolyn Malcoun is a food editor, a recipe developer, and a craft-beer nerd. She came to Vermont to attend New England Culinary School and fell in love with the state. She lives outside of Burlington, where she’s a wannabe homesteader, hiker, cyclist, and aspires to pass the Beer Judge Certification Program.