Spent grains from brewing have become the biggest success of the upcycling movement. From giants like Anheuser-Busch to startups including All Good Granola Bars and Grain4Grain, growing efforts to repurpose the byproducts of the beer-making process are cutting manufacturing wastes, monetizing compost, and tantalizing U.S. consumers who are still looking for new ways to sublimate their diets.
U.S. beer brewers annually use about six billion pounds of barley and other grains, which are soaked in water to extract the sugar and make liquid wort—a key ingredient of beer. What’s left has traditionally been a waste disposal challenge and also free for the taking, typically ending up as livestock feed, fertilizer, or compost.
Yet spent grain is about 20%–25% plant-based protein, about as much as in almonds, and 70%–75% dietary fiber, providing three times more fiber than oats do. Plus, the brewing process already has extracted the sugar from the grain because it is used in fermenting beer. That gives “used” grains a low glycemic index score.
Strong nutritional bona fides and virtually no cost for this raw ingredient? That’s why entrepreneurs began giving spent grains a closer look several years ago. One of the pioneers, in 2015, was ReGrained, which started out with snack bars made with spent grain and other simple, organic ingredients in two beer-themed flavors: Honey Cinnamon IPA and Chocolate Coffee Stout. Then the two co-founders, who’d brewed beer in college, added savory puffs to the ReGrained product line.
ReGrained’s success inspired imitators such as Grain4Grain, an outfit started a few years ago by a couple of petroleum engineering graduates of the Colorado School of Mines, Yoni Medhin and Matthew Mechtly, who also liked to brew their own beer. They focused not on end products for consumers but on how to efficiently convert spent grain from breweries into flour for food industry uses.
They approached this “with zero background knowledge,” says Medhin, who is CEO of Grain4Grain. But they recognized that an opportunity lay in coming up with a way to quickly dry big volumes of spent grain. The substance rots quickly because it comes out of the brewing process hot and wet and ready to breed bacteria.
“So we started with how you dry oil- and gas-drilling mud and then pulp for paper, or rice kernels or beans or coffee,” Medhin explained. “And we found a technology that existed but never had been applied to food waste management.” The pair used the process—which Medhin declines to detail—to cut drying time for spent grain from six-to-seven hours to just 15 minutes, at what he says is as little as one-eighth the capital cost of existing methods. They filed for a patent two years ago.
Now, Grain4Grain has built a site in Texas where the company mills its own flour from upcycled brewing grain that, Medhin says, is as little as one-fourth the cost of almond flour at wholesale. The startup is working with brewers to erect facilities adjacent to their breweries that could yield 200,000 to 300,000 pounds of product monthly in as little as 5,000 square feet.
In the meantime, brewers have not been simply sitting on their piles of spent grains without thinking about how to upcycle the wastes themselves. Last year, Anheuser-Busch backed a company called EverGrain, started by the brewer’s former sustainability chief, Greg Belt. In April, EverGrain announced it is working with Bright Future Foods, a unit of Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis neighbor, Post Holdings, to introduce “climate-positive” snacks.
Despite the increasing presence of big CPGs in the spent grains category, Bryan Daniels figures there’s still room for him. The former healthcare IT professional and amateur beer maker concocted granola based on spent grains and began sharing the snack with coworkers.
“The gluten is broken down, [spent grains are] a natural ingredient, and the granola is a way to mask the pure fiber,” Daniels says. “But while it’s got nutritional value, there’s not a huge flavor profile that you try to hide.”
Daniels founded All Good Granola Bars in 2019 and is talking with an investment group to get the funds to move production into a commercial kitchen. “I figured I could make a business out of it,” he says. “There are a million breweries.”