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Re-using food waste from breweries

Keenan from the charity Feedback, which campaigns to end food waste, tells us what role the beer industry has to play in decreasing the impact on the environment. Read on for some fascinating innovative ideas of what can be done with brewers' spent grains and other food items that might go to waste.

Please introduce yourself and the work of Feedback.

I am Keenan and I work for Feedback Global on the Regional Food Economies projects in the North West of England. The work we do in the Liverpool City Region is focused on creating a food system that utilises what is available to us provincially and seasonally, with an emphasis on reducing food waste, shortening supply chains and making the food system more inclusive for everybody in our society.

We have a number of projects running at present and one of them is The Alchemic Kitchen. We create a second economy for produce that is perfectly good to eat but may be too big, small, or squishy and destined for landfill, by creating new products out of it.

A great example of this is our Scouse Sauces. We have developed a tomato ketchup using squishy tomatoes that the market are unable to sell on a regular basis. Similarly we have developed a brown sauce using windfall apples and the gluts of supermarket apricots that come our way once they have fallen foul of the ‘Best Before’ date.

Whilst we are developing products for market, we are only a small development space rather than a production kitchen, our aim is to demonstrate what can be done and hopefully be a catalyst for change in wider circles.

When thinking about the beer industry, what key waste streams could be better utilised and why might we want to do this?

The first thing that springs to mind is the malted grain (typically a mixture made up of barley, wheat and oats) that is boiled to make wort, the sugary water that the yeast ferments into alcohol.

Brewers' spent grain (BSG) is the most abundant by-product of the brewing industry, constituting approximately 85% (w/w) of the total by-products generated during beer production. We have worked on developing some products with BSG and reached the point where we were piloting a BSG granola, that used the peel from surplus citrus fruit, pumpkins that we roasted and made a caramel with, and seeds we dried for additional texture.

We would like to go further with the malt as an ingredient and have discussed making different flours with it and how we might use it as a wholegrain in baked products. Adding BSG can improve the nutritional value of breads. The addition of 10% spent grain increased the protein and essential amino acid content by 50 and 10%, respectively, and doubled the fibre content compared with traditional breads without BSG.

A lot of breweries do dispose of their spent grain in a relatively ‘green’ way, with much of it going to feed livestock, particularly cows. However, as there is a significant nutritional benefit to using BSG, even in relatively small quantities, the better outcome would surely be to introduce it into the food chain directly.

Another benefit to using BSG is that it is very cheap to get hold of, a lot of breweries are glad to let you have it free of charge and the secondary economy is clearly there for it as a raw ingredient that can be repurposed into nutritious baked goods.

beer in glass with grain on worktop

What role can the beer industry play in reducing waste by closing loops?

In isolation I am not sure that much is going to change. To reduce waste within the brewing industry there has to be an element of joined-up thinking with other food manufacturers and industries. There is clearly a link between the brewing industry and agriculture, as so much BSG is directed to livestock feed currently.

There are examples of working relationships between breweries and food manufacturers, indicating that it is possible to achieve something on a wider scale. The key to a successful working partnership is a commitment from both sides for long term partnership.

Working with spent grain is not the easiest as it deteriorates fairly quickly and the best method of preservation is dehydration. This takes take time as drying at a temperature much higher than 60C is detrimental to the flavour of the grain when eaten. This means that both ends of the partnership, food manufacturer and brewery, would need to arrange quick transport and processing.

All of this doesn’t exactly lend itself to integrating with an already labour intensive business with tight margins, which brewing is. This is not the easy option and it is difficult to carry out on a large scale: it requires commitment, time, energy and ultimately investment. But the health and environmental benefits are there.

I think that, as with many things, small, replicable pilot collaborations will be the starting point which can then be scaled into larger operations with investment and built-up infrastructure.

What else could the beer and wider alcohol industry do in the future?

We have worked with local breweries here in Merseyside both in taking their BSG but also as a conduit between them and the fruit and veg market. We know from the work that we do that there is a massive amount of perfectly good fruit that goes to waste from the markets. We sometimes struggle to take on the sheer volume of produce, so have turned to directing large amounts of fruit to breweries.

A successful example of this is when we have managed to direct more than 100 kilos of citrus fruit to breweries on more than one occasion, for them to use in citrus pale ales.

On another occasion we were approached by a brewery to see whether any fruit was available for a plum and fig porter, which resulted in a fair price being agreed and 60kg of plums being rescued from waste. The brewery won because they made a fantastic-tasting beer at a good price, the market trader won because they sold fruit that was unlikely to sell otherwise and ultimately the outcome was significant to us because we prevented good produce from going to waste.

Fruited beers are an ever-growing trend in the beer industry but a lot of breweries opt to use ready packaged fruit purees and synthetic adjuncts rather than using raw fruit. As I previously mentioned, brewing is labour intensive, margins are tight and time costs money, therefore taking large deliveries of fruit, processing it to then add to a brew can be a challenge.

Another drawback of the processes is that most breweries work to a brew-schedule that is sometimes set weeks in advance of the brew day. This can sometimes make it difficult when trying to rapidly re-direct fresh produce to be used as it may not fit in with the brewery's schedule.

However, the challenges can be overcome. It requires time and effort being invested into the process and with joined up thinking and collaboration, pilot schemes can be established to display replicable models. This can show that it's possible to scale up and solve issues on a greater scale.

We have engaged with four of our local breweries and linked them into research being carried out by Liverpool Hope University students, who have also been developing products using BSG.

Student research, under the supervision of Leo Stevenson, Senior Lecturer Food Technology & Innovation, showed that with the addition of BSG the dietary fibre content of the brownie they made significantly increased, enough to be able to make a specific health claim if they chose to do so, about the high dietary fibre content (6g of fibre per 100g).

Albeit on a small scale, this is the kind of collaboration that is needed to reduce wastage of perfectly nutritious and edible food sources. We will continue to work in partnership with breweries, academia and other businesses to reduce the amount of waste being generated in Merseyside.

How can people find out more about your work?

You can find out more about Feedback’s work on our website or social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and you can follow the work we do with The Alchemic Kitchen.