From Beer to Bread: How One Innovative Company Is Repurposing Spent Grain

The brewing process generates tons of waste that NETZRO is turning into flour.

handful of grains
A handful of grains.

@bernardoarce via Twenty20 

Few of us would think to leave an unfinished beer in a glass or can. Such extravagant waste would be unconscionable! But the process required to make that delicious beer is inherently wasteful, to an extent that most people do not contemplate while sipping their favorite ale. 

The average small craft brewery generates two tons of "spent grain" every week. (Twenty kegs creates anywhere from 500 to 1,000 pounds of spent grain.) This spent grain is in a wet, sticky, porridge-like form, and consists of the barley, wheat, oats, and rye that were used to make the beer. While it can be fed to livestock (and often is, if a brewery has a farmer willing to pick it up), or put in a biodegrading dumpster (a good but overly expensive option for small breweries), the majority sends it to landfill because it's easiest and cheapest. 

This is unfortunate because, first, all that spent grain adds organic matter to landfill sites, which creates even more planet-warming methane emissions; and second, it has so much untapped nutritional potential that could be put to better use. The challenge is figuring out what that could be. The spent grain is rich in protein, fiber, and fat, and many of its sugars have been removed by the brewing process. 

Enter NETZRO, an innovative food recovery company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that has figured out how to transform spent grain into flour. NETZRO created a group called the Twin Cities Spent Grain Co-Op, which collects the residual grain from several local breweries and one distillery, dries it in an infrared kiln, and sends it to an artisanal grain mill to be turned into all-purpose flour. The resulting whole wheat flour is now sold on Etsy in 24-ounce bags and can be used for any kind of baking, from cookies and muffins to loaves of bread.

Modern Farmer wrote about NETZRO's initiative, explaining that the company is already invested in food upcycling, with a long-term goal of diverting 6 billion pounds of food from the U.S. waste stream every year. It is also a member of the Upcycled Food Association that I wrote about earlier this year. This newest project will hopefully become a scalable model that can be copied in other cities around the country. NETZRO founder and CEO Sue Marshall told Modern Farmer,

"Taking a little bit of spent grain from someone here and there and making a granola bar — it’s cute, but it’s not ever going to begin to solve the problem. We don’t want to just pick up a couple buckets a week."

NETZRO means serious business when it comes to turning spent grain into flour, and thanks to COVID-19's notorious flour shortages, it got off to a good start this year. Marshall described it as a "small silver lining" during a difficult year. 

Right now, the 24-ounce bag costs $12.50, which obviously makes it a luxury ingredient. That price will have to come down significantly in order for this initiative to scale up in the way that NETZRO envisions; but considering how much beer the country enjoys and all the spent grain that entails, surely this is doable. A loaf of freshly baked bread is already a profoundly satisfying thing, but imagine how much more satisfying it will be, knowing it's made from grains that would otherwise have been thrown out.