In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply, according to the USDA. That’s a lot of wasted energy that went into producing the food, processing it, and then transporting, storing, and ultimately disposing of it. It’s an especially alarming phenomenon considering that nearly a quarter of U.S. households experienced food insecurity in 2020.
This challenge is driving solutions in the form of upcycled food, which creates new, high-quality products from otherwise wasted — but perfectly nutritious — ingredients. It’s part of the larger vision of a circular economy, in which producers collect and refine more of their raw materials, byproducts, and otherwise wasted material in a (theoretically) endless loop.
The circular economy template is looking increasingly attractive as temperatures — along with sea levels — continue to rise, and the global economy struggles to recover from pandemic-related shutdowns. When food resources are given a second life, all of the water, land, solar energy, and human labor that went into growing and making them are paid forward, and can benefit people in need.
A new way to brew
This vision of sustainability is being embraced by a new company called EverGrain, with the support of America’s leading brewer, Anheuser-Busch. EverGrain’s mission is to rescue from the waste bin one of beer’s key ingredients: barley.
Barley, a distant cousin of wheat, produces sugars and starches that are essential to the brewing process. Historically, barley used in this way is discarded after it has performed its function, though some brewers distribute it as livestock feed or fertilizer. EverGrain’s innovation is to use this so-called “spent” grain to make nutrient-rich ingredients for all kinds of different human-grade food products.
Greg Belt, founder and CEO of EverGrain, estimates that the world produces about 9 million metric tons of spent barley every year, with Anheuser-Busch alone producing about 1.4 million metric tons. “That’s an incredible amount of protein and fiber going to waste,” Belt says. “And those are two macronutrients the world needs more of.”
Before Belt became CEO of EverGrain, he led a sustainability program for Anheuser-Busch in Belgium. That’s where the idea for EverGrain came to him. Every day at the plant where he worked, he saw barley entering the brewery in huge quantities, then spent barley leaving the brewery in equally huge quantities on its way to the landfill. Working with the support of Anheuser-Busch, he got in touch with a food scientist at the University of Cork, in Ireland, who helped develop a nutritional flour from the spent grain that could be used in baked goods.
Later, Belt spearheaded the company’s collaboration with a startup in Minnesota to come up with a process for creating a protein isolate from the spent barley. Over the next few years, Anheuser-Busch worked on testing and refining the processes, and in 2019 the company opened a pilot plant in Newark, New Jersey, to make its spent barley products on a larger scale.
These products will soon find a home as ingredients in a wide variety of foods and beverages, including plant-based milk, bread, pizza crust, pasta, granola bars, meat alternatives, and smoothies. The protein isolate has a more neutral taste than commonly used pea or soy protein, plus it’s more soluble than either one, resulting in a smoother (and thus more appealing) texture when it’s used to make beverages. Meanwhile, the flour, unlike wheat flour, contains no starch, and brings a higher level of protein and fiber to the baked goods in which it’s used.
“New ingredients don’t come around all that often, especially at this scale,” Belt says. “We think our products will enable a whole new set of innovations.”
Investing in communities
Anheuser-Busch’s support of EverGrain is part of the brewer’s recently announced billion-dollar investment in its facilities and the communities they’re located in across 26 states over the next two years. The investment is aimed at stimulating local economies, supporting job creation, and enabling further sustainable innovation. “As we began to emerge from the pandemic, we realized that we could play a special role in helping our communities recover,” says César Vargas, the chief of external affairs for Anheuser-Busch.
About $100 million of the billion dollars will go toward building EverGrain’s first full-scale production facility in Anheuser-Busch’s historic home, St. Louis, Missouri. Vargas says the facility will employ about 30 people long-term and help get the local economy back into gear. Plus, since it will be built on the existing Anheuser-Busch campus, the spent barley from the brewing process won’t have far to travel before it’s converted to healthy ingredients.
EverGrain is also partnering with local businesses to showcase its new products and strengthen its ties with the community. One of those businesses, Companion Bakery, produced baked goods for EverGrain’s ribbon cutting earlier this year. Josh Allen, founder of the bakery, spearheaded the effort to make pizza dough, sandwich buns, and cookies incorporating EverGrain’s spent barley flour. He says the flour added a hint of sweetness while also bringing the nutritional benefits of added fiber and protein.
“It was a straightforward substitute, and people really enjoyed the products,” he says. This month, Companion plans to introduce products using EverGrain’s flour to its cafe.
As other food and beverage companies join forces with EverGrain, Belt says he hopes the sustainable repurposing of barley catches on. Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch is looking at other ways of introducing circularity into its production processes, including reusing spent yeast and taking advantage of excess fermentation capacity. Belt says, “Our long-term vision is to accelerate the plant-based movement and make the world a healthier, greener place.”
For more than 165 years, Anheuser-Busch has carried on a legacy of brewing great-tasting, high-quality beers that have satisfied beer drinkers for generations. Today, we own and operate more than 120 facilities, including breweries, wholesaler distribution centers, agricultural facilities and packaging plants, and have more than 19,000 colleagues across the United States. We are home to several of America’s most recognizable beer brands, including Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob ULTRA and Stella Artois, as well as a number of regional brands that provide beer drinkers with a choice of the best-tasting craft beers in the industry. From responsible drinking programs and emergency drinking water donations to industry-leading sustainability efforts, we are guided by our unwavering commitment to supporting the communities we call home. For more information, visit?www.anheuser-busch.com?or follow Anheuser-Busch on?LinkedIn,?Twitter,?Facebook?and?Instagram.
Introduced in 2020, EverGrain is committed to realizing the untapped potential of barley. Our partnerships ensure we have access to a stable, global supply of nutrient-dense barley, and our innovative processes allow us to capture the full potential of this existing natural resource to fulfill our commitment to the planet’s health and longevity. EverGrain transforms barley into world-class protein and fiber ingredients to suit the needs of food and beverage brands throughout the world.
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Sustainable brewing may provide a model for a circular economy on May 13, 2021.