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Beer for Bessie

  • Clay Landry
  • The beer industry uses more than 400 million tons of grains annually, and that poses a problem. What do you do with mountains of wet grains?

    The brewing process begins by grinding barley or other grains, immersing them in water, and boiling them to extract the sugars and starches. The rich sugary brew is siphoned off to fermentation tanks. Left behind are heaps of wet, soggy grains, often called spent or brewers’ grains-4.5 million tons of them. Fortunately, farmers know how to use these grains.

    For industry entrepreneurs such as George Wornson, manager of Miller Brewing’s by-products business, spent grains are an opportunity. Committed to virtually eliminating landfill use, the company had to find new uses for its grain waste. Marketed under the brand name Barley’s Best, the grains are sold to farms and commercial bakeries as a fiber supplement (Wornson 1989).

    Similarly, Anheuser-Busch keeps all of its spent grains out of landfills. Most end up as food for milk cows. In 1999, Anheuser- Busch sold 1.76 million tons of spent grains to dairy farmers to feed more than 200,000 cows.

    One problem with the grains that breweries sell to farmers is that they are wet. They can be stored for only two weeks before the smell could “gag a maggot,” reports Mark Hissa, an Ohio dairy farmer who uses spent grains as feed (quoted in O’Malley 1997). Wet grains are also expensive to transport and ship because of the added water weight.

    During the early days of the wet grain industry, larger beer manufacturers installed drying facilities to make their grain more appealing to farmers. However, most major brewers are moving away from drying because it is expensive and energy-intensive. And, according to the Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, wet grains provide more nutrition. The study found that feeding wet by-products to livestock compared to dried grains yielded cumulative net economic benefits of $215 million in Nebraska from 1992 through 1999 (Perrin and Klopfenstein 2000).

    Wet or dry, major brewers have developed a variety of outlets for their spent grains. “We’re always looking for new uses for our spent grains,” said Steve Rockhold of the Coors brewery.(1) Coors started forming pellets with some of its grain so that the product can be shipped internationally. The pellet-shaped grain makes tasty bite-sized morsels for livestock in foreign markets. The pellets are also easier to handle, ship, and store.

    The revival of local beers has renewed an old tradition between local farmers and breweries. In the past, farmers would show up each week and haul off as much spent grain as needed. They took small loads that would fit in their farm trucks. After World War II, however, consolidation occurred in the industry and small local breweries gave way to large commercial breweries that produced more spent grain than local farmers could handle.

    Today, local farmers have again become vital for waste disposal for small microbreweries like Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company. Great Lakes and six other breweries contract with Mark Hissa, who runs a dairy just outside of Cleveland. The dairy sends a dump truck into the city about five times a week, picking up mushy mixes of wheat, oats, and barley. “Each cow gets a big shovel full in the morning and one at night,” explains Hissa. The grain has lost much of its sugars, enzymes, and flavor in the brewing process, but according to Hissa, it contains enough protein to supplement a cow’s regular rations of corn, dry grains, and hay (Truini 2001).

    In 1988, Ohio dairy farms were struggling with a shortage of food supplements for their cattle due to an extended drought. Even a small amount of grain would be helpful. As luck would have it, Hissa’s uncle stopped into the Great Lakes, Cleveland’s first microbrewery, for an evening pint. He spotted barrels of spent grain stacked in the alley. He mentioned it to his nephew and shortly afterward a handshake agreement was struck between Hissa and Great Lakes. The brewery did not want money for the grain as long as the dairy agreed to pick up the grains on a regular basis.

    The brewery’s popularity grew. As other microbreweries opened, word of the dairy’s free pickup service got around. Hissa had to buy a small dump truck to handle the volume. “The cows gobble it up,” said Jim Conway, co-owner of Great Lakes (quoted in Truini 2001).

    Another real brewing problem is-what do you do with beer that has outlived its shelf life? Until recently, the Canadian brewery Molson paid the city of Edmonton to dispose of stale outdated beer. Now that same beer is being served to cattle at a nearby ranch. Molson’s outdated brews are mixed with the regular cattle feed to create a kind of wet mash. Each cow gets a daily allotment of 10 pounds of beer (the equivalent of about 12 bottles) mixed with 40 pounds of feed. The cows don’t get tipsy, though. Cows have a complex stomach that breaks down the alcohol in beer, transforming it into nonalcoholic food energy.(2)

    And then there are hogs. The pigs of Fen Farms in British Columbia are slurping a little louder these days thanks to a balanced diet of grain and beer. The porkers throw back over 100 gallons of beer a day as part of a project to develop low-cost liquid feed from beer by-products. The supplier is the Labatt brewery of New Westminster, British Columbia. The pigs are in hog heaven, banging snouts together to be the first in line for the new feed. Yet there aren’t any soused sows. The alcohol is removed from the beer waste during the brewing process.

    In sum, the beer industry has solved many of its spent grain disposal problems by partnering with agriculture. The solution wasn’t more regulations or subsidies for recycling, but the desire to reduce costs and create new sources of revenue.

    1. Telephone interview with Steve Rockhold, special products manager for Coors, August 16, 2001.
    2. Telephone interview with Peter Rochefort, environment specialist for Molson, June 6, 2001.

    Miller, Brian. 1998. Fat of the Land: New York’s Waste. Social Research 65(1): 75Ð100.
    O’Malley, Michael. 1997. Dairyman Makes Rounds at Breweries: Revived Beer Industry Provides Waste Grain Fed to Milk Cows. Plain Dealer (Cleveland), November 23.
    Perrin, Richard, and Terry J. Klopfenstein. 2000. Economic Impact of Feeding West Grain Processors’ By-products in Nebraska. Lincoln: Institute of Agricultural and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska.
    Strachan, Alex. 1995. Beer-Swilling Pigs. Vancouver Sun, April 26.
    Truini, Joe. 2001. Serving up Another Round: Brewers Partner with Farmers, Others to Achieve Zero Waste. Waste News, February 5.
    Wornson, George. 1989. Pollution Source Reduction in Food Processing: Looking for a Beneficial Use for Everything. Miller Brewing Company, August 22.

    Clay J. Landry is a PERC Research Associate and a principal with WestWater Research, LLC, a leading firm in water marketing. This essay is adapted from Ecological Agrarian, by J. Bishop Grewell and Clay J. Landry (Purdue University Press, forthcoming).

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