Act: Inspiration

How Breweries Are Using Food Waste to Make Beer

October 25, 2017

At a crowded event at Tom Colicchio’s Craft restaurant in New York City in July, the theme was eating “ugly” fruits and vegetables to reduce food waste. Next to various cuts of meat from a whole roasted pig, diners piled misshapen carrots and gnarled radishes on compostable plates.

The most surprising thing on the menu? A beer from Washington D.C.-based Atlas Brew Works, made with buckets of peaches, plums, and nectarines that would have otherwise been throw in the trash.

Atlas’ Rescue Brew is just one small example of how beer brewing may be turning into a new front in the fight against food waste.  United Kingdom-based Toast Ale is leading the charge, and smaller projects are popping up around the world.

While it may seem like an unlikely solution, advocates say there are many reasons turning citrus into saisons and sourdough into session IPAs could make a major contribution to both reducing and raising awareness of food waste.

“The reality is in the U.K. alone, nearly a million tons of fresh bread is going to waste every year. We need to see a massive shift to eliminate bread waste,” explains Rob Wilson, the “chief toaster” at Toast. “We see no reason beer can’t be a significant part of that.”

Rescuing Loaves and Peaches

When it comes to food waste and beer, most conversations lead to bread. Toast’s concept was sparked after well-known food waste crusader Tristram Stuart tried a beer brewed with bread on a trip to Brussels. Stuart knew about how much bread was being wasted in his home country and that the scale was such that distributing it to food insecure populations was not an option.

“Even charities feeding the hungry are turning bread away because there’s just so much of it,” Wilson says.  Stuart and Wilson put together a team in 2016 and worked on a recipe. 18 months later, Toast has brewed about 56,000 liters (about 15,000 gallons) of beer in England, using 6,000 kilograms (about 13,200 pounds) of bread that would have been food waste.

Toast’s Craft Lager, Pale Ale, and Session IPA are widely available across the U.K., where the sandwich bread industry provides the waste, delivering it to the brewery free of charge since they’d normally have to pay to dispose of it commercially. (Apparently Brits don’t like the heel end of loaves, so those are removed at factories before packaging.)

In July, the company expanded to New York by partnering with Chelsea Craft Brewing Company in the Bronx, which is using excess bread from Aladdin Bakers in Brooklyn to make its version. Toast is already being sold at Whole Foods locations throughout New York City and chefs like Blue Hill’s Dan Barber have expressed interest in putting in on the menu at Manhattan restaurants.

The move to New York is just the first leap. Wilson says the company is currently focused on licensing Toast’s concept and process to breweries around the world. South Africa, Iceland, and Brazil are already in the process of launching, and they’re in conversations with spots in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. “By the end of 2018, we aspire to have expanded the Toast concept and brand to at least 10 countries,” he says. “We don’t see anything holding us back from doing that as quickly as possible.” (They also open-sourced the recipe so home brewers can use it.)

Meanwhile in New York, customers who order a Ruggernaut at the bar at Great Northern Food Hall or Agern—famed Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer’s spots located inside Grand Central Station—might describe the experience as tasting like biting into a slice of freshly cut rye bread. That’s how beverage manager Jonas Andersen does, anyway.

Andersen helped create the beer in collaboration with Brooklyn Brewery, which he had already been working with on other projects. “Every bakery has excess bread. You have to make more than you need, and you can only make rye croutons and rye chips to a certain point,” he says. “So, we started freezing it.”

Initially, Andersen didn’t know what they’d do with the frozen rye, and between June and November 2016 he ended up with a quarter of a ton of it taking up a lot of space in the bakery’s commissary kitchen. He ran the idea of making beer with it by the team at Brooklyn Brewery and they jumped on board.

The process of turning dense, frozen loaves of rye into beer proved tougher than expected and the team ended up using a wood chipper to break the loaves down into pieces. But by early 2017, Ruggernaut was finished. At the end of September, they’ll also release a second batch that’s been aged in rye whiskey barrels. And there’s a bonus: they repurposed the spent grain from brewing by giving it to Brooklyn-based mushroom farm Smallhold, where their used coffee grounds are also used to sprout fungi.

Of course, bread isn’t the only brewers’ waste in town. Atlas made its aforementioned Rescue Brew with discarded stone fruit, after the Environmental Working Group approached the brewery about a way to work together. CEO Justin Cox says the non-profit initially suggested an event. “I thought ‘we should make a beer,’” he says. “We can use the power of beer to help spread the message.”

Atlas partnered with local grocery chain MOM’s Organic Market, where staff was routinely filtering out fresh produce that wasn’t up to aesthetic standards to be tossed. Instead, they brought about 200 pounds of fruit to Cox, and he used it to make the Rescue Brew. The beer was on tap at the brewery and a MOM’s location with a growler station and was also served at restaurants in D.C., Virginia, and Maryland (and at more far-flung special events, like Colicchio’s).

“We had it all sold before it was released,” Cox says. It was such a success that they’re considering doing it again in the fall or winter. The beer would depend on the kind of fruit MOM’s has on hand, which he says “would likely be citrus.”

Could It Make a Real Impact?

Because the conversation is about beer, however, it can feel a little frivolous. Sure, we’re sipping a delicious pint and opining about food waste, but is it actually making an impact? What about the fact that no real nutrients are being saved?

Roni Neff, Ph.D., a researcher at John’s Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future who specializes in food waste, says in fact, the efforts shouldn’t be discounted, whether it’s a small city brewery project or a global initiative like Toast.

First of all, bread and produce are both major sources of food waste. Second, while the highest priority should be preventing food waste in the first place, she argues, solutions further down the hierarchy are still currently important and necessary. “The second priority is finding ways to recover food for human use, and that’s where this stuff fits in, and it can make such an impact in finding ways to get it to people,” she says. “There’s just so much room for more intervention at every stage.”

Dr. Neff also noted that her research has found that while many people are aware of food waste as a problem, they tend to cite saving money and setting an example for children, while they rank environmental concerns last.

“We don’t know this for a fact, but it’s my perception that one of the reasons people aren’t as concerned about the environmental issues is partly because they’re not aware of the impact, and that’s one place where these kinds of products can really help wake people up,” she says. “A lot of the awareness campaigns are focused on what we can do differently as consumers; they’re not necessarily focused on the ethical purchasing approach.”

And what better product to wake people up to ethical purchasing than offering them a beer?

It’s the reason Toast prints food waste statistics on its bottle and why you’ll hear Wilson repeat phrases like “getting wasted on waste” and “you have to throw a better party than the people who are destroying the planet” over and over.

“Toast beer, we’re very aware, is a small part of the solution,” he admits, but it’s a solution that a lot of people are likely to get behind. “It’s a lot of fun. We’re having a lot of fun doing it,” he says. “You can have a lot of fun saving the world.”

Lisa Elaine Held

Lisa Elaine Held is a freelance journalist based in New York City who covers the food system. She focuses on stories that show how what and how people eat intersects with environmental issues, health, culture, and social justice. Her work has been published in various magazines and on many websites, including Civil Eats, Eater, Tasting Table, Cosmopolitan, and Conde Nast Traveller. She has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and was formerly an editor at Well+Good.

Tags: building resilient food systems, craft beer, food waste