What happens to spent brewing grains?

What happens to spent brewing grains?

Written by Oliver Coningham on 13 July 2016 in Vegan Beer

One of the many wonderful things about beer is that it requires only four basic ingredients to produce it: water, malts, yeast and hops. Different combinations and variations of these can then be manipulated to create a diverse range of beers. From Belgian Pale Ales with their earthy and spicy yeast character to extrovert American IPAs full of resinous pine and tropical fruits.

Malts are often an overlooked ingredient with more attention given to hops. It’s the malts that provide the backbone and body to your beer as well as a lot of the flavour. If you’ve ever tasted caramel, biscuits or dark chocolate in your beer, the malts are responsible for this.

It’s the malts that provide the backbone and body to your beer. 

So how do these malts get into the beer and where do they come from? Within each tiny grain are the starches and enzymes needed to make beer. These starches need to be converted into easily fermentable sugars which will provide sustenance for hungry yeast cells. Freshly gathered grains cannot be used immediately and instead need to be malted first. Essentially the grains are sprouted which starts to break down their starches. This germination process is then stopped by toasting the grain in a kiln; from lightly toasted to dark, almost charred. From here the grains are gently milled to break open their protective shells.

Malts being mashed in

Malted grains being steeped in hot water during the mash

The malted grains are used at the beginning of the brewing process - the mash - where they are steeped in hot water (known as liquor) in order to release the sugars within. Once this stage has been completed the grains are rinsed with more hot water - a process known as sparging - in order to collect as much of the sugar content as possible. While this sugary liquid now called wort (pronounced ‘wert’) continues its transformation into beer, the spent grains have had their moment.

Spent grain from the brewing process

Spent grain after the brewing process

A large proportion of the spent grain used in the brewing process becomes feed for livestock.

On a commercial scale, there are a lot of leftover grains to dispose of. Rather than finding their way into landfill most of the grains are recycled, however not in the conventional sense. A large proportion of the spent grain used in the brewing process becomes feed for livestock, from cattle to pigs. This is even the case with many breweries producing vegan-friendly beer, some of which are also certified by The Vegan Society. The Vegan Society make it clear that they certify products and not businesses. Something they have reiterated on several occasions when various companies who have vegan certified products in their portfolios have also advocated eating meat.

Abigail Stevens, Trademark Relations Officer at The Vegan Society, states:

“[The] Vegan Trademark is used to register individual products which meet our standards - no animal-derived ingredients and no animal testing. Companies then use the Vegan Trademark on these products to demonstrate that their products meet the standards.

We register products and not companies for several reasons, including to encourage companies to offer vegan products in their portfolios. This increases the number of vegan products on the market and helps to make the lifestyle more accessible to consumers. 

We also encourage these companies to adapt their messages to ethically-conscious consumers, particularly when marketing their products towards vegans, however we are unable to influence their communications or actions when it is not directly related to their Vegan Trademark registered products.”

It’s a paradox for the vegan beer lover; to drink beer that is suitable for vegans, often from a brewery with incredibly high sustainability standards. Yet an unintended consequence of this is furnishing the meat industry with food for their animals.

Freedom Brewery, who have won many awards for their ‘green business practices’ are just one of many breweries where their spent grain goes to a local farm for cattle feed. Even waste paper is diverted from landfill and is shredded and sent again to a local farm as bedding for calves. Freedom Brewery are not alone in this practice. Stroud Brewery who produce a range of organic, vegan-friendly bottled beers send their spent grains to two local farms to feed their pigs and cattle. Vegan Society certified Little Valley Brewery collect spent grains, which local farmers can use as cattle feed. St Austell Brewery, whose vegan-friendly, bottled beers are widely available throughout the country, also participate in this practice of using waste material to feed local cattle.

Cattle grazing in a field

Photo credit: Shutterstock

It is widely known that livestock farming is essentially inefficient as animals are poor converters of feed into meat. A large proportion of both the gross energy (89-97%) and protein (80-96%) contained within animal feed is not converted into edible protein. With cattle requiring approximately 7kg of grain in order to produce 1kg of beef and pigs requiring 4kg of grain for 1kg of pork. The whole process is woefully inefficient from an environmental point of view, especially when the the original grains can be consumed by humans. One of the arguments for veganism is that World hunger could be eradicated if the grains used to feed animals (including soya) were fed to people instead.

Perhaps the use of an otherwise waste product as animal feed can help to alleviate the pressure on precious food resources. It’s a popular practice seen throughout the brewing industry as a sustainable and environmentally-friendly method of reducing their waste. Should otherwise vegan-friendly breweries be avoided for minimising their waste in this way? Especially when it’s part of a greater sustainability policy.

Freedom Brewery, for example, create a diverse range of lagers that are vegan-friendly in all formats, have an admirable stance when it comes to sustainability. Heat is generated for brewing using thermal fluid and LPG, both of which are renewable energy sources. Freedom's water source is entirely sustainable and natural, so much so it does not need to be treated with any chemicals or additives prior to brewing. In 2014, Freedom built a reed bed system to clean wastewater through a natural, anaerobic digestion treatment system.

There are other uses for spent grains that breweries are starting to explore from cooking to energy. As with other food waste, spent grains can be composted and used to fertilise gardens, allotments and greenhouses. Spent grain is also rich in the vital nutrients needed for mushrooms to be cultivated. Great Lakes Brewing Co. located in Cleveland, Ohio have used spent brewer's grain for this purpose and regularly use it as a soil conditioner on their farms with the produce then appearing on their brewpub's menu.  

Spent grain can also be used in creative ways in the kitchen; in everything from dog biscuits to pizza bases. The majority of the recipes call for the grain to first be dried in an oven or dehydrator before being finely ground into flour. For recipe inspiration, The Brooklyn Brew Shop’s Spent Grain Chef has detailed instructions on drying grain as well as recipes for everything from granola to focaccia. Many of which can easily be made vegan with a simple substitution of vegan-friendly ingredients.

Granola made from spent grain

Spent grain granola inspired by Brooklyn Brewery's Spent Grain Chef

One of the most innovative uses of spent grain is by the Alaskan Brewing Company, a vegan-friendly brewery most famous for their Alaskan Smoked Porter developed in 1988. The obvious lack of cows in the local area had previously led them to dry their grain and ship it to farmers and ranchers in the Pacific Northwest for nearly 20 years. In 2011 they developed a world-first steam boiler fueled entirely by their spent grain. Fully operational since 2012, their objective is to reduce their overall oil use by more than 65 percent. It’s a system they believe could revolutionise fuel systems used in craft brewing. Spent grain is dried and then burned to produce steam. The steam is then used to dry spent grain, with any excess steam powering the brewing process. Spent grain is dried and then burned; the steam powers much of the brewing process, in addition to drying the next batch of spent grain.

There’s an expanding awareness amongst brewers of their environmental impact with a constant search for new ways in which to minimise this. The repurposing of spent grain to feed livestock is often a very small part of a brewery’s environmental policy. It would be wrong to avoid such companies for this when, as vegan consumers, we should both support and encourage those who are increasing the availability of vegan products.

Lead photo credit: Shutterstock

Update on 02/08/2016:

After feedback received on social media a few edits were made to the above content. Primarily inserting a relevant link to support the information about Alaskan Brewing Company. Any other amendments are clearly indicated with strikethrough text.


Drink less. Drink better.