Experimenting with spent grain

3rd Jul 20 by Keenan Humble, Development Chef, Alchemic Kitchen

Spent grain makes up around 80% of the waste from commercial breweries in the UK.

Spent grain makes up around 80% of the waste from commercial breweries in the UK. It arrives at the brewery dried and raw before being boiled to extract sugars before the sugar water (wort) carries on in the process that results in beer; but what about the physical grain left behind? A lot of breweries have found ways to ethically dispose of grain, with much of it going to animal feed and in some cases to green energy plants. That is a great outcome for a waste product, as the reality is that breweries use so much grain that it is sometimes easier to pay a waste contract to dispose of it at landfill. Easier does not always mean better though, particularly not when trying to tackle shortages of food and reduce food waste.

In January 2019 I ran a food service with Sprawl Kitchen to mark Burns Night in collaboration with a local brewery and bar, Handyman Brewery and Pub. As a part of the event I brewed a Scotch Ale with them, a dark beer made using roasted chocolate malt and in this case oats and lager malt. As we dug out the mash (literally digging the boiled grain out of the mash tun- the vessel in which it is boiled) it occurred to me that it is a real shame for it to go to waste. Surely it was edible? It provided the beer with some of its flavour, so what flavour was left in the now cooked grain? I am not the first person to use spent grain to make food, it is not my original idea, but it is something that as consumers we can easily plead ignorance towards, as it is not a visual part of the finished product. Nor is it a particularly desirable product, with it being a mulch of boiled grain and all. Therefore it is not used in food production as widely as it should be.

I decided to take some of the grain away (around two kilograms, wet) and use it on the menu at the pop-up event. We ended up serving a very loose version of cranachan, using blackberries instead of raspberries, making a syllabub with the aforementioned Scotch Ale. The malt was baked in the oven to dry out, to make a granola that would provide a crunch to an otherwise wet, soft dessert. I mixed the dried grain with local honey, hazelnuts, dried currants and baked it. The result was brilliant, the malt was transformed into a sweet, biscuity granola that tasted like honey, coffee and dark chocolate (because of the chocolate malt in the mash.) It was a success on the night and everybody (including ourselves) patted us on the back at how clever we had been in taking a product that would usually end up in a bin and putting it onto a menu. Of course it was edible, it is untreated grain that has only been boiled to extract (some of) its sugar.

Despite the success of the dish, and the event overall, my mind quite quickly turned to the scale in which we had achieved this success. I only took around two kilograms, wet. We roasted it to remove the moisture, therefore the dried product was probably around a third of that weight. We left behind so much more grain to go to waste. The worst thing about that is that as we are a pop-up kitchen, we do not have the capacity or facility to use more. We can only take so much per brew for specific events.

Soon after I started working with Alchemic Kitchen, Lucy (the AK project manager) and I were talking food waste issues and we landed on the topic of spent grain from breweries. The ethos of Alchemic Kitchen is to take food that would otherwise go to waste and revalue it, make something delicious out of something that others see as spent and spent malt typifies that pretty much perfectly. We chatted about using the dried malt milled down as flour, about baking with wet malt (which resulted in some delicious recipe testing- particularly a very fudgy chocolate cake made using wet grain, made by Lucy). We tried fermenting the malt to make vinegar- with varying degrees of success. However, the thing that stuck in my mind was the spent malt granola. I carried on thinking about and developing a recipe that is nut free and made the most of other surplus produce (unfortunately the delicious local honey I used previously does not fall into that category.) I landed on pumpkins, as we had an abundance of perfectly good ones donated to us after Halloween, that had been stocked for their decorative value, rather than for sustenance. I used the flesh to make a pumpkin caramel, toasted the seeds and added candied orange peel for its sweet and gelatinous qualities. At the Liverpool City Region Mayoral Green Summit last year, we served a zero-waste lunch and we included our spent grain granola bars, made with grain from Neptune Brewery. After receiving plenty of feedback on the bars, and tasting them ourselves, we decided we would be best served going back to making the granola as a loose product. I tweaked the recipe for the pumpkin caramel, roasting the flesh first before cooking with sugar, water and spices which resulted in a much richer and decadent granola. We also decided it would be best to make the granola with a malt bill designed for dark beers, as the flavour in the roasted chocolate malt offered so much to the finished product. The candied peels, made from surplus citrus fruits, made the cut and remain in the product to date.

Subsequently, as a team we have decided to make the granola a part of the Alchemic Kitchen product range and will be making it in larger batches with the intention of selling it on a consistent basis. We are working with our neighbours Melwood Beer Co. to take their used grain and dry it out ready to make the next batch in the coming weeks. We will have to navigate the lack of pumpkins at market at present but it is very much in line with Alchemic Kitchen ethos to use seasonal produce, therefore we will use something else in their absence. We will wait for the next glut, the next abundance of produce that needs rescuing from being wasted. Although I am pleased that we have found a way to work with the grain on a larger scale than before, I still think that it is important to consider the volume of spent malt that we will not be able to salvage (even just from Melwood Beer Co.) There are thousands of breweries across the country, varying massively in scale, that virtually all use grain to produce beer. We will continue to work with spent malt as an ingredient and attempt to develop other products too, as there is an untapped potential in using it as a means to feed people, at a time when people are going hungry. We are hoping to have an opportunity to work with the Danish social enterprise Circular Food Technology who have developed a way to reuse  brewers grain at scale and are considering the Alchemic Kitchen as a partner for a pilot in the UK.

It has been a challenging time for a lot of people throughout Covid-19 and we have been busy responding by making fresh, hearty soup for some of the most vulnerable people in our community. The work we have been doing is so gratifying but it does feel great to be planning a visit to a brewery to get spent malt and make granola again. Keep an eye out on our social media channels to see when it is ready and available.

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