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brewers get creative with spent grains

It takes half a ton of grain to make a batch of Jeff Fegley's popular Knuckleball, an American blonde ale that's hit a home run with local beer enthusiasts. Infused with aromatically distinctive Czech Saaz hops, the grain makes more than 700 gallons of the pale gold ale, but the brewing process leaves Fegley with thousands of pounds of spent grain each week.

Rather than spend a fortune whisking the waste to a landfill, Fegley — like many other microbrewers — has found an innovative way to reuse it.

Creating a full-circle relationship, he ships the spent grain to Koehler Farms in Bethlehem Township, where it feeds the beef cattle that end up as juicy hamburgers on the menus of Fegley's Allentown and Bethlehem BrewWorks.

"The benefit is that we don't have to send it to a landfill, and it's essentially recycled because they feed it to their cattle," said Fegley, who runs the two restaurants
 

Spent grains are the remnants of the beer-making process and can account for up to 85 percent of the total byproduct, which also includes leftover water and yeast.

With a boom in the number of craft breweries across the United States, farmers, bakers and entrepreneurs have a gold mine of spent grain to work with, leading to creative ideas such as the edible six-pack rings developed by a Florida brewery and the spent-grain-fed boiler used at an Alaska brewery.

Once a rarity, craft brewers now can be found on Main Streets across the country, their number having nearly doubled from 2012 to 2015 to more than 4,000, according to the Brewers Association. Craft breweries such as Fegley's are considered small operations producing less than 2 million barrels of beer per year. But there are enough of them to generate seas of spent grain.

Breweries typically give the grain away for free because it costs money to dispose of it. By far, the majority of spent grain goes to farmers, said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a trade group of brewers, breweries, distributors and others associated with craft brewing. In return for picking up the grain, farmers get food to supplement the diets of their cows, pigs and chickens.
 

Livestock like the grain, which is sweetened in the beer-making process. That process, Gatza said, involves heating up barley and wheat malts in water, to draw out the sugars. The resulting liquid, called "wort," is added to yeast to create alcohol.

"On the back end, there is all this grain left over," he said. "There are so many craft breweries that there's a lot of grain out there, so I'm sure people are coming up with a lot of creative things to do with it."

To get an idea of how much grain can result from the brewing process, consider Weyerbacher Brewing's decision to install an $80,000 silo that can hold 150,000 pounds of spent grain. Weyerbacher brewmaster Chris Wilson estimates the Easton brewery will fill the silo about every two weeks. The 150,000 pounds of grain accounts for about 1,000 barrels of beer.

"It would be a huge cost. It would have to go to the city dump, so this is a huge advantage to us," Wilson said.

He estimated the brewery would have to pay $60,000 to $70,000 per year to cart the grain to a landfill.

The silo, which will be operational this summer, was installed to make it easier for the two farmers — one from the Lancaster area and one from Saylorsburg — who take Wyerbacher's spent grain for animal feed. The grain used to be stored in bins, which the farmers would tip over and then shovel — usually 20 tons per load — into the back of a truck. Now they can drive directly to the silo, where a valve will open and the grain will pour directly into the truck.
 

Edwin "Skip" Drake, owner of Tomblers Bakery in Williams Township, needs 30 to 40 pounds per month of Weyerbacher's grain to give his baked goods a nutty flavor and rich texture. The grains are easy to work with because they've already been soaked as a result of the brewing process and don't need to be ground up, Drake said.

"There's that famous saying, 'One man's trash is another man's treasure,' " said Drake, who also bakes the grain into pizza crust and into one of his best sellers, "dragon bread," a hearty loaf of nearly a dozen different grains.

In Colorado, where Gatza lives, the grain has found its way into local flower beds as fertilizer for spring-blooming tulips. In Seattle, a nonprofit uses it to grow mushrooms. And across the country, dog owners are buying small batches to make doggie beer biscuits.

One company has even been using the leftover grain to save sea creatures. Florida-based Saltwater Brewery recently came up with an edible six-pack ring made from its spent grain, according to craftbeer.com. The rings are 100 percent biodegradable and — if you're not too particular — can be eaten. A video advertising the edible six-pack rings says the majority of plastic rings that hold together six packs eventually end up in the ocean, where fish and other wildlife might get stuck swimming through them, or get sick ingesting them.

The spent grain rings, however, pose no such problems — as the sea turtle chomping on one in the video can attest.

The grain is highly nutritious, said Robert Van Saun, a veterinarian with the Penn State Extension. The fiber is good for livestock but the grain isn't intended as a complete diet and is usually fed with other grains. It's important to use it right away because it can spoil within a few days.

"It's a tremendous protein and fiber source. It even has a slow-release fat source in it," Van Saun said. "People blame ruminant animals [such as cattle and sheep] for greenhouse gases, but they don't look at the other side of what a perfect recycling being cows are, and how much extra landfill space we would take up without them."

In one day, he said, a cow could eat more than 20 pounds of spent grain.

"That makes for a fair amount of beer for people to enjoy," he said.

At Corner View Farm near Kutztown, Bradley Biehl feeds his 55 heifers 1,650 pounds of spent grain a week. He gets it for free from Matt Lindenmuth, owner of Saucony Creek Brewery near Kutztown. For now, Saucony Creek produces only enough grain to feed Biehl's cows one day per week. During the holidays, that amount increases to about five days per week.