By JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — While you might give a thought to the hops in your beer, spent grain isn’t something you ordinarily might think about when you kick back with a cold one.
But, aside from the beer in your glass, spent grain is one of the main byproducts of the beer-making process. The grain is typically discarded after brewing, but a group of recent graduates from Johnson & Wales University has formed a company that repurposes spent grain into flour that can be used in baking.
Sam Gannon, Jessie Pulling, Natasha Daniels, Nicole Gresko, Victor Eng, Ray Holloway, and Sam Burgess formalized the business plan for OURgrain after winning the “Evolution of Food Waste” competition at the 2017 annual conference of the Research Chefs Association.
Holloway and Burgess had been dabbling in home brewing and became interested in how they could use the grains left over after a brew.
During the brewing process, grains — typically barley — are steeped in boiling water. This causes the grains to release sugar that is then fermented with yeast to make alcohol. The grain left after brewing, depleted of its sugars, consists almost entirely of protein and fiber. In fact, it contains more fiber than barley flour and more protein than quinoa.
The flour made with the spent grain, therefore, acts like a gluten-free flour, as it has no web structure of gluten proteins that allows for rise and tightening. As a result, the flour is best used in quick breads and crackers, or mixed with all-purpose flour.
Current technology for processing spent grain into flour is inadequate, according to OURgrain. The process requires a drying step that takes too much time and money to be economically feasible.
The business model for OURgrain is as much about recapturing food waste as it is about food science.
“Part of our mission is related to the development of a new drying process to cost reduce, time reduce, and nutritionally optimize (the flour),” Pulling said.
According to Daniels, the business model is expandable perhaps beyond flour production.
“Maybe we’ll license the technology to create the flour. Maybe it’s in the form of us working with other companies already doing things in in the food-waste space,” she said. “We don’t know what that looks like right now.”
Pulling agreed. “Going into it we were approaching it is a flour problem, but as we grew as a team and as a company, we realized that it was so much more than that, but the flour was a logical starting point.”
With a craft-beer boom hitting the region, brewers in New England are producing tons of spent grain. While some breweries have relationships with nearby farms to offload their spent grain as animal feed, most breweries have to pay to have the spent grain sent to the landfill.
OURgrain currently is picking up spent grain from a few brewers in the region — the largest of which is Bog Iron Brewery in Norton, Mass.
The group has worked closely with the Rhode Island Department of Health on the process of essentially turning a food waste back into an edible.
One of the biggest challenges is getting the grains from a brewer’s mash tub to flour processing in a timely manner, because, after the grain leaves the tub, there is a short window before microbial growth begins and after which the grain can’t be used.
Rising to the MassChallenge
Right now, the fledgling company is in the offing to win $100,000 through the business accelerator MassChallenge. OURgrain was selected as one of the top 26 businesses out of more than 1,500 applicants for the 2018 MassChallenge.
The founders’ eyes are on the prize — to be announced in October — but having participated in the program, OURgrain feels as though it’s already won.
“More valuable than the money is the network MassChallenge provides,” Pulling said. “Participating has connected us to investors in the Boston area. We’re hoping to flesh out the tech and product development as a result.”
OURgrain’s goals are lofty, and that is to save every last grain from the landfill. Daniels hopes that “… in eight to 10 years we can do a survey of every brewery in the United States and they can say they’re working with us or a company like us.”
OURgrain currently sells its flours online, and at area events and farmers markets.