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Spent grain is an organic left-over from beer production. Historically this side-stream has been given away for free to farmers as livestock feed. However, with the decline of the number of nearby located farms and challenges due to quick spoilage, currently the spent grain is often considered inconvenient waste instead of being a valuable resource.
Large amounts of unused resources
Of every 100 litres of beer, the breweries must handle 20 kilos of spent grain. Altogether, brewers produce estimated 38.6 million tons of spent grain per year worldwide. 70-80% of the spent grain is moisture and due to its mold-promoting properties, it is neither cost-efficient nor easy to transport or store over time. With little investments in research and development, it is currently a resource that brings little revenue to the breweries. However, there is growing interest in developing new valorisation pathways for this resource.
Potential resource for several industries
Research has shown that it can be used as a feedstock in various industries, including livestock feed, food and nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and biofuels. Spent grain is nutritional, it is fibre-, protein- and mineral-rich and contains beneficial complex carbohydrates. These properties make it both attractive for animal as well as human consumption. As an example, bakeries have started to experiment in using grounded spent grain as flour and new and healthy spent grain snacks are on offer in specialised beer and food stores. Also, side-streams of this resource can be used in the paper industry and can become second generation ethanol.
Sustainable feed for cows and other animals
One can ask, is there a need to find new ways to make use of the spent grain, when it is already made use of in a sustainable way as animal feed? Today, there is a decline in the number of farms, and not all breweries have farms in their neighbourhood. In areas where breweries are located close to farms, one can argue for the importance of keeping the spent grain available unprocessed for farmers at a low price. Still, with new efficient drying-processes, less spent grain will be spoiled and more can be used, and even replace the use of imported soya-based feed from far shores. Furthermore, with biotechnology, this resource can become even more sustainable. By adding carefully selected enzymes, the spent grain can become feed that reduces the methane gas production of cows and other livestock.
Barriers for innovation
SusValueWaste has interviewed breweries in Norway and Denmark and found that although there is increased interest in spent grain, most breweries are sticking to their old ways. Their main concern is brewing beer, not developing feed or other innovations based on their by-products. Today, there are few incentives that call for such investments. Still, we see emerging solutions, that might prove scalable either for the breweries themselves or possible spin-off companies.
The SusValueWaste study of the brewery industry in Norway and Denmark will be published in “From Waste to Value: Valorisation Pathways for Organic Waste Streams in Circular Bioeconomies”, a forthcoming book (2019) that will include various studies part of the SusValueWaste project.
Waste and other residual materials from industries and households are of increasing value in today’s economy. Substances that have long represented a cost to the economy are now becoming a valuable resource. Exploiting the full potential of these resources requires increased innovation, systemic change as well as better regulation and governance.