Food waste: The lettuce rotting in your crisper, purchased with the best of intentions. The misshapen carrots left in the field because they’re too ugly for the grocery store. The limp slices of gas station pizza that get discarded after languishing too long under a heat lamp.
Those are probably the images that spring to mind when you think about the 30-40 percent of the U.S. food supply that goes to waste every year—a statistic that translates into billions of pounds of food (and billions of dollars) tossed in the garbage.
But what we often don't consider in that disheartening picture are the food byproducts from the brewing and distilling industries, like "spent" grains still rich in nutrients and safe for human consumption.
“It’s mind-boggling how much goes in the garbage,” says Sue Marshall, founder and CEO of NETZRO, an upcycled ingredient company. “A typical craft brewery, they’ll produce a ton of spent grain a week—and that’s a small microbrewery. Go up a level to something the size of Surly, it could be eight to ten tons a day. If someone has a process that can handle that, it feeds a lot of people.”
NETZRO uses a proprietary process to “upcycle” those byproducts into grains that can be made into breads, crackers, cookies, and other products. Marshall explains that since their process can handle large, consistent volumes of food byproducts (at least to 500 pounds per hour), it makes the most sense for them to work with businesses that produce those waste streams—like breweries and distilleries.
Over the past couple of years, NETZRO has been refining its process via pilot programs at Utepils Brewing, Invictus Brewing, and HammerHeart Brewing Co. Now they’re ready for a more ambitious undertaking: reclaiming all of Tattersall Distilling’s rye and organic corn byproducts.
“What we’re doing [during the distilling process] is breaking down the sugars in the grain and taking them out,” says Jon Kreidler, Tattersall co-founder and chief officer. “What you’re left with is protein, fiber, and a little fat.”
That’s where NETZRO (whose production facility is co-located at Tattersall’s distillery) steps in. “We do a pre-treatment to dry the grain,” says Marshall. “That restores the grain to what it was before, minus the sugar. Then we do what our customers want. For some customers, they don’t want any treatment, others want it milled into flour.”
Prior to its partnership with NETZRO, Tattersall’s byproducts were used as hog feed by a local farmer—not a bad solution from an environmental standpoint. However, Kreidler explains that by adding upcycled grains to the market for human consumption, the overall demand for grain is reduced, which will decrease demands on farmland and agricultural pollution. He also notes that distilleries in other states are limited in their production capacity because they don’t have easy access to farmers or compost facilities to dispose of their spent grains.
“This is an awesome route because it puts control back into our hands versus being reliant on farmers taking it away. We can handle it all ourselves and process it in-house.”
Tattersall plans to eventually monetize the byproducts, literally transforming their trash into treasure.
While grain upcycling is set to be a boon to Tattersall (as well as other local breweries and distilleries, once NETZRO sets up an additional centralized production facility later this year), what about the farmers who rely on spent grains to feed their livestock?
“Some farmers do pick up spent grain, so we have to step back and look at who’s going to be excluded,” Marshall acknowledges. “Do they have to be excluded, or can they be included better? We don’t take on the byproduct stream if we can’t figure that out. We don’t want to exclude someone or be a detriment to them.”
That big-picture, community-minded view is integral to NETZRO’s business model as a public benefit corporation, which means that the company has committed to a social purpose beyond simply making money. In NETZRO’s case, the company’s profits are shared with farmers via the Artisan Grain Collaborative, an organization that promotes regenerative agricultural practices.
This all sounds commendable, but how do upcycled grains actually taste?
We sampled them for ourselves at Too Good to Waste, a recent cooking competition that tasked a lineup of local chefs with creating a dish from NETZRO’s upcycled grains. The versatility of the grains (and the creativity of the competitors) was impressive, with entries ranging from corn masa stuffed with duck confit to rye polenta with meatballs.
At first bite, we noticed that the upcycled grains have a pleasantly dense, hearty texture, most obvious in bread-like applications like a corn flour doughscuit. Several chefs mentioned that the upcycled grains were more flavorful than their standard counterparts—Borough’s chef Mike DeCamp thought that the upcycled rye was more intense and the upcycled corn was sweeter-tasting. Chef Jose Alarcon of Popol Vuh and Centro compared the upcycled grains’ aroma to sourdough; chef Chris Uhrich of Mucci’s also mentioned the fermented flavor.
Some of the competitors were inspired to incorporate sustainability into other aspects of their dishes. Chef Carrie McCabe-Johnston of Nightingale opted to go meatless with an upcycled rye spaetzle topped with shiitake mushrooms, hazelnuts, pea tendrils, and a paprika sauce. Chef Steven Brown of Saint Genevieve made a sausage-stuffed rye brioche using other ingredients that typically go to waste, like vegetable peels and duck offal.
Lat14’s chef Ann Ahmed, assisted by Stephen Enke and Elise Gangestad, took top honors with a rye bao bun filled with tamarind-glazed duck. In addition to bragging rights, Ahmed won a one-month supply of upcycled grain to use in a dish at her restaurant.
The competition showcased NETZRO’s focus going forward: working with distributors, retailers, and restaurants to include upcycled ingredients in their offerings.
“I want to be a commercial producer,” says Marshall. “I don’t want to make cookies. I want to supply people who can make the cookies in large volumes, because our process has the capability to do it.”