In January 2011, President Obama signed into law the Food & Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act, which aims to protect the U.S. food supply by shifting to a more proactive strategy to avoid contamination and foodborne illness across the country. As part of the act, on Oct. 25, 2013, the FDA proposed new regulations regarding the manufacturing, process, packing and holding of food for animals, regulations that small brewers across the country are fighting hard to amend.
But wait, why would regulating animal feed have an impact on craft brewing? The answer lies not in the beer, but, basically, in the trash. When crafting those tasty ales and lagers, brewers start with tons and tons of malted barley and other grains. When the malt is boiled during mashing, enzymes convert the starches in the grain into sugars, creating a liquid called wort. The wort is strained off and sent on its way to meet up with yeast and become alcohol, but the remaining part of the grain — dubbed spent grain, mostly barley husks with a bit of residual sugar — becomes a byproduct of the brewing process.
The brewery has no use for the spent grain, and it would all end up in the landfill were it not for a long-standing relationship between brewers and the farmers and ranchers in their respective communities. As it turns out, the spent grain is a great food supplement for all manner of livestock, from cows and buffalo to pigs and chickens. The wet mash is highly palatable to animals, and the processed grains are easier for them to digest. Because of this, natural alliances have formed whereby the breweries unload their detritus and the ranchers get tons and tons of tasty leftovers for their herds.
The government wants to intervene in this symbiotic relationship to ensure that the grain is handled properly and doesn’t introduce contaminants into the food supply, which is an honorable goal, but conforming to the regulations would be a huge hurdle to brewers.
“What they would like to do is see more standardized process on how our spent grain gets to the ranchers and farmers,” said Steve Kurowski, with the Colorado Brewers Guild. “What they want to do so far would make it very expensive and cumbersome for brewers to adhere to the rules they want to put in place.”
The spent grain would have to be dried out and packaged, following very precise handling guidelines laid out by the FDA. For the majority of Colorado’s small craft breweries, the cost to process the grain would be prohibitive.
“It would make most of the grain that gets used in brewing go to the landfill, rather than going to these farmers and ranchers,” Kurowski said. “They want this spent grain to be packaged and done so in a way that requires a lot of equipment and a very expensive process to do.”
The crux of the issue is that there’s no current evidence that the way the grain is being handled is a detriment to the food supply.
“Brewers’ grains have been used as cattle feed for centuries, and the practice is generally considered safe,” the Brewers Association said in a statement released in late March. “We ask the FDA to conduct a risk assessment of the use of spent brewers’ grain by farmers prior to imposing expensive new regulations and controls.”
Local grain chain
Dave Simmons, head brewer at Pug Ryan’s Brewing Co. in Dillon, said the brewery has partnered with a number of ranches and farms in the past, but its current spent grain bill is mostly split between Cripple Creek and Aspen Canyon ranches north of town. Simmons said the brewery gives away its grain, rather than selling it, which is typical of most brewers in the High Country, and as long as the relationship keeps working for both sides, he’s happy to continue it.
“For us to get rid of this grain is a pain in the ass — the few times we’ve had to do that — especially with our expansion and how much we’re producing right now and how much spent grain we’re putting out,” Simmons said.
The ranchers pick up the grain from the brewery, so all Simmons and his crew have to do is make it available. He said if the new legislation passes in its current form, the brewery would no longer be able to afford to provide the grain to the ranchers and it would just go in the trash.
“With this new regulation, one of the options that they want you to take is either you’re going to have to dry it out, package it and then sell it that way, if that’s what you’re doing, or you’re going to have to get a whole different Dumpster and go to the landfill and pay for that disposal,” he said. “We’re not going to dry our grain and package it, that’s not going to happen, that’s way too many man hours and machinery to even try to tackle that.”
The Breckenridge Brew Pub has had a steady relationship with Ed Campling, a rancher near Fairplay, for the past eight years, and Jimmy Walker, head brewer, said the brewery has passed along its spent grain to one rancher or farmer or another for the past 24 years.
“The grain we get from Breckenridge we use for just about everything,” Campling said. “We’ve fed buffalo, horses, calf, bulls — everything eats it, and they all do well on it. It’s a supplement that we’ve used for years.”
Aside from a 5-gallon bucket or two that gets picked up by locals for chicken feed, Campling is the solitary beneficiary of Breck’s grain, Walker said.
“We pick up about a ton of grain a week. That supplements all of our feed,” Campling said. “When we first started doing this, I was concerned about how (the livestock) were going to handle it, but the second or third trip out there, they run you over for it, everybody. We’ve never had any problems with it.”
Campling said if the legislation goes through unaltered and Breckenridge cuts off the grain supply, he won’t be able to raise as much livestock as he does now. Walker said without Campling clearing out the grain, not only would the Dumpster fill up, but the brewery would need more people to mash out, or finish the process, for each batch of beer.
“Like every Waste Management dumpster, it’s like 6 feet in the air, so we’d have to lift a trash can full of wet, spent grain — which probably weighs a couple hundred pounds — we’d have to lift that like 6 feet in the air, so it would make it freaking impossible,” Walker said. “The way it is now, it’s a low trough, like a feeding trough, so now one person can mash out. If we had to put it in the Dumpster, it would take two people and twice as long. And it would all end up in a landfill instead of cutting feeding costs for cow feed.”
Alan Simons, head brewer at Backcountry Brewery in Frisco, said his spent grain is picked up by a rancher and trucked an hour away to Hartsel, where it is shared with a couple of other small ranches. He said the issue of dealing with spent grain is an important enough topic that it was addressed in a presentation by Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” at the recent Craft Brewers Conference in Denver.
“He talked about what kind of makes us advanced as humans, being able to cook food and the process of breaking down vegetables and grains, making it easier to consume,” he said. “The example he gave is a gorilla spends eight hours a day chewing and digesting food. (With spent grain), they don’t have to process the food, the rancher doesn’t and the animal doesn’t. It’s easier for them to digest, it’s easier to chew.”
Some larger breweries have figured out alternative ways to dispose of their spent grain, Simons said. Alaskan Brewing Co., for example, just built a boiler that runs on spent grain, but purchasing a piece of equipment like that is out of the reach of most small craft breweries.
“There’s other options, but for it to be feasible and economical, being able to produce enough grain to be able to produce enough fuel to do that, you have to be much bigger than our local guys,” he said.
Cooperation between brewers and their local farmers and ranchers provides the most economical and mutually beneficial way to dispose of brewing byproducts, and heavy intervention from the Brewers Association, letter-writing campaigns by individual breweries and the support of Congressional figures is working toward maintaining those relationships.
“Even if any of this does come about, it’s not going to be until 2015, 2016,” Simmons said. “We’re just going to have to wait and see what happens with that. We’ve voiced our opinion and we’re part of the Colorado Brewers Guild, people looking out for our small breweries. We have to see how that legislation plays out.”