“You know, I didn’t even drink much beer before I started all this,” Bertha Jimenez tells me as she leads me into an industrial kitchen in a startup incubator in Long Island City, Queens. An intense aroma of malt washes over us as we step inside, where two employees are hard at work grinding spent grain into flour. It’s a typical morning at Rise Products, a New York venture aiming to turn brewery waste into gastronomic gold. “We’re always experimenting in here, always trying to make our product better.”
Jimenez may not have much of a background in beer, but she has always had a knack for thinking outside the box. While working on her Ph.D. in Management and Innovation at Tandon School of Engineering at New York University, she accepted a challenge to propose an idea that could make cities better. Her concept was compelling enough to earn her team a trip to Shanghai for further development.
“My idea is based on the concept of industrial symbiosis—essentially the idea that the byproduct from one company can become the raw material for another company,” Jimenez explains. “I believe that there’s a lot of waste that just doesn’t need to exist and that industry leaders need to take more responsibility for it.”
While the broad principle of a circular economy can apply to all sorts of industries, the 35-year-old Ecuadorian entrepreneur wanted to create something that met the specific needs of her adopted hometown. After some additional digging, Jimenez and her team found well-developed systems in New York for recycling plastic, cardboard and metal, but very few dedicated to handling organic waste. Given that roughly 20 percent of the 14 million tons of waste produced by New York annually are related to food, it’s an issue that merits more attention.
“We tried to identify the major industries in New York City and we realized there are a ton of craft breweries,” Jimenez says. So she started doing the necessary legwork, knocking on doors and asking questions. “You know how breweries always have these tours? Everybody’s asking about the different varieties of beer and I’m there like, ‘What do you do with your waste?’”
As Jimenez quickly learned, the answer is usually “not much.” Spent grain, the leftover malted, boiled barley used to make wort, accounts for about 85 percent of brewery waste and the world produces an average of 42 million tons the stuff every year. While breweries in rural areas often donate the crushed grains to farms for animal feed, their urban counterparts usually lack a cost-efficient, eco-friendly means of disposing of it. As a result, approximately 80 percent of New York’s spent grain ends up rotting in landfills.
Although it’s technically a waste product, spent grain has plenty of intrinsic nutritional value to offer. The brewing process leeches out most of the sugars from barley, leaving behind the protein, fiber and B vitamins. And while you probably wouldn’t want to eat it by itself, when baked into other products, spent grain adds a pleasantly toasty, malty flavor. Homebrewers have been incorporating it into everything from granola to waffles for years, while bakeries and breweries with taprooms have a long history of adding it into loaves.
All the breweries we’ve worked with are really rooting for us. They don’t want this to just go in the garbage”
The problem with spent grain is that the damp, nutrient-dense mass is also a fertile breeding ground for bacteria. If it isn’t converted into a more stable form within hours, it starts to decompose.
“It’s like you’re waging war with the microorganisms. It spoils within about eight to ten hours. One time we put it in my fridge and within two days, it went bad. It was so gross.”
In order to avoid a slimy, putrid mess, Jimenez started playing around with various methods of dehydration as she searched for a way to use it. Her team constructed all sorts of prototypes, from spent grain paper and cardboard to bars of soap and exfoliating cosmetics. All of them worked, but some, like the soap, used minuscule amounts of spent grain.
After months of tinkering, she settled on flour as the most marketable, scaleable route. The resulting product has double the protein and 12 times the fiber of all-purpose wheat flour, not to mention a nutty, pleasantly malty flavor profile. Rise Products currently makes a lighter colored, milder flour using spent grains from pilsners and IPAs, as well as a darker, nuttier alternative made from the leftovers from porters and stouts.
“When we first started, we were producing two pounds or five pounds,” Jimenez says. She still remembers showing up at Greenpoint Beer and Ale with Tupperware containers for hauling spent grain. “Now, in each batch, we’re producing around 150 to 200 pounds.”
Those first few batches cost roughly $60 a pound to produce, a number that has since dropped to around $7 to $8. If the team manages to secure their own facility by the end of the year, they could feasibly increase production enough to reduce that to $0.80 a pound. At those sorts of prices, stores like Sur La Table and Whole Foods have expressed interest.
Rise Products already works with a handful of local craft breweries, including Keg & Lantern Brewing Company and Bridge and Tunnel Brewery. A number of bakeries in New York have been experimenting with the flour, including Bien Cuit, which has turned it into poundcakes, and Runner & Stone, which bakes it into cookies. Even a few high-profile chefs have ordered batches, including Massimo Bottura of triple Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy.
“Don’t ask me what he’s doing because we asked him and they said it’s secret. I know they bought 20 pounds, but I have no idea,” Jimenez says. “We were sending it to top chefs with a note saying, ‘This brown powder coming your way is basically your Parmesan.’”
In order to make a major difference in waste reduction, however, Jimenez hopes to branch beyond niche artisanal producers and high-end restaurants to larger food corporations. They’ve been in talks with brands including Pepsi, Nestle and Kellogg’s to produce items like a spent grain frozen pizza crust and a high-fiber cereal bar.
Producing high volumes of the perfectly consistent product that these sorts of companies demand is still a challenge, one that Jimenez cannot solve with small batches from microbreweries. Over the past few months, she has been working on creating flour with spent grain leftover from one of the nation’s largest macrobreweries. As one might expect, fairly bland lagers produce a much less flavorful beer than its craft counterparts. What surprised Jimenez, however, is the fact that not only was the macrobrewery beer more consistent, but it also had a significantly high nutritional content.
“Craft brewers are like artists. They express themselves through beer. They use the best ingredients and they experiment to make it as flavorful as possible. That’s why each glass costs like $5,” Jimenez says. “For macrobreweries, their game is to have a product that’s always exactly the same and to be as efficient as they can. So the goal is to get out as many sugars as possible, which is why their extraction process is way better.”
Given the quantity of waste that a brewing giant produces annually, a deal of this scale could be a gamechanger in terms of sustainability.
“If we could take one-fifth of [this macrobrewery] is producing and turn it into something else, that’s a lot,” she says with a wistful smile. For now, she’s still operating small and dreaming big. “All the breweries we’ve worked with are really rooting for us. They don’t want this to just go in the garbage.”