For years, Greg Belt has been told he's crazy or just wasting his time. He's out to prove them wrong.
Belt, a former global vice president for sustainability at AB InBev, has spent the past decade building and then leading its EverGrain subsidiary. During that time, he and his team have searched for ways to reuse the barley protein that is leftover after making beers like Michelob Ultra and Bud Light while convincing prospective CPGs it has the taste and nutritional profile to compete with other options.
"When the journey started you can imagine how many times we got told that 'Greg, you're wasting our time. Spent grain, it's like garbage. It's waste,' " he said. "But when in reality we saw the full potential."
Globally, the brewing industry produces about 9 million metric tons of used grain each year, with about 16% — or 1.4 million metric tons — coming from AB InBev, according to Belt. In most cases, breweries throw out the used barley or give it to animals for feed.
EverGrain is currently repurposing about 50 tons of barley each year at its $15 million small-scale production facility at Anheuser-Busch's Newark, New Jersey, brewery. But an old 1905 fermentation cellar by its St. Louis brewery is in the process of being retrofitted at a cost of $100 million that will exponentially boost upcycled barley protein output to about 7,000 tons annually — allowing AB InBev to scale up its work and partner with more CPGs.
Depending on the demand for the used barley, Belt said the company could add facilities next to as many as 15 breweries around the world over the long term to process the ingredient.
EverGrain's barley protein is currently available in a handful of products such as a plant-based barley milk called Take Two, and Nestlé is adding it to its nutritional food supplement brand, Garden of Life. EverGrain is also partnering with a subsidiary of Post Holdings to create sustainable and "climate-positive" foods and collaborating with an Arkansas coffee maker to launch a barley milk latte. Other product launches are scheduled for later this year.
The small size of EverGrain, coupled with the multimillion-dollar investment in the larger plant in St. Louis, means that the subsidiary is currently not profitable. But Belt said as it scales production, the goal is to turn the business into a meaningful source of revenue for AB InBev. The company also is exploring ways to reuse spent yeast or hops, while using its fermentation capacity to work with other ingredients.
"If it's not commercially viable, and it's just charity, then that may or may not be repeatable over the long term as leadership changes," Belt said. "The fact that you can grow a business that is profitable, that can support itself and is sustainable, and help solve the world's problems, that's what it's all about, right?"
Belt said EverGrain has improved the taste profile of its barley to make it more complementary with pea protein. It's also conducted third-party tests to show how the two ingredients together beat whey, the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained, in both taste and nutrition to make it a more enticing option for CPGs. Even after it's used to make beer, barley is high in fiber, minerals and anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial properties — further boosting its positioning as a functional food ingredient.
"The third-party results are amazing. We're beating them, and easily," Belt said. "That's why we believe we can win big."
In an effort to repurpose food that might have otherwise gone to waste, other manufacturers also have gotten creative with spent grain from beer brewing.
Four years ago, Tyson Foods took spent grain donated from Molson Coors and combined it with vegetable puree and pulp from juicing and the company's chicken trim to create a protein crisp called ¡Yappah!. (The snack was discontinued in 2019.)
And ReGrained, founded nearly a decade ago to find ways to reuse spent grain created by beer makers, uses a thermo-mechanical process co-developed with the USDA to process it into flour. The company claims the ingredient has more than triple the dietary fiber of wheat flour and twice the protein of oats, and is rich in prebiotics.
The food waste business is forecast to be worth about $52.91 billion in 2022 and grow 4.6% during the next decade, according to a study by Future Marketing Insights. The increase is expected to coincide with shoppers' purchasing decisions being influenced more by sustainability, a value that's increased in importance during the pandemic.