Each year, the global brewing industry uses 9 million metric tons of barley. After that, the spent grains are discarded, used as animal feed, composted or put to another use.
Greg Belt, AB InBev's former global vice president for sustainability, started really thinking about those spent grains about five years ago. While they aren't good for beer anymore, they contain a lot of nutrients. And as consumers are more interested in plant-based proteins, there is definitely room for new ingredients to enrich and enhance the space. After consulting with experts at University College Cork in Ireland, Belt learned that he was on to something.
"This is a great source of nutrition," Belt said. "It can be saved. And we just need to figure it out from a technical perspective. We started seeing the emergence and the importance of some of these changing consumer trends, as well as plant protein. We felt that, hey, if we could figure out some of these technical challenges, it would not only benefit consumers, but we could benefit the planet in a sustainable way."
Belt started EverGrain, an independent company that turns spent barley into nutritious and functional ingredients for use throughout the food and beverage industry. EverGrain gets its raw materials from AB InBev — which Belt said is responsible for about 1.4 million metric tons of that annual spent barley tally — and is funded by AB InBev's venture arm ZX Ventures.
EverGrain currently offers two ingredients: EverPro and EverVita. Both are high in protein, highly adaptable and different than anything else on the market, Belt said.
5 years of R&D
In the years since Belt first contemplated the problem of spent grains, he wasn't just thinking about starting a company. He was actively trying to turn the barley into a useful and different ingredient, which was not an easy task.
While there are other barley ingredients on the market, including some that come from spent grains from smaller brewers, they are mostly just flours made from milling the grains. Belt said he wanted to really explore the potential and use the spent barley in the best way possible. The company researched the proteins in barley and their structure. It found out how to best use those proteins. And then it worked on how to turn the nutrients into a useful and functional ingredient — something that has to be done relatively soon after the grains are used for beer, Belt said.
"Innovation uncovers hidden truths, right?" Belt said, explaining EverGrain's work. "The hidden truth that we found with barley is how different it is than other plant protein."
Barley has a fairly neutral taste, meaning it doesn't need bitter blockers or heavy flavoring to make it palatable in several applications, Belt said. It also has a high-protein quality. While barley isn't a complete protein, several of the amino acids it lacks are in pea protein, making it a complementary ingredient. And barley protein is 95% soluable, so the right ingredient can be used to easily add nutrients to beverages without changing their appearance or texture.
EverPro highlights that solubility, and is being marketed as an ingredient for plant-based dairy applications. It also could be used to add protein in less conventional places, like RTD iced tea. EverVita is a high-protein barley flour ingredient that is being marketed to the baked goods and pasta sector.
So far, the reaction to the ingredients has been overwhelmingly positive, Belt said. Manufacturers are trying to make the kinds of products consumers want — and today, many of them are looking for sustainable, nutritious and plant-based choices.
"The response from consumer manufacturers is, 'We're looking for additional tools in our toolbox,' and barley protein and barley fiber really doesn't exist today. It provides that additional tool," Belt said.
A new future for all spent grains
EverGrain's ingredients are just beginning to enter the food system.
In the U.S., EverGrain's ingredients are used in products from Take Two, a barley milk company based in Oregon. Belt said some products will be coming to market in the U.K. in March and April. Many more are likely to follow, and the brand should be more widespread later this year.
To turn spent grains into ingredients, EverGrain needs its own facilities and specialized equipment, Belt said. It isn't just a quick add-on to existing breweries. But, as the company grows, Belt thinks it can build facilities near breweries worldwide. AB InBev, which is the world's largest brewer, has more than 260 breweries around the world. This means potentially hundreds of local sources of sustainable, high-protein ingredients.
Where EverGrain does operate, it reduces spent grain waste signficantly, Belt said. EverVita leaves behind no waste product. EverPro is 80% protein, but leaves behind some fiber. EverGrain is working to turn that fiber into a third ingredient product, which should be available later this year.
While EverGrain currently has a close affiliation with AB InBev, Belt said the company is willing to work with other brewers in the future, helping them to transform their spent grains into a useful ingredient.
"EverGrain's success has been built on a collaboration from a lot of different people, and I think we'll continue that in the future," Belt said.