ST. LOUIS — About a hundred yards in the shadow of the towering 142-acre Anheuser-Busch brewery, spent barley, once used to make beers such as Michelob Ultra and Bud Light, is beginning its newest journey.
Hundreds of pounds of the brown slurry previously destined for animal feed or landfills traverse each day through a long silver pipe that connects the brewery to EverGrain, a startup founded in 2020 by the beer giant. At EverGrain, the barley is processed for use later in an array of foods and beverages.
Greg Belt, a former global vice president for sustainability at AB InBev who runs EverGrain, has routinely been told he’s crazy or just wasting his time with this idea. Now, he’s on the cusp of proving his doubters wrong and saving millions of pounds of food waste in the process.
“We can only make a difference in the world when we’re at scale and we’re in these consumer products,” Belt said from EverGrain’s headquarters. “We’re at the inflection point over the next five to 10 years where barley will become a very, very, very important source of protein, in addition to soy and pea in the marketplace.”
EverGrain’s barley protein is sold under the brand name EverPro. The powder is being used in a diverse range of products, including crackers through a partnership with Post Holdings; Nestlé’s nutritional food supplement brand, Garden of Life; and a nonalcoholic beer from Athletic Brewing. It’s also working closely with other companies to incorporate EverPro into products such as ice cream, nut butter, sports nutrition beverages and endurance bars.
Still, EverPro must overcome a series of hurdles before it can become as ubiquitous as peas and soybeans have in food and beverages.
Big food manufacturers, in particular, want to ensure the product can be provided at a large enough scale so they can launch a product without worrying about supply constraints, a feat Belt said EverGrain has achieved. Larger producers also are reluctant to spend time and money reformulating an existing product. It’s a big reason why they typically add EverPro to a new product launch.
Finally, large CPG manufacturers who have been “forced” to settle with other plant-based options approach something new, such as used barley, with some degree of skepticism, Belt said. In an effort to quell the uneasiness, EverGrain creates prototypes of products made with EverPro to display the taste, protein content and solubility for potential customers.
Belt said his company is working with many of the world’s largest food companies — he declined to name the manufacturers or the items being developed — and that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if products using EverPro hit shelves later this fall or in the spring of 2024.
For now, Belt said the Missouri location is essentially acting as a proof of concept while it ramps up production and AB InBev assesses future demand for EverPro.
EverGrain is currently not profitable, but it could reach that threshold in late 2024 after it boosts production capacity. “Because we’re using a byproduct, it’s a relatively low bar for profitability,” Belt noted.
Mark Sorrells, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, praised EverGrain's ties to sustainability and said offerings with its barley could attract the interest of consumers because of its novelty.
"Spent grains have been used for livestock feed for decades," Sorrells said. "What EverGrain is doing sounds pretty new and different."
‘A huge guiding light’
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. At the company’s brewery in St. Louis, one of the largest in the world, used barley arrives at EverGrain roughly 10 minutes after it is discharged (EverGrain currently uses only about 20% of the leftover grain in St. Louis.)
After it arrives at a 118-year-old building once used as a fermentation cellar for beer, EverGrain runs the barley mesh through a complex maze of pipes and tanks as large as 60,000 gallons where it’s dried and filtered to leave the middle-sized proteins it needs — a process that takes 12 to 24 hours. To maintain a low environmental footprint, EverGrain uses reverse osmosis to recycle its water and gets its renewable energy from Anheuser-Busch.
AB InBev is the sole owner of EverGrain, providing the upstart a host of benefits. It not only supplies funding through its venture arm ZX Ventures, but it offers valuable assistance with things such as technology, food safety and food quality. The beer giant’s global reach also gives EverGrain instant credibility and the recognition that it could meaningfully boost production to meet demand if it needed to.
“This has been a huge guiding light for us,” Belt said. “That has enabled us to ramp up far more quickly than a startup that didn’t have that support.”
The backing of the beer giant is not EverGrain’s only advantage. Its EverPro ingredient has a host of other benefits that make it more attractive than other protein options like whey, or plant-based alternatives, Belt said. The product is price competitive, has a sustainability halo and contains less astringency compared to plant-based offerings.
EverPro is easily digestible and loaded with fiber and minerals while having anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties — further boosting its positioning as a functional food ingredient. It also behaves like a dairy protein, enabling it to be easily substituted by manufacturers.
Finally, its barley powder has low viscosity and high solubility, factors that allow a lot of the ingredient to be absorbed into something like an energy drink to boost its protein level to close to 40 grams. Until now, that was only possible in traditional milk offerings such as Coca-Cola’s Fairlife, or newer-to-market clear whey protein drinks, like IsoPure’s.
“If we weren’t solving problems we wouldn’t see this commercial traction,” Belt said.
Ingredients like peas, for example, often have flavor or color constraints that limit what products they can be included in. EverPro was no exception.
The original EverPro had a dark brown color with a taste containing notes of caramel, coffee and cereal, making it better suited to something like coffee, chocolate or tea. EverGrain has since refined the spent barley to remove much of the color and taste while keeping the molecules that provide the coveted nutrients.
EverGrain’s plant, which opened last year following a $100 million overhaul, can produce about 7,000 tons of EverPro annually. But Belt said the company isn’t fully utilizing its capacity so it has room to work with other food and beverage makers, or provide more supply to an existing partner in case one of their products catches on. For some smaller companies, EverPro can make up to 90% of their formulation.
“Some of the feedback we had is, ‘Greg, make sure you’re there for me. I’m here for you [as you’re growing,] make sure you’re here for me when my product takes off,” Belt said. “You need multiple lottery tickets. If one hits you have to be able to support it, so there is an optimal threshold where you can’t have too many bets or you are going to be in trouble.”