This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
Each year, the American brewing industry produces about 6 million tons of spent grain as waste from the brewing process.
Spent grain is organic material, so it’s not the worst substance to relegate to a dumpster. And not all of it goes there. In fact, for a few decades now, some of the largest producers of spent grain have found a pseudo-solution for the waste in sending it to farmers to use as feed for pigs and cattle.
Unfortunately, that’s far from a zero-waste solution. Spent grain rots after 24 hours and is only viable as livestock feed for a week after that. The sheer volume of spent grain produced all but assures that the majority of that 6 million tons created each year ends up in landfills.
But it turns out that spent grain can be better used elsewhere — like your pancakes and muffins, for instance.
From Waste to Superfood
The road from brewery to breakfast table began in 2016 while a young entrepreneur was preparing a fateful batch of beer for his rugby team in 2016. “I noticed there was just a lot of this excess material that was just going to a dumpster,” says Yoni Medhin. The observation inspired him and his friend Matt Metchly to spend the next few years exploring the upcycle potential for spent grain.
“We were in an entrepreneurship class at the time and dug in a little bit more,” Yoni says. “We were just blown away by the volume of this problem, and how little innovation there has been in this space.”
Ultimately, by borrowing drying and milling techniques from the pharmaceutical industry, the two San Antonio residents were able to upcycle spent grain into a low-cost, nutrient-dense flour that’s lower in carbs and higher in both protein and fiber than traditional wheat flour.
When Grain4Grain Barely Barley Flour made its debut in 2018, it wasn’t the only wheat flour alternative on the market, but it was the only one made entirely from material that would’ve gone into the trash. In addition to that environmental distinctive, the brand can boast that it is higher in protein than the high-protein wheat alternative (almond flour) and higher in fiber than the high-fiber alternative (coconut).
There are other nutritional advantages to spent grain, as well: Because the brewing process uses most of the macronutrients found in barley, Grain4Grain flour is lower in carbs than any of the available alternatives. Brewing also removes 90% of the gluten — enough of a reduction to make it a viable flour option for most levels of gluten intolerance.
But those were revelations that Yoni and his co-founder turned up only after they were on the upcycling path.
“To me, the big draw was the sustainability,” Yoni says. “But Matt brought up the fact that there were no carbs in it, and because of that, we were blown away when we realized it solves a lot of problems.”
Feeding a Sense of Community
Many doctors may advise folks with autoimmune issues, diabetes, or gluten intolerance against consuming traditional wheat flour. And while alternatives like almond and coconut flour do provide options, those often come with intersecting ecological and economic concerns.
In the case of almond flour, the amount of water it takes to irrigate California’s vast almond groves is not particularly efficient, especially considering the state’s long drought. Meanwhile, coconut flour “has a significant labor and transportation cost,” Yoni explains. “Getting it to a reasonable price point after it’s been refined to flour creates inequitable gains so people producing it aren’t being paid well — usually, they’re having to live off a dollar or two a day.”
The positive implications of Grain4Grain’s upcycled flour are certainly relevant far beyond San Antonio, where the company sources and processes its spent grain. Nonetheless, from the beginning, Yoni and Matt were serious about giving back locally.
It just so happened that their product was perfectly tailored to a distinct niche in San Antonio, where the population is largely Hispanic, and diabetes is quite prevalent.
“We tried to make a very easy, four-ingredient tortilla that would fulfill a staple in the regional diet and also benefit diabetic folks health-wise,” Yoni says. “For us, because our cost of production is so low to make a pound of flour, we felt like we had this very high-quality ingredient that we could afford to donate.”
By working with the nonprofit Hill Country Daily Bread to make the tortilla and partnering with San Antonio Food Bank to help with distribution, Grain4Grain has been able to provide 12,000 meals made with Barely Barley Flour for 2,250 families.
Grain4Grain’s sole retail partnership with Texas supermarket chain H-E-B is also an intentional choice born out of their commitment to giving back locally. “H-E-B will keep stores open in communities where they know they will lose money just because they know it will crush communities if they leave,” says Yoni.
Diverting 6 million tons of spent grain from landfills each year is going to take time. But two years in, with just its signature flour plus a pancake and waffle mix, Grain4Grain has already upcycled 60,000 pounds of spent grain — and it’s clear that even greater impact is brewing.
Spend for good: Head over to Grain4Grain’s site to shop their products and learn more about their wholesale purchase options for commercial bakers and large projects. (Currently, small orders are fulfilled by Amazon, so Prime members will save on shipping.) Also, be sure to sign up for their newsletter at the bottom of their homepage for 15% off your first order! And if you’re in Texas or northeast Mexico, use Grain4Grain’s store locator to find them at an H-E-B store close to you.
Subscribe for good: Every week we offer original reporting to help you create a better world with the money you’re spending, anyway. Be sure you never miss a story! Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.