One brewer’s trash is a brewing student’s nutrient rich treasure
OLDS, Alta. — In his first week enrolled in Olds College’s Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Program, Alex Villeneuve saw opportunity in what’s normally considered a byproduct of beer.
Although useless to brewers, the high fibre grain was an ideal substrate for mushrooms that typically grow on trees. He decided to test the viability of the grain as a medium for oyster mushrooms in his dorm room closet.
While learning the brewing process, Villeneuve realized the spent grain, which is discarded after its carbohydrates are extracted during fermentation, maintained other nutritional value.
“I realized this is a high-value product,” Villeneuve said, who is now a second-year student in the program.
“We have these room checks every couple of months, essentially to make sure students aren’t growing mushrooms in their closet,” he recalled. “I had to label everything. I had to talk to RAs to make sure it was all right. It was very sketchy for a little while.”
After finding success in his dorm room closet, Villeneuve analyzed the nutrient content in his mushrooms and approached the Olds College Centre for Innovation. Through the centre, he was able to find funding and space to expand his mushroom farm. By the end of 2015, he had incorporated Ceres Solutions as his parent company.
“This is a way to add value to something that’s negatively valued or just thrown away,” he said.
To grow the mushrooms, the spent grain is mixed with mycelium (the seed) and packed in vertical bags, somewhat resembling tree trunks. For every 1,000 pounds of grain, the system is able to harvest 250 to 300 pounds of mushrooms.
“My turn around time is about two weeks,” Villeneuve said, noting the technique supports oyster, lion’s mane and shitake mushrooms. “In the wild that can take up to two seasons. It’s a little more efficient than nature.”
After the grain is used for cultivating mushrooms, Villeneuve once again recycles the byproduct.
“I dry and pelletize it, and I’m working to get it approved as livestock feed,” he said. “Nobody else in Canada has done this, so far.”
Breweries usually have three options for the spent grain; trash it, give it to a farmer or hire a composting company to collect it, which costs up to $2,000 a month. So far, Villeneuve has recruited more than a dozen breweries to supply spent grain.
“Breweries in Calgary are happy to supply the grain,” he said. “Some of them even want to pay for removal.”
As a former apprentice chef, Villeneuve was able to partner with contacts in foodservice to help market his harvest.
“We’ve been experimenting with recipes and determining the best way to serve them,” he said.
While his product is currently sold at farmers’ markets and restaurants, Villeneuve has partnered with a food distributor to grow his customer base.
A pending government grant will also allow him to increase his production to 250 to 500 pounds of mushrooms every other day.
“The grant will get me enough capital to invest in a very large facility,” Villeneuve said.
“Assuming I get that grant, I will be pursuing the mushroom operation for the foreseeable future.”