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Major brewery in Spain investigates whether 'waste' by-product from beer brewing process could be converted into snack
Food and drink

Major brewery in Spain investigates whether 'waste' by-product from beer brewing process could be converted into snack

Millions of tonnes of bagasse, now considered potentially very valuable by the industry, are generated when the alcoholic beverage is produced

Raquel C. Pico

Madrid

Tuesday, 16 April 2024, 18:23

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Before beer becomes a favourite alcoholic beverage, it is a cereal. The transformation involves a brewing process and, as with wine, it generates bagasse, the dry pulpy fibrous material that remains after crushing sugarcane or sorghum stalks to extract their juice. In Europe alone, just over seven million tonnes of it is produced each year, according to calculations by the European Life Brewery project.

A collaboration between Blendhub and Hijos de Rivera (the Spanish company behind Estrella Galicia) is now looking for "innovative foods" for humans to consume. They are doing this through ImpacTaste, a platform open to final year university students and those doing a PhD, to think of new ideas for the food industry. The aim is for them to come up with potential new drinks or even new types of snacks that give new life to bagasse. The limit is what the students' imagination can come up with.

But the truth is that the bagasse no longer ends up in the bin. Far from it. Sagrario Sáez, Heineken's sustainability director, does not talk about waste when asked about bagasse because, as she pointed out, it is a by-product. "It is a waste that we don't treat as waste," she said, something that is common to the brewing industry .

Does bagasse have nutritional value?

In fact, its use predates even the talk of circular economy. Both Heineken and Hijos de Rivera say bagasse has been used for decades. It is something "that has been around forever", Sáez pointed out.

What remains after filtering is the rest of the cereal, which is rich in fibre or protein, she added. "It is gold for the food industry," Sáez said. So not using it in this way - and Europe has already experimented with converting it into biomass - would be "a waste". "This waste is very valuable for the planet if it is converted into animal feed," she added.

Bagasse

80% waste

The rest of the grain, called bagasse, makes up 80% of the waste generated by the brewing industry.

This is precisely what the industry is now devoting itself to. Hijos de Rivera's, for example, is going to complete the feeding of cattle. "As we have a large herd in Galicia, it is capable of absorbing all that we produce," said the company, which works with 100 Galician cooperatives and some in the west of Leon and Asturias.

It is also a well-received product. "We try to ensure that the distribution is equitable according to the size of the cooperative; not by selling to the highest bidder, but with price agreements, so that everyone can benefit from this by-product," they pointed out.

How is this by-product obtained?

The process is not complicated. Sáez pointed out the steps that lead from the fermentation of the beer to the feeding trough for the cattle. It goes from the cooking process to silos, from which the lorries that take it to the primary sector are loaded. "It's a continuous process, otherwise the factory would collapse," she said.

And bagasse is not alone. Sáez said bagasse makes up about 80% of the waste, but there is also 13% of the yeast, about 2% of the alcohol or 3% of materials such as glass or paper. Wastewater is even managed in the factories.

The desired objective is to make use of each and every one of these wastes. At Heineken, Sáez pointed out, they are already recovering 99.7% of their waste. What is left out is that which is already "very difficult" to manage. What is usable is usable.

Among others, yeast has a life parallel to that of bagasse and is used for animal feed, in this case for pigs; glass is returned to its circuit, to be turned back into bottles; and alcohol - for example, that which is removed from beverages that do not have it - is turned into cleaning vinegar, or hydro alcohol like during the Covid-19 pandemic.

What is its main potential?

Even so, research continues. Sáez pointed out the potential to make a full circular cycle out of material such as glass.

They also continue to collaborate in R&D studies in those materials already used, such as bagasse, in which they are looking for other solutions with potential for better use, such as high-protein animal feed, fly larvae for final animal feed (e.g. in fish farms) or for use as a substitute for plastic.

This is also what Hijos de Rivera is doing with this recently presented university project. "Right now, 100% of what is generated is being valorised," they said when asked why they continue to look for new uses for bagasse. "It is not a by-product that causes a problem," they said.

An example of circular economy

If production continues to grow, it could be, and with new ways of valorising it, be needed. "But within an innovative company, you always have to be looking for possibilities, because you never know where an innovation process will lead you," they added. Working with university students could help to enhance the university's innovation culture and provide them with unexpected solutions.

Even if you have such good achievement data, can you continue to improve, or do you reach a ceiling at some point? "You never reach a ceiling here," Sáez said. There is always something more that can be done. All this work in the circular economy is, at the end of the day, "to have more efficient factories that are kinder to the environment and the society around us".

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