Food waste is an unseen problem all around us. Over a third of the food produced goes to waste every year. But Elizabeth Yorke and her initiative Saving Grains have found a way to make a difference by upcycling spent brewery grains into bakery goods in Bangalore.
Bread and beer. Two words that can brighten up even the darkest day. Though they may seem like an unlikely pairing today, they were once considered history’s ultimate culinary collab. As far back as Ancient Egypt and even before that, bakers and brewers were often found in the same building, making beer and bread in adjacent rooms. And when it came to ingredients, they shared more than just a few sacks of flour.
Both bakers and brewers used the same main ingredients of grain yeast and water, so while brewers used barley, wheat, and rye to make beer, bakers used those same spent grains to make bread. So it only made sense that they would collaborate and share their resources and many consider this partnership to be a significant impetus for the development of agriculture and civilisation.
This symbiotic relationship was a type of effortless sustainability that was typical of the food systems of ancient civilisations. India was especially efficient when it came to localised food production and the phrase ‘waste not, want not’ was practically etched into every stage of the agricultural process.
But somewhere down the line, local, seasonal and efficient eating habits that utilised every ingredient to the fullest gave way to mass production which in turn created masses of waste. According to a recent Food Index Report by the United Nations Environment Programme, it’s estimated that a third of food produced worldwide ends up going to waste, and it’s smaller businesses and communities that have taken up the challenge to close that gap.
Elizabeth Yorke, a Bengaluru-based Chef turned Food Researcher, co-founder of the food publication Edible Issues, and champion for sustainability in food systems has found her own way to contribute to the cause. She started the organisation ‘Saving Grains’ in 2021, as a way to utilise one of the city’s most thriving F&B sectors – microbreweries – to revive that ancient partnership between baker and brewer.
Where It All Began
“I spent about 7 years in and out of the kitchen but there was always a curiosity looming about where my food was coming from and where it went,” Elizabeth says, recalling what drove her to start Saving Grains. “I wanted to know everything from waste management and reduction to marketing to social media and how all of that played into my role as a chef in the food system. It sparked a drive in me to go out and intern at different places and then bring the knowledge back and apply it in the kitchen.”
The idea was first gestated when the restaurant she was working at was working on perfecting their breakfast menu and they couldn’t quite nail the perfect a Tartine Sourdough Country Loaf. “In our little hot kitchen in Indiranagar it was so hard to ferment anything,” she laughs, “It would either be too acidic or underproofed, it just wasn't right.” This doughy dilemma led her to analyse the science behind bread and how it could be the key to the perfect flavour.
She decided to address the root of the issue and learn more about how flour in India was made and while at the CFTRI (Central Food Technological Research Institute) in Mysore she made a startling discovery. “It was a bit scandalous to learn how the system of wheat flour was perpetuated, Wholewheat, maida, refined flour all of them,” she says, “I realised, there's so much about food that we just don't know.” She then travelled to Santa Cruz, California where she interned with Food Historian and bread specialist William Rubel where they spent days recreating 13th to 16th-century Western-focused bread. It was here she first came across the concept of spent grain from the brewing process being repurposed as flour for baking.
How It Works
“In brewing, malted wheat and barley are soaked in hot water and most of the carbs come out into the liquid,” explains Elizabeth, “This then goes to fermenting, becomes beer and you're left with this solid porridge mass of malted wheat and barley which contains mostly protein and fibre. We were looking at this ingredient and the other byproduct of the process – spent yeast – and trying to understand the relationships in play and how they had what we’d call today, a closed loop circular system.”
A closed loop circular system is a sustainable food system that operates on the principle of minimising waste, maximising resource efficiency, and connecting all parts of the production cycle. In this case, brewers and bakers would share water, grain and yeast to yield two very different products. Ideally, the leftover bread would then be given to the brewers who would brew more beer, create more spent grain and yeast for the baker and the cycle would continue.
She started playing around with the concept and quickly realised this was the solution she had been looking for, “What hit me first was flavour, it checked off all of those boxes to getting the perfect sourdough,” says Elizabeth, “ but then tried more with this really tasty flour I realised it has extremely high fibre content, about 46% fibre and 23% protein which can go up to high as 28% as well. It was like gold, it was what all plant-based companies are chasing, something that lives up to what people want and what people need.”
Making The Dream A Reality
Building on her passion, she became a research student at the Future Food Institute’s Food Innovation Program in Italy, focussing on circular and sustainable food systems at a global level as well as sustainable modules. She brought this knowledge and experience to fruition and created Saving Grains, which, modelled with a community approach, would become Banglalore’s solution to upcycling spent grains.
In December 2021, Saving Grains officially partnered with Geist Brewery Co., a Bangalore microbrewery which, as a zero liquid discharge brewery, was already aligned with a sustainability ethos. Since then they’ve also gone on to enlist microbreweries across the city.
The spent grain is picked up from the breweries after the first mash, brought back to their facility at the Kutumba Community Centre, dried and milled into flour and then made into rotis and other products. Their work is an extension of the Kutumba Kitchen Project which really highlights Elizabeth’s vision to put people and the community at the centre of her circular food economy.
The Challenges At Hand
The work going on at Saving Grains seems like such an effortless progression of events that it may leave you asking, ‘Well, why haven’t people been doing this all along?’ But as Elizabeth explains, there are more than a few pain points they had to address before they got to this point. “The response is very mixed,” she admits, “a lot of people see this as a “waste” product and a lot of people questioning why they should eat something that was going to be thrown away. I think that comes with the ways in which we’ve grown up to think food has to be fresh but they don’t realise that lot of things in the food system that are actually by-products and we just don’t realise it.”
Another big issue came with educating the microbrewers themselves. “Not a lot of breweries understand the potential of their own by-product. They all use high-quality imported grain but they don’t know that it can do more” says Elizabeth. And although there are other companies doing similar work, such as Waste-Ed in Kolkata, she’s gunning for even more people to join this space, and soon. “We need to have that larger conversation about how we can participate in these different by-products and there's nothing wrong with it is perfectly, delicious and healthy.”
Another huge factor as to why this hasn’t been done before was simply the logistics of it all. For breweries on the outskirts of cities, the spent grain is usually utilised as cattle feed, which is an area Saving Grains did not want to interfere with. But for their purposes, they needed the spent grain quickly as it deteriorates quickly after the mashing process. That’s where how they found a sweet spot within the city limits, especially around the centre where around 60 microbreweries were scattered.
“We set up in Bangalore City for a reason,” says Elizabeth, “With around 200 kilos of spent grain per brewery per day, so there are about 10-14,000 kilos in fragmented buckets around Bangalore. We don't want to drive in Bangalore traffic so how can we expect a cattle farmer to drive all the way to pick up like an insignificant amount of grain you know?.”
The Future of Saving Grains
Education and community have always been on the masthead of operations at Saving Grains and today with their range of products like Upcycled Grain Granola, Laddoos, Chikki, Good Cookies, Good Flour and more, they’ve found a way to reach an even wider audience. “We are really focused on small-scale impactful models. We have our prototype of our micro kitchen running, but there’s much more to explore,” says Elizabeth.
“Cities produce a lot of byproducts. Kombucha for example. There are about 60 tiny brands around and mostly use very expensive tea which gets steeped only once. It's a lot of extra work for a small company to repurpose, but we've created a portfolio of recipes from whether it's kombucha with cheese whey, orange peels, or coffee grounds that we're able to repurpose into different things. We're already kind of building towards that goal through partnerships and conversations through concepts like The Serial Upcyclers Club - A meet-up for people curious about upcycling food-by-product. .” With their expanded range of products, Elizabeth is confident that this route to upcycling is only going to continue to grow in popularity and spread across different projects.
In food, as with most things in life, practices are cyclical. Trends always loop around and as we come back to exploring spent grain as a valued resource again, it seems our culinary history is making itself known and – with the help of Saving Grains – the once-treasured connection between beer and bread is being reforged.