Roaring from the rooftops

Through its advocacy for circular brewing, Danish brewery, BRØL, is changing minds and opening hearts to the potential of our food waste systems to radically improve the way we live


I probably shouldn’t admit this, but when I first heard about BRØL, a Danish brewery combating food-waste by making beer from unused bread, I immediately thought of the brew kit, and the poor soul tasked with ridding clogged pipes of bloated, foamy crumbs. CEO and co-founder Saimon Skurichin is amused by this and tells me that for all BRØL has found a way around the issue, working with bread instead of malt doesn’t wreak as much havoc on a mash tun as you’d think. In fact, he says any brewery could work with bread if it wanted to. With a background in engineering, you can take Saimon’s word for it, but interestingly enough, it was his experience as a chef and grassroots activist that really brought BRØL to life. 

Before ever trying his hand at brewing, Saimon ran a non-profit that fought food waste by collecting unsold perishables and turning them into meals for half a million people every year. Over 40% of the food we produce goes to waste, and with baked goods representing the most wasted category of food it’s no surprise that Saimon’s project frequently struggled to process the volume of bread donated. He began searching for other ways that donated bread could be meaningfully used if his team of volunteers couldn’t incorporate it all into meals for people. With the composition of bread and beer being so similar, using one to make the other seemed an obvious solution, but just a single, small-batch brew proved to Saimon that beer could only be one part of the solution to his problem. 

“What I understood really early on was that this little project of mine — taking some surplus bread and making beer out of it — was not going to work,” says Saimon. “From the first brew that we did, I saw how much bread we managed to repurpose, but also how much waste we produced; all the spent grain, all the spent hops, all the spent yeast. I started to imagine what a circular brewery might look like; what that would mean, how it would need to be designed from scratch, and what kind of relationships we would need to have to actually minimise waste. All that would have to also improve the financial aspects of the craft brewery because it's not that easy to be a brewery and maintain financial sustainability.”

In this formative, exploratory stage, Saimon obviously did a lot of research and visited as many breweries as possible to learn about how operations worked there. In particular, he focused on micro breweries — which exemplified how it was possible to operate on a small scale — macro breweries — that invest billions in optimising systems that allowed them to squeeze the most out of the raw materials used — and sake breweries — which used a different substrate and process to produce alcohol. Saimon’s conclusion, after all this research, was that “if we use proper design principles, focus on quality and the circularity of reusing things to minimise the waste, our systems should be flexible enough that we’d actually have a lot of opportunities to produce a lot of different beverages”.

I’m curious what such a brewery might look like. Saimon says that the brewery BRØL now calls home, and which he designed from scratch, has a lot of tweaks and adjustments to thank for its ability to work in a multidimensional way. The shining star of operations, however, is unquestionably its mash filter. This bizarre looking piece of equipment not only allows the brewery to make a mash out of more or less anything — grain, bread, flour, fruit skins, veg pulp, coffee, you name it — but it gathers particulate extracted from the wort in such a controlled, consistent way that it can be used in the production of other goods. 

Mash filters are unusual but not unheard of in microbreweries, which would ordinarily use a lauter tun to separate mash solids from wort. Mash filters are expensive, but allow wort to be filtered with an exceptional degree of precision. Where a lauter tun separates the wort from the mash by allowing the wort to filter through the mash bed, and out the bottom of the tank, a mash filter operates laterally, essentially pushing the wort through a series of filters. With outlets along the way, the mash filter allows wort to be extracted from the mash at any point in the process, meaning the brewer has ultimate control over how much particulate they want to strip or retain. 

Saimon, CEO & Founder

Critically though, where a lauter tun is designed to work with grains (as grain husk makes up an important part of the mash bed that the wort sinks and settles through) the mash filter can draw fermentable liquid out of almost anything. “That basically opened us up to be curious and to play with a lot of different beverages,” says Saimon. “We can make upcycled cocktails, beer, cider, and we’re developing upcycled cola, upcycled energy drinks, wines, it just goes on and on. There’s no ceiling anymore. It’s cool to work with from a flavour perspective, and from a partnership perspective, it's really awesome because you can interact with so many more different partners.”

When Saimon refers to the brewery’s partnerships, he’s talking both about the suppliers BRØL sources unsold perishables from, and the companies it gives its waste products to for repurposing. When Saimon refers to the circularity within the brewery, he’s not talking about feeding spent grain to cows, which by all accounts is admirable, but falls short of the radical potential Saimon sees in brewery waste.

“If someone has been calling spent grain ‘waste’, maybe we need to revisit that,” says Saimon. “Because there's so much nutritional value in it. And especially for us, when we produce things organically, that ingredient is much more expensive. So just automatically we started looking at how we can offset that. Well, we have this organic spent grain that's full of protein, full of fibre, and these are all things that are missing in so many of our diets… I mean come on, why aren’t we using this? These are things that have been traditionally stripped out of flour, and now people want to add it back in, so why wouldn’t you use spent grain to do that?” 

Convincing potential partners of this logic shouldn’t be hard, but Saimon says that it often is. People are often stuck in their ways, and to some extent, don’t appreciate unsolicited suggestions that they could do things differently. Saimon says that, in many ways, finding useful homes for the by-products of brewing is the hardest part, because you either have to find partners that share that belief in the importance of circularity, or impart that vision to them. That said, Saimon insists that “everything has to be a partnership, we can't do it alone. If we were taking in all kinds of food, turning it into a drink and then using the waste to produce something else, we'd be a business of everything. We need partners, we need those growers, we need bakers.” 

Saimon is no stranger to mobilising and coordinating keen collaborators, but it’s precisely his experience working in grassroots activist communities, and non-profit organisations that make me wonder why he transitioned into the for-profit business world. When I ask him this, he sighs. 

“It was confusing at that time when it was happening,” he begins. “I’ve kept reflecting on it, and talking about it and it makes sense to me now. To be honest, I wanted to stay in academia. I had some ideas but they were a little bit different from the university’s. I thought my research could be very pragmatic, and actually work with existing problems to produce tangible outcomes, but it became clear that the university’s emphasis was more on publication and it saddened me a little bit.”

In the end, Saimon couldn’t wait for the university to become interested in what he was seeing unfold in real time, and so he rounded up a bunch of volunteers and started redistributing unsold food. “That was going great. I mean, impact wise, community building wise it was just amazing,” says Saimon. “Everyone should try building or joining a non-profit, at some point. But what became apparent to me is that the financial side of running a non-profit is…” he trails off, and after a long pause concludes by saying “I don’t know how people do it. Most of your money is coming from funding schemes, so there are a lot of applications, but more challenging than that is competing with other nonprofits. That didn’t feel right at all, like who’s more worth it? Come on.”

Saimon says that he suggested incorporating the manufacturing and sale of products into operations at the organisation, so that it could generate at least some of the revenue it needed to cover running costs, but some committee members didn’t agree with that, and Saimon couldn’t blame them. He says that not-for-profit organisations attract passionate people, keen to take compassionate action, and introducing a commercial element to that landscape can be really off-putting. The other side of that, however, is that even passionate, compassionate people need to make a living, and so turnover is often high, and makes for a barrier to long-term progression. 

Saimon left the nonprofit world with the same passion that drove him into it, and a clearer picture of how he could make an impact. “At the time that we started BRØL I actually didn’t know much Danish [Saimon is from Lithuania], so my thinking behind the name for the brewery is that it would just be an amalgamation for the Danish for bread plus beer, brød plus øl. I later learned that in Danish, brøl actually means ‘to roar’. Having a background in activism and then looking for a way into the more commercial kind of space, finding that out felt like we were meant to be this business that had found a way to balance commercial activity with an ability to make an impact.”

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