Bread winners

Bread beers have been knocking around for millennia, but how (and why) are modern brewers tackling the style?


Thousands of years ago, or so it’s said, an ancient race of star-gazing farmers called the Sumerians mixed their life-sustaining daily bread into a nourishing drink made with the fermented run-off from their clay bread pots, and so beer became. In this civilisation, baker and brewer were once one and the same, and their power to grind grain to flour and rise flour into loaves was easily transposed into the artform of creating alcohol. It was all part of that same mysterious spell of fermentation.

Of course, over time stories convert, and although we have a 3900 year old Mesopotamian poem honouring the goddess of brewing, it may well be that no beer was ever made by the bakers of the long lost kingdom of Sumer. Stories of those astronomers and agriculturalists have lent colour to many of our modern inventions, and it would be pleasingly romantic to pursue this origin story; to pretend with all our hearts that beer and bread, the two staples of human sustenance, are linked genetically as ancestors. After all, they share the same ingredients. That’s as good as DNA. There is hard evidence of bread beer being made and stored thousands of years ago by the Egyptians. Perhaps that’s wistful enough.

What is true is that it is possible, efficient even, to brew beer from bread, and humans have been doing this for centuries. Interestingly in modern bread beer, thanks to the bread being a notable addition rather than a necessity, the flavour is as bready as the brewer wishes it to be. To learn more about the revisited culture of bread beer, we should leave the ancient Middle East and go to Brussels to speak with Sébastien Morvan, the co-founder of The Brussels Beer Project. 

Sébastien had heard of a campaign that aimed to reduce food waste in Brussels. He and food sustainability campaigner Rob Renaert talked over a beer about the tons of food waste created within the city every year. This conversation is what spurred Séb on to create Babylone, a high ABV bitter inspired and named after the mystical origins of beer itself. 

“We try to be a very different animal, especially in Brussels,” he said. “I thought of the waste and I thought of the history and I wanted to try it for ourselves. It took around two years of tests - testing the bread, testing how to prepare it, testing how and when to add it to the mash - to come out with our beer. It was the first beer made of food waste, and the first beer to be made with bread in the modern day.”

On top of using one ton of bread each month salvaged from businesses’ bins in Brussels, the bread itself is collected and sorted by vulnerable people employed by non-profit training and job coaching NGO Atelier Groot Eirland [NB. Here if you need it: ]. Jobs are being created from this one noble idea.

A noble idea it is, but it would all be for nothing if the beer was bad. So what exactly does it taste like? Bread?

“Yes indeed, I hope so,” says Sébastien. “In Babylone, 30% of the grain is substituted for bread. It’s very slight, but the sourdough brings a salty note; a crusty caramel taste. It’s very important to us to create a bread beer that stands on its own two feet.”

It was during two bottles of Babylone, which incidentally is without doubt a very good beer, in the tap room of Brussels Beer Project that Tristram Stuart decided to launch Toast Ale. Seeing the potential of a bread beer that tasted of more than the sum of its parts, he set off back to England to produce a beer that would make use of some of the mountains of surplus bread in the UK. Three years on, Toast is a fully-fledged non-profit business, with a highly active marketing team - as you may well have noticed. As well as crafting their own beers, the brewery is now also concerned with linking bakeries with breweries and vice-versa, so they can brew their own bread beer too.

Chris Head from Toast Ale is always keen to point out the social enterprise aspect of Toast’s master plan. “All the money we make is re-invested into Toast, or passed on to Feedback (a food charity). All of our investors have pledged in writing that any money they make from Toast has to be re-invested in another social enterprise or charity.”

Unlike Sébastien, some of the breweries involved in creating bread beers with Toast have used surplus bread simply as an addition to their malt bill, hoping for as little bready character to carry through as possible. A NEIPA made with Craft Academy called Crust Academy aimed to be as true to its hazy, hoppy style as possible. A collaboration brew with Stroud Brewery turned unsold Hobbs House bread into Melba - a dry, crisp beer that moves away from the idea of sweet, cereal flavours. Craddocks brewery in Droitwitch finds bread so beneficial to their brewing process that they now create 1300l of bread beer every five weeks - and are about to open a not-for-profit tap room to sell it in called The Good Intent. The idea is gathering steam across the country too. Stottie is an unfiltered dunkel hefewiesen brewed with surplus bread by Hartlepool’s own Cameron’s brewery in conjunction with Toast (they are literally EVERYWHERE when it comes to bread beer) that was launched in every Head of Steam pub across England in November.

In Reigate, a brewery called Crumbs has gathered local loaves together to create their own version of sustainable, responsible brews. Their beer, including a Rye Coffee Porter brewed with surplus bread and coffee grounds, is based on two things, according to Morgan Arnell the “chief crumber” of the brewery: The quality of the bread, and the positivity of the message. Morgan’s brewery started independently after noticing how much bread was wasted in his local café. Knowing a little bit about bread beers that already existed (Babylone being the main inspiration once again), he took his surplus bread to Campden BRI to see how he could get the most out of it. In their mashing trials they tried putting the bread in whole, toasting it and crumbing it - and just exactly as Goldilocks predicted, the third time was a charm. 

“We use bread as a quarter of our mash,” says Morgan, “and crumbing it really helps break down the starches. The taste of the bread informs how we brew with it. Our Blooming Amber Lager started off with a Belgian yeast but the flavour was too overpowering. We decided to choose an Austrian ale yeast instead to better compliment the flavours within the finished beer. It helps bring that sweet, malty taste forward. In our Sourdough beer, we’ve had chefs tell us they can taste the funkiness of the bread’s starter in there. I’m not sure about that, but there’s definitely a depth there that I really enjoy.”

Back in Brussels in his brewery that started it all like some sort of ethical mother dough, Sébastien says he’s particularly happy to brew un-Belgian beer with a very Belgian message. “Here there’s a saying - that a beer can be like two slices of bread. Our beer really is. It makes me very proud.”

You’ll see much more of bread beer in 2019. You could even call it a trend to look out for. It’s great to see breweries looking out for ways to take part in charity work, and even better to see people starting to think about the problem of food waste, but don’t sip that bottle all high-and-mighty. This isn’t a cure for a wasteful society. This is a partial ingredient in a water-heavy industry that relies on grain, which will be spiking in cost as the year goes on. The subtleties of grain’s flavour will never be overtaken by bread, and many brewers would laugh at the idea - in a mean way too, not with a hearty chuckle. Don’t be taken in by goodwill alone. Remember, one brewer’s well-meaning charity collab is another’s cynical marketing ploy. Always trust your taste buds.

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