Something from nothing

Anthony Gladman finds out how breweries are finding new life for their spent grain.


London’s Makerversity occupies a honeycomb warren of stairways, corridors and interconnecting rooms beneath Somerset House. The ‘makers’ — technologists, engineers, artists etc. — who inhabit its co-working spaces and workshops aren’t used to their neighbours’ projects smelling of much beyond solder, solvent or sawdust. But the workbenches belonging to one trio of young industrial and product designers smell different. Less like a factory floor and more like a brewery or kitchen.

Oksana Bondar, Poppy Pippin and Nanna Guldbaek (better known in the beer world as Art-Director for Norwegian brewery Lervig) have banded together as Luna Lab and, in a corner of a whitewashed basement room, are busy creating brand new sustainable materials. Their raw ingredients are brewery byproducts, gross-sounding stuff that’s usually sent to landfill or washed down a drain: spent grain and trub, hop-gunk and sediment scraped from the bottom of the mash tun.

“Actually it's quite beautiful. Let me show you,” says Guldbaek, diving into a little fridge set under a worktop. She pulls out a scuffed plastic tub, the type that might once have held cheap ice cream, and peels back the lid to reveal a slick of startlingly purple gloop. She tells me it’s sediment from a blackcurrant beer she picked up at Wild Card brewery the week before. “As soon as you open that one it has like a…” She stops and sniffs. “It smells like something you want to eat.”

Although she’s known for her artwork, Guldbaek actually studied industrial and product design. She was only part-way through her first year of the course when she started working at Lervig and saw first-hand the waste a brewery produces. Not long after, she started asking questions about what actually happens to these materials.

About 85% of brewery waste is spent grain. (The stuff left behind once brewers have extracted the sugars they need from malted barley, wheat etc.) Global production of this averages about 42 million tonnes each year, much of which will end up in landfill. Jaega Wise, Head Brewer at Wild Card, fills four 240-litre wheelie bins with spent grain every week.

“We pay lots of money to dispose of our waste in a safe manner,” Wise tells me. And while there are some alternative uses for it, for example as animal feed, these can have their problems too. Like so many new breweries, Wild Card is an urban business. With only so many farms in the outskirts of London, there aren’t enough animals to get through all the spent grain being produced. There’s also animal farming’s contribution to climate change to consider.

Luna Lab’s request to collect some of Wild Card’s spent grain was a welcome one, then. But Wise was surprised when Luna Lab started to ask for other waste material as well. “The volume of yeast and hop matter that we have is also quite large and can very easily be forgotten about, especially in comparison to malt,” says Wise. But until now, no further uses have been found for this material. Much of it, Wise suspects, ends up being washed down the drain despite that being illegal. “You'll get in a lot of trouble with Thames Water,” she says.

In Luna Lab’s workshop these dead-end materials are given new life. Early prototypes tell of how Pippin, Bondar and Guldbaek were still discovering their process, which involves dehydrating the raw ingredients, blending them and mixing them with organic fixatives, and using a heat press. “We're trying to keep the processes to a minimum so there's not going to be a brute force, like there usually is in manufacturing,” says Guldbaek. “So it's natural material and sticks to the sustainability theme. The less energy we use, the less brute force and electricity we use, the better.“

This means there is no need for a gas mask, no health and safety concerns for the maker or the end user. “This is completely transforming or reimagining the way things are made,” says Bondar. Luna Lab say their processes are so clean that you can eat off the same surface where the material is made.

I pick up a chunk of the stuff, slightly smaller than a tennis ball. It is much lighter than it looks, with a slightly rough texture, but strong too. It is the murky greenish colour of used hops. “All the materials that you see here are 100% natural,” Bondar tells me. “There is nothing toxic added. It's all organic.

This is just one piece from an array of experiments. Most of them are flat, with differing densities and textures. Some are smooth, some rough. Some are thin, almost flexible, like dried seaweed or leather. Some are thicker, almost like wood. They hope to develop material strong enough to replace plywood or chipboard, that can be used to make furniture or even structural elements for taprooms and bars.

Most exciting of all is the material made from Wild Card’s blackcurrant beer sediment. It is immediately appealing. I find myself wanting to touch it again and again, to pick it up and manipulate it in my hands. To smell it. Hell, I really want to chew on it. (But I manage to refrain from that.) It is a vibrant deep red, semitransparent with a satin sheen. It is soft and pliable, smooth on one side and textured on the other. It looks like fruit leather.

Luna Lab are moving fast and have already moved beyond simply producing materials. They also have prototype products: beer mats and cutlery. Guldbaek explains that the material made from spent grains is particularly suited to these uses. “The beauty is they're not 100% waterproof. But when it comes to cutlery and single cutlery and plastic, we don't want it to be forever. We want it to last as long as I'm eating my sandwich, and then we want it to disappear and be part of a natural circle again.”

Luna Labs cutlery can be composted after use, or simply thrown in the ground where it will quickly decompose. It can even be implanted with seeds that will germinate and grow where the cutlery is buried.

At Wild Card, Wise is already excited about this. “That would be brilliant if you had something that was stable enough for you to eat with, but would break down in a few weeks. So it wouldn't have lasting effects. We do a lot of stuff with food vendors here, and we have so many plastic forks and stuff like that. Plastic consumables, so many we have to throw away. So for us, that sort of stuff would be great.”

As for the fruit-leather-like material, Bondar says they see it replacing food packaging. It could easily wrap around the sort of street food served at taprooms or festivals, where people often eat standing up and plates are not really practical. This material too would decompose quickly once it was no longer required.

As you might imagine, Luna Lab are not the only company looking to unlock the hidden value of brewery byproducts. Marmite has been making its yeast extract in Burton-on-Trent since 1902 using spent yeast. Now Dutch startup FUMI Ingredients has developed a method of extracting protein from spent yeast that can be used as a vegan replacement for egg whites. “Egg whites are the hardest ingredients to replace in food products,” says its co-founder Corjan van den Berg.

Van den Berg tells me the interest they have received in their egg white replacer is “really truly overwhelming”. Food companies, in particular those producing vegetarian products, have been quick to see the potential. “They ditch their egg whites ingredient, replace it with ours, and then instead of just having a vegetarian product they now can become vegan.”

It’s not just vegans who stand to gain from FUMI’s new product. Van den Berg found that 1kg of egg whites represents about 40kg of CO2 equivalent. “It's really a huge environmental burden,” he says. But FUMI’s egg white replacement can offer a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. “You only need 1kg of CO2 equivalent to produce the spent yeast; we will also have about 1kg of CO2 emissions in our process. So in the end you end up with something like 2kg of CO2 per kilogram of egg white replacer, and that of course means a 95% reduction of CO2 equivalent. So it's a huge, huge step.”

Van den Berg, an engineer, says he hates to see inefficiencies in our society, but that sometimes these can also be opportunities. “There are so many beautiful things coming together here where you get the opportunity to go for a vegan product which is made from what you could otherwise consider a waste stream. That is the beauty for me. This is what I'm really excited about.”

While FUMI’s egg white replacer is aimed at commercial customers, you may well see Luna Lab’s products in your own hands before long. Bondar tells me Luna Lab has already received a lot of interest from people wanting to place orders, and they have found a manufacturer ready to make their products at scale. Wise is amazed at the determination displayed by Guldbaek, Pippin and Bondar. “I can't believe how quickly they did it, from concept to actual product.” Of the blackcurrant beer she says: “The beers weren't even packaged yet. The beer was in tank still. And they've already made that fruit leather type thing.”

This is just the beginning for Luna Lab, who have hit upon one of those ideas that seem so obviously good it’s hard to believe no one has thought of it before. Guldbaek, Bondar and Pippin are ready to make an impact on the world, just months after graduating from university. As I prepare to leave our interview, Pippin mentions one last request: she wants me to tell the world that Luna Lab needs funds. Investors, get your wallets out. I think this has the potential to be big.

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