How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spent Grains

My love for bread baking was sparked by the breads I encountered while living in San Francisco and traveling in France. It led to my very popular farmers’ market stand, and eventually to my bakery on Main Street.

Bread bakers are a very generous group of people and my training involved meeting and baking with many of my heroes, such as Craig Ponsford, a gold-medal winner at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris inspiring an entire generation of American bakers. Since then, he has become an explorer and innovator. In 2014 I attended a workshop led by Craig focused on high-extraction flour; this is whole grain flour with just the largest particles of bran sifted out resulting in a flour that functions more like white flour but has more of the flavor and nutrition of whole grain flour. We planned our test bakes with a series of baguettes and began with a discussion of why we would do such a thing that the French would consider blasphemy: baguettes must be made with white flour.  What Craig said next was truly the beginning of my journey as a baker. After admitting to being more of a junk-food-junkie than a health-nut when it came to his own eating habits, he stated that as a baker who prepares food for others to consume, he feels an obligation to make the healthiest choices of ingredients. If we know that white flour has virtually no nutritional value (after we have used industrial steel rollers to remove it from the wheat), then why would we make food from it and serve?

Of course, this does not mean sacrificing flavor or texture, it means working a little harder to discover the right process to make a delicious product. Once we free ourselves from the oppression of white flour, an entire new world of flavor opens up to us. High hydration and long-slow-fermentation helps overcome some of the things that make whole grain flours difficult to work with, and as bread bakers share ideas and inspire each other, we have become fearless about experimenting with new and old grains.

As I began to explore this new world of grains in my bread, several of my friends were creating amazing flavors of their own in home-brewed beers. I began collecting their grains to experiment with thinking that although these “spent” grains have already given all of their flavor over to the beers they were used to create, it would at least sound interesting to call it Pale Ale Bread, or a Oatmeal Stout Boule. What surprised me was just how much flavor was left in these grains. When mixed with sourdough and fermented a good long time, the flavors became even more pronounced. Maybe I was on to something?

The more I learned about spent grains the less “spent” they seemed. In fact, after being cooked in the mash, much of the sugars and starch are drained off in the water to eventually become the beer. What is left is a grain that is high in nutrients, fiber, and protein: a SUPER GRAIN!

Last year, according to the Brewers Association, nearly 200,000,000 barrels of beer were brewed in the U.S. There can be as much as 100 pound of grain used to produce each barrel, resulting in an enormous pile of grain, much of which becomes animal feed or compost. Discovering that this is actually a nutritious and delicious food source in a time when the race is on to make our food systems more efficient and less resource-intensive, this is a revelation.

I have learned to love “spent” grains, but I hate the name. Craft beer grains are carefully selected by brewers for flavor, and much of that flavor remains when they are through with them. With a good proof-of-concept, like my naturally fermented craft beer grain crackers, we can convince the brewing industry that they are sitting on a valuable resource.

So, there it is. I believe that the flavors of spent brewer’s grains are worth celebrating, and that is exactly what my naturally fermented crackers do. But I don’t want you to just take my word for it. I want you to try my crackers and see for yourself.