Beer is always just passing through, but a Belgian brewery wants to take recycling to the next level.
The Brussels Beer Project says it’s the first in Europe to turn old bread into beer, and then use brewing waste to make bread.
The small brewery was established in 2013 in the heart of Belgium’s capital with the idea of reinventing the traditional Belgian brewery. It uses unsold bread as the basis for its “Babylone” beer — a name inspired by ancient Mesopotamia, where people used to drink a fermented beer made with bread.
“Bread is the most wasted food product in Brussels and its suburbs,” said Sébastien Morvan, the company’s co-founder, explaining that the company has recycled about 50 tons of bread since it first started brewing Babylone beer in 2015.
The idea is spreading.
“We shared the recipe with Tristram Stuart [an environmental and food campaigner] which led to the creation of Toast Ale,” a London-based brewery recycling bread into beer, Morvan said. The British brewery says it has already saved 42 tons of CO2 emissions since its creation in 2016.
“We’re not putting a patent on circular economy,” Morvan said, noting that big breweries are now recycling that idea.
AB InBev, Belgium’s beer giant, last year donated unsold barrels of its Leffe beer during the coronavirus pandemic to La Lorraine bakery to make bread destined for food banks.
The Brussels Beer Project is now closing the loop by producing flour from the spent grains of the brewing process, which is sold to local bakeries.
In October 2019, Brussels Beer Project launched another zero-waste beer, dubbed Tough Cookie, using broken Speculoos cookies, the spicy treats that are a Belgian staple. The Maison Dandoy bakery then uses the spent grains from the brewing process to bake new cookies. The spent grains were also reused by the local Savonneries Bruxelloises to make exfoliating soap.
As it’s grown, the company is becoming ever greener. Although beer is made from ingredients like water, hops and malt, it is pretty energy-intensive and uses a lot of water.
Brussels Beer Project “was first driven by social entrepreneurship and the idea of having a local impact,” Morvan said. “The environment wasn’t a priority when we started in 2013, but just like society evolves, we learned.” Environmental awareness started growing in “the last two or three years” and thanks to a push from some of the employees, “our objective now is to become a zero-waste brewery and aim toward zero plastic waste.”
The company wants to create an environmental board that would sit next to its executive board. It also recently committed to reduce its water and electricity consumption, as well as its organic waste by 10 percent annually, be carbon neutral within the next two years and offset all its CO2 emissions since the start of the brewery.
Brussels Beer Project wants its second brewery — currently under construction — to be as energy efficient as possible. “Our objective is to be self-sufficient with our electricity supply,” Morvan said, adding it is working with Belgian energy company Bolt to create green biomass from the brewery’s organic waste to produce power.
Carlsberg plans to use only renewable electricity by next year, and to have zero carbon emissions from its breweries by 2030. AB InBev aims to use only renewable power by 2025 and to cut its CO2 emissions by 25 percent by that year.
Recognizable by its colorful marketing and creative, experimental beers inspired by the travels of co-founders Morvan and Olivier De Brauwere, Brussels Beer Project also operates five bars (two in Brussels, two in Paris and one in Tokyo) and exports worldwide. But with green consciousness growing, the company is questioning whether it should continue exporting beyond Europe.
“Overseas export is less a priority now than it was at the beginning,” Morvan said, explaining that the company is trying to minimize its carbon footprint by focusing on its priority markets — Brussels, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.
Brussels Beer Project isn’t the only brewery in town taking efforts in going green.
Yvan De Baets, co-founder of Brasserie de la Senne, said his new brewery, built in 2019, is only supplied with renewable energy coming from rooftop solar panels. It is also collecting rainwater, recovering heat from the brewing process and reusing CO2 produced by other industries.
“Our brewery waste, like spent grains, are recycled. We either give them to a local farmer, who uses them as cattle feed, to a company here in Brussels that grows mushrooms or to another that makes crackers,” he continued, adding: “Within the team, everybody is very aware of environmental issues.”
But “this costs a lot of money,” De Baets said. The solar panels wouldn’t have been possible without subsidies from the Brussels region.
Flanders’ Huyghe Brewery invested €35 million to upgrade its machines, save energy and reduce waste. It is also among the 14 signatories of the 2018 Green Deal with the Flemish government committing to reduce their water consumption.
The trend is picking up in the rest of the EU.
“A majority of the big brewers have set their vision for carbon neutrality either by 2025, by 2030 or by 2040,” said Drahomíra Mandíková, chair of the sustainability experts group of Brewers of Europe, a trade association. Decarbonization in the brewery sector “has accelerated recently, especially with the development of renewable electricity as a solution,” she added.
The lobby group, which represents more than 11,000 breweries, made sustainability a priority three years ago, focusing on sharing best practices notably on water and energy savings, as well as reducing packaging waste and making packaging easier to recycle, Mandíková said.
Still, the new wave of green beers has less of an ick factor than the Pisner produced by Danish brewer Nørrebro Bryghus, made from barley grown on fields irrigated with urine collected from festival-goers at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in 2015.
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