In search of upcycled food that actually tastes good

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I wish I could say that I only recently encountered the trend of transforming used grain into something edible, but then I’d be ignoring evidence of me eating dog treats made at a microbrewery a few years back. The worst part is that I tell Zagat on camera that “these are some of the best I’ve had,” full-on admitting that I’ve consumed pet food before.

My tastes don’t usually run so beastly. But those treats didn’t contain much more than grains, oats, honey, peanut butter, and the like, so no judgment, please. When Hops & Grain started making these things a few years ago, it was called recycling food waste. Because no one wants to eat anything deemed waste, another term is now in vogue: upcycling.

Generally, the word refers to transforming waste into something of greater value. In the gastronomy world, it usually means creatively using surplus food to make a new, often unheard-of product. In 2017, researchers found that consumers would not only accept this type of food but may even prefer and pay more for it, as they have for organic and locally made products. “They associate many of its characteristics with the natural/organic aisle (good for self, good for planet, premium),” Jonathan Deutsch, a professor at Drexel University and the co-author of the study, explained to me by email.

If you’ve ever loitered outside a bakery until closing time, you’d see how Americans can waste around 60 million tons of food per year. That’s one-third of all food, worth $160 billion. And while that might translate to free blueberry scones and garlic bagels, it’s not great for Mother Earth. Deutsch estimates that two to five percent of wasted food could be upcycled — or three million tons of food per year. A study from Future Marketing Insights, a UK consulting firm, determined that in 2019 the upcycled food market was worth $46.7 billion with a compound annual growth rate of five percent over the next decade.

My mind flashed to the last time I visited my cousin in Seattle and he told me how he foraged for groceries every week in the dumpsters behind his local Whole Foods.

But consumers preferring upcycled food? That seemed a little drastic. When I read that report, my mind flashed to the last time I visited my cousin in Seattle and he told me how he foraged for groceries every week in the dumpsters behind his local Whole Foods.

Sure, we all care about maintaining a sustainable world for our great grandchildren. But at the end of the day, there has to be something in it for us, like, now. So amid the granola bars from spent grain and protein crisps from trimmed chicken breasts, what would make me choose upcycled foods instead of products I already know and like?

It must first of all taste delicious — even more delicious than its non-upcycled counterparts to get me to pay attention. A nagging voice in my head told me that food should also probably be nutritious — in this case, it needed to be more nutritious than similar trash-producing options. And last of all, the company itself should also be innovative in the way it runs its business. Delicious, nutritious and innovative. I was ready to start tasting.

Luckily I’d already been eating one of these foods for a few years. My neighborhood bakery Runner & Stone, in Brooklyn, makes roasty, buttery bite-size cookies created with a flour from a company called Rise. After buying every batch the bakery has made and consuming them straight out of the crinkly package on the way home, I realized that Rise Flour is made from spent grain. Dog treats 2.0! This time actually for human consumption!

Rise collects used barley from dozens of New York-area microbreweries, dehydrates it almost completely, and processes it into flour. The company sells two types of flour: dark, made from spent grain used to make stout and porters, and light, made from spent grain used to make lagers and IPAs.

Upcycled shortbread from Runner & Stone Rise Products

For decades, scientists have been analyzing brewers’ spent grain, but until the past decade, few companies had stepped up to the plate to create products with it. Enter Regrained, which in 2010 began making energy bars with beer leftovers.

Co-founder Daniel Kurzrock said when he started Regrained, he expected processing to be the biggest challenge, but actually it’s been much more difficult to build the market. Now, even Anheuser-Busch is investing in companies like Zea10, which makes protein isolate, and Canvas, which makes fiber-protein shakes. “Consumers give a shit now and want products that are better for them and better for the planet,” Kurzrock said.

I’m happy to report that my decision to buy Rise’s flours was a good one: It tastes nothing like the grub you’d feed to dogs or eccentric food writers. “The process of making beer removes starch, but there’s still a ton of flavor left,” said Kathryn Gordon, a faculty member at the Institute of Culinary Education and the author of Les Petits Macarons: Colorful French Confections to Make at Home. Gordon holds my dream job of playing with pastries all day and actually knowing what she’s doing, and she described Rise’s dark barley flour as akin to pumpernickel rye bread, noting that “it absorbs wet ingredients much differently than wheat flour.” While consulting for Rise and working with it on a series of events, she’s created yeast bread, brownies, blondies and Irish-style brown-bread ice cream.

“This whole notion of throwing things away — landfills — is taboo.”

The mirror-image company of Rise, which uses leftovers from beer-making to create flour, is Toast Ale, which uses leftover bread to make beer. “Throughout history brewers and bakers have always been in the same sort of space and used the same ingredients,” said Toast’s James King. The UK-based company plays matchmaker in countries as close as the Netherlands and as far-flung as Japan, connecting a local bakery, microbrewery and nonprofit. The bakery donates heels and crusts of bread — a highly wasted food staple — and the microbrewery and Toast create a “bespoke beer” with it. Everyone donates the profits to a local charity or Toast’s partner nonprofit, Feedback.

I acquired the company’s New York offerings, created by Captain Lawrence Brewing using upstate favorite Bread Alone, and immediately cooled down on an unexpectedly sweltering May day in New York City. After I used the can of American Pale Ale to chill my forehead with its frosty condensation, I popped it open and took a long, refreshing swig, then another. I wouldn’t have been able to tell that it was made any differently from a “regular” beer, and it didn’t taste particularly, um, toasty. But it was a solid choice that would edge out quite a bit of competition.

Delicious? Check. On to the next value-add: It must be nutritious. Beer is hardly a health food, but I’d argue that by using fresh, local ingredients and making the brews in small batches, Toast’s beverages are much more natural than their industrial counterparts.

Rise Flour turns out to be a nutritional powerhouse. One ounce of its barley flour has 110 calories and a whopping 12 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein; meanwhile, one ounce of white flour contains 103 calories, 0.8 grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein. Then again, Rise’s barley flour, its cheapest product, costs $1 per ounce. Compared to the seven cents per ounce that Gold Medal’s all-purpose flour costs or even the nine cents per ounce that a nice flour like King Arthur all-purpose costs, that’s basically a fortune.

The team from Rise Products Rise Products

Even if they were to cost 90 percent less than their current price, though, Rise’s flours still wouldn’t appeal to all bakers. “Asking this very heavy flour to rise is especially difficult,” explained Gordon, contrasting it with a lighter wheat flour. As my botched quinoa-and-millet croissants taught me a few years ago, baking experiments quickly become chemistry classes, especially when you’re trying to work with an unconventional product. That’s why Gordon recommends using Rise’s products for brownies, cookies and crackers but not traditional breads, buttermilk pancakes or other pastries.

The real impact from upcycled foods comes from the potential to feed many people around the world. “Imagine a farm, a brewery, a malter and a mill, all located right where people live,” Rise co-founder Ashwin Goutham Gopi said. “We made sure our technology is modular and cheap so that it can be implemented in the countries where we’re from.” All five co-founders are immigrants from India and Ecuador, and Gopi believes that seeing things through an immigrant’s lens defines Rise.

“There is so much availability of food at a low cost that there is no need to turn [spent grain] into a food product here,” he explained. “There’s also an abundance in terms of space. It’s cheap and easy to throw things away in the US: You just have to put them in a landfill and forget about them.” Where he and his co-founders hail from, though, “this whole notion of throwing things away — landfills — is taboo.”

Recipe: Crackers to Feed the World

Back in my Brooklyn kitchen, I started the day by making Rise’s shortbread cookie recipe. As they baked, I daydreamed about an around-the-world tour of upcycled beerstuffs. I’d start in New York for sustainable ice cream sandwiches, then head to Toronto for pine-and-citrus American Pale Ale and Dayton, Ohio, for a sour-tart Gose made from pretzels.

Next I’d hit up refreshing ales in Singapore and Japan, then flit around to Chennai, India, to visit Snackexperts, a company focused on local tastes and ingredients that use Rise’s methods. That’s right next to Cape Town, so I’d stop there for yet another pale ale before heading to Vanderbijlpark, South Africa, to check out what kind of flour (and, more importantly, baked goods) the students at Vaal University of Technology are making to donate to local people in need.

I’d eat a few vegetables and possibly an orange or two while on a short trip to Modena, Italy: Celebrity Chef Massimo Bottura’s restaurant Osteria Francescana bought Rise’s flour once, so a stop there is required. Then I’d head back to New York for banana bread and brownies.

That’s the most innovative part of these companies: People are collaborating across borders on something bigger than the bottom line.

Toast likes to brag that it has upcycled one million slices of bread and donated £25,000 ($31,800) to its nonprofit partners (mostly Feedback), for campaigns like ending Big Livestock and tackling soil depletion. But a company that gives to charity is hardly innovation — corporate America out-charitables itself to prove that yes, we’ve all done something good.

A company that teaches other companies how to brew its recipes? Now, that’s new.

Though Rise has applied for a patent for its inventions, it also shares its flour recipe with folks in Uruguay, South Africa and India, Gopi told me as I chatted with him over the phone, leaning against my kitchen counter and shoveling crackers into my mouth. The company collaborates to create new products with Rise’s technology — such as for Snackexperts’ malty packaged snack. These local companies are completely separate from Rise, with their own revenue streams that do not return to the American company at all.

“We have this inherently exploitative view of technology as a way to manipulate the physical world around us, without realizing that in turn we are also manipulating ourselves and our relationship to this world,” he told me. “If technology is made consciously and critically, then we can actually create systems that even if they are not sustainable, they do less harm.”

“That’s true,” I said, glancing at the empty plate that had previously held a few dozen upcycled-grain cookies. There were only a few crumbs left. Should I make some granola out of them? I wondered. Or maybe brew a crackerjack IPA? It would be a shame to let them go to waste.

Images: Getty Images (Spent grain, flour); Rise Products (Shortbread, team photo); Toast Ale (Sesame crackers)

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