By the end of a typical week of brewing, Bigelow Brewing in Skowhegan has more than 1,000 pounds of spent grain left over from making their many varieties of beer, which include Jailbreak Chocolate Chili Stout and Lying Bastard Pale Ale. Multiply that by 52 weeks, and that’s more than 52,000 pounds of grain per year.

That’s a lot of grain. What do they do with it?

“In the past, we just gave it all to local farmers to feed the animals,” said Jeff Powers, who co-owns Bigelow with his wife, Pam. “But now that we have our wood-fired pizza oven, we’ve been able to do a lot more with it.”

Since last summer, Bigelow Brewing has been using pizza dough made for them by Skowhegan bakery The Bankery that utilizes that spent grain to make a nutty, chewy, unusual crust. A batch of dough only uses between 5 and 10 pounds of the 1,000 weekly pounds of spent grain, but it’s just one of several ways the brewery is using its largest by-product.

From pizza dough to pretzels, dog treats to gourmet burgers, breweries across the state are finding creative ways to utilize the tens of thousands of pounds of spent grain produced across the state every week — well beyond simply feeding livestock.

“[Spent grain is] really a great addition to baking, because the grain used for brewing is whole, cracked grain, with the germ and the bran still intact,” Eric LeVine, pizza chef at Bigelow, said. Before working at Bigelow, LeVine was a miller at Maine Grains, the Skowhegan-based grist mill that makes flour from Maine-grown grains. “The germ and the bran are the most flavorful part of the grain, and soaking during the beer-making process releases all those natural flavors. … It’s nutty. It’s a very unique flavor, especially for pizza crust.”

Spent grain is different from pre-processed grain. The brewing process strips the grain of all its sugar. The grain retains all its protein and fiber, however, so it’s ideal for feeding cattle and pigs — it’s nutritious and usually supplied free of charge to farmers, without all that fattening sugar. Naturally, it’s also good for humans.

As craft brewing has grown across the nation, the problem of figuring out what to do with the huge amounts of spent grain generated means people have had to get creative. According to the Brewer’s Association, a national craft beer industry nonprofit, there are, as of 2016, 5,234 craft breweries operating in the U.S., producing 24.6 million barrels of beer. If a typical barrel of beer requires an average of 55 pounds of grain, that means about 132 million pounds of spent grain is sitting around breweries, waiting to be put to use.

“Traditionally, breweries have just given it to farms, rather than paying money to throw it in a landfill,” Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewer’s Guild, said. “In some cases it’s just hard to keep up with the sheer quantity of it. … But it’s an opportunity as much as it is a problem. There’s a lot of room for growth and creativity.”

Bangor’s 2 Feet Brewing knew before they even opened for business in October 2016 that they wanted to find a way to use some of their spent grain for making pretzels — a classic pairing for beer. When they found out that Nocturnem Draft Haus, a downtown Bangor beer bar, also wanted to start serving spent-grain pretzels and that they wanted to partner with local cafe and bakery Fork & Spoon to make them, they knew they had a winning combination.

Spent grain was supplied by 2 Feet, Fork & Spoon baker Lee-Russel Dunn made the pretzels, and 2 Feet and Nocturnem would serve them to customers. Both establishments have been serving their Fork & Spoon-made spent grain pretzels since December 2016.

“I’m always really interested in being more sustainable in our business practices, so this is a really perfect way to re-use by-product and to really foster cooperation between local businesses,” Elisabeth Dean, owner of Fork & Spoon, said. “It’s this perfect little cycle. They make the grain, we bake the grain, and then 2 Feet and Nocturnem serve it. It’s beautiful.”

A number of other breweries across the state also make spent grain pretzels and other baked goods to feature in their brewpubs and tasting rooms, including the pretzels at Orono Brewing Co. in Orono and at Flight Deck Brewing in Brunswick.

Spent grain has traditionally been used for two purposes, for baking and as animal feed, but Geaghan Brothers Brewing Company and Geaghan’s Pub have taken it one step further. In addition to supplying its grain as cattle feed for Fair View Farm in Hampden and Mayberry Farm in Greenbush, the pub last year began purchasing spent grain-fed beef from Mayberry Farm to serve in its Brew To Table Burger. Grain-fed local beef on your burger can be had for an extra dollar at the restaurant.

“We are in the process of looking at other ways to incorporate their meats into our menu, as well as vegetables grown using the fertilizer from the cows to complete the food circle,” Lisa Sturgeon, communications and resource manager for Geaghan’s, said.

Similarly, Bigelow Brewing hopes to expand the production of its spent grain pizza dough into wholesale, selling at local grocery stores for home pizza cooking. The brewery is also supplying spent grain to another Skowhegan business. The Maine Barkery, which makes all-natural dog treats, is using Bigelow spent grain as an addition to its products.

“We’ve heard of farms and meat suppliers advertising the fact that their pigs and cows are fed with the breweries they partner with, too. It’s kind of the perfect way for all these different breweries and businesses and farms to collaborate,” Sullivan of the Maine Brewer’s Guild said. “It’s really developing the grain-to-glass, farm-to-table idea much, much further.”

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.