Story last updated at 4/9/2014 - 3:51 pm
I hate politics, but sometimes I get forced to climb into that particular sandbox and try to play nice with a bunch of people who for the most part don't appreciate, understand, or even tolerate beer despite its proven force as an economic engine in most areas where breweries exist.
So, the latest little quirk is that the agencies that tinker with the Food Safety Modernization Act (read: the Food and Drug Administration) are proposing to regulate how brewers provide their spent grain to local farmers.
Just in case you're not familiar, this is how things work in your average craft brewery. Spent grain is the byproduct of making beer. Brewers use various malts in the brewing process. Enzymes within the malt are triggered by soaking the grains in water at a specific temperature and convert starches inherent in the grain to soluble sugars. This is called "mashing."
Eventually, the grain is rinsed or "sparged," and the resulting liquid, called "wort" or unfermented beer, is what provides the base for the finished product. The wort is then boiled, hops are added and all other kinds of gee-whiz scientific stuff takes place. Once the wort is cooled, yeast is added. Through fermentation, the yeast converts the sugars to two vital things: booze and carbon dioxide. Mix in the brewer's love and alchemy, and this stuff turns into beer.
Way back when, somewhere in the thousands of years since brewing's been around, a beautiful symbiotic relationship blossomed between small local brewers and the likely consumers of their product, the farmers that surrounded the brewing operations. Spent grain might be a hassle to the average brewer, but to people with livestock, spent grain makes a wonderful addition to an animal's diet. Most of the nutrients may have been washed out of the grain, but it remains rich in both fiber and protein (and because it's wet, it adds a source of hydration for the animals.) Oh, and it helps that they pretty much dig the stuff.
The result is positive for both farmers and brewers. Farmers reduce the cost of feeding their animals, and brewers don't have to haul their soggy mess to the dump.
Here in Alaska, most of the farmers who use spent grain come to the breweries and haul the grain away; most breweries just shove bins of wet grain outside and it magically disappears.
So, along come our friends at the FDA. Some rocket scientist in that agency decided that it would be important that, before breweries can give away their spent grain as animal feed, spent grain should be regulated as such and therefore should be dried, analyzed and packaged, all without touching human hands.
The objective, according to the agency, would be "ensuring the safety of animal food for animals consuming the food and ensuring the safety of animal food for humans handling the food." Yeah, right.
I don't know if anyone from the FDA has ever been in a brewery, has seen spent grain or has even a clue, but I'm guessing not. Were these requirements to be implemented and enforced, you can say bye-bye to that lovely symbiotic relationship between brewers and farmers. Most small breweries cannot afford the equipment to dry and analyze the grain, let alone ensure it remains "untouched by human hands."
I can tell you there's plenty o'human hand touch when it comes to working with spent grain. Getting the heavy, soggy stuff out of the mash tun is almost entirely a manual process for most small breweries. A few of our bigger breweries have semi-automated systems, but for most, one of the most distasteful, physically demanding chores the small craft brewer faces is manhandling hot, wet grain out of the tun with a plastic shovel. I've done this as a guest brewer in a couple of our local breweries and can tell you from experience that, yes, human hands do come in contact with the spent grain. Obviously this hasn't resulted in any ill effects for brewers; why should it matter now?
If this crap gets pushed through, guess where all of the spent grain is going to end up? If you figured a nearby landfill, you're exactly right. This will cost the breweries in disposal fees and getting the grain out to the landfill in the first place.
Of course, the issue isn't as problematic in southeastern Alaska as it is up here in southcentral because there are fewer livestock to feed where you folks are. But disposing of spent grain is a problem that all brewers have to contend with.
The model is Alaskan Brewing Company. Alaskan is the state's biggest brewery, and its products are the most widely distributed here and out of state. It makes sense that Alaskan produces more spent grain than any other brewery here. But here's the rub. Ever see any cattle or reindeer in Juneau? Me neither.
Alaskan, and the other brewers in Southeast don't have the luxury of the demand for the edible part of their waste stream by farmers and ranchers.
Realizing this limitation, Alaskan, in a bold move, installed both a spent grain steam boiler for heating needs within the brewery and a spent grain drier that dries the remaining grain for shipment to Washington state and the farmers down there.
Sustainability works for Alaskan in this way, but your average small craft brewery can't afford what Alaskan did.
One of the hats I wear is as the executive director of the Brewer's Guild of Alaska, and within that capacity, I weighed in mightily with the pen. OK, make that the keyboard.
I fired off my own particular brand of nastygram to the FDA, but of course I wrote it in my typical nice-guy tone. I've urged all of Alaska's 23 licensed brewing operations to write letters as well, and I have contacted a number of Alaska's farmers who use spent grain. All of this feeds a national campaign by the Brewer's Association to get the feds to change their mind. The public comment period for the outcry by America's brewers and farmers ended on March 31st. Let's hope the collective voice of our brewers and farmers is heard.