Tank to Trough

Beer isn’t just a cold and refreshing beverage; it’s an integral part of North Bay agriculture.

Spent grain from the beer-making process makes for great animal feed. Chances are if you’re drinking a North Bay beer, it’s helped to feed pigs, goats or cattle nearby. It’s also a reminder that beer is an agricultural product too.

At its most fundamental level, beer is made from water, grain and yeast. Grain, usually barley, is boiled to extract sugars that feed the yeast, which in turn produces alcohol and carbonation. Every time a batch of beer is brewed, there’s a large quantity of grain left over. Brewers could dump the soggy barley into the trash, but that’s costly and wasteful.

Fortunately, most brewers don’t need to do that, because there is a waiting list of farmers and ranchers who want to get their hands on the beer byproduct. Instead of paying the garbage man to haul it away, local agriculturalist pick it up for free, a good deal for both parties.

Given the slim margins most dairies and farms operate on and the high price of hay and animal feed, the free grain helps keep many farms afloat.

“Spent grain is crucial to the ability to have dairy farms,” says Moonlight Brewing Co.’s Brian Hunt. “They can’t survive on buying all their animal feed.”

Plus, Hunt says, spent grain still has nutritional value. “It’s stupid to use that [grain] for compost or landfill,” he says. “It’s really what we need to do to be a more sustainable planet.”

Windsor cattle rancher Rick Olufs has been getting grain from Russian River Brewing Co. since its days at the Korbell Winery. Some of the grain also goes to the goats at Petaluma’s Achadinha Cheese Co.

“It’s a super green way of disposing our spent grain,” says brewery co-owner Natalie Cilurzo.

It’s a deal that saves Olufs a lot of green, too.

“It’s really important to me,” says as he loads four 350-pound barrels of grain onto the back of his truck. “If I had to buy all my hay and feed, it wouldn’t be worth it. I probably wouldn’t be doing this.”

Given the number of farms and ranches in the North Bay, demand for the grain is high.

“It’s crazy,” says Seth Wood, co-owner and brewmaster at Sebastopol’s Woodfour Brewing Co. “I’ve got a whole section in my Rolodex of people who want our spent grain.”

Adam Davidoff of nearby New Family Farm got to Woodfour first. He feeds the grain to his pigs. In exchange for the grain, the restaurant sometimes gets free produce and Davidoff gets a free beer when he stops in. Davidoff also arranged pick-up with Warped Brewing Co. across the street before they opened earlier this year.

Wood says he likes to know the half-ton of grain he’s left with each week isn’t going to waste. “We like the idea of the full-circle concept.”

But free grain isn’t a free lunch. Recipients of the grain must be at the beck and call of local breweries, because it spoils in just a few days. Plus, it takes up a lot of space, and breweries want it gone. And barrels of water-logged grain are very heavy. Picking it up and feeding it to hungry animals takes a lot of work and time.

“For me, the important thing is the ethic,” says Davidoff. To be truly sustainable farmers, he adds, “we’ve got to close these loops.”