Cooperation is rampant in nature. Look at the clown fish/sea anemone association, or the honeybee/flower affiliation as textbook examples of symbiosis. In each case, both individual organisms thrive in a unique fashion thanks to the work of the other organism.
That type of teamwork exists in commerce as well, even if it’s not as easy to spot from a distance. But thanks to the recent spike in both craft beer consumption and farm-to-table dining, mid-Michigan farmers and brewers have struck just such an accord. They’ve found a way to utilize their budding industries to forge relationships that are not only mutually beneficial, but also allow them to be good environmental stewards. And it all has to do with taking out the trash.
“Going in, we knew that we wanted to (give our waste) to a local farmer,” says Aaron Hanson, co-owner and president of operations for Ellison Brewery + Spirits
, which opened in Meridian Township last summer. “It’s common practice due to how brewing is done.”
The first step in beer brewing consists of steeping grains — usually wheat — in hot water (often with malts and hops), creating a concoction called wort. This process removes the sugar, which is then used as a food source for the fermenting yeast to create alcohol.
But after the liquid is siphoned off to continue the process, a brewer is left with leftover wort — and the bigger the brew, the more the leftovers. Home brewers can just throw this away, but a brewery faces the real problem of disposing of hundreds or even thousands of pounds of waste per week. It’s estimated that up to 85 percent of a brewery’s waste comes from wort. And although that spent grain can’t be used for much in the way of human consumption, it turns out that farm animals love it.
“It smells wonderful,” says Sonia Buonodono, co-owner and manager of Eaglemonk Pub & Brewery
on Lansing’s west side. “It’s like a giant batch of oatmeal. The farmer we give our spent grain to says the cows come running in from the field whenever they smell a new shipment roll in.”
Buonodono and her husband, Dan Buonodono, give their spent grain to a beef farmer in Ionia, Mich. She says it’s part of EagleMonk’s mission to keep their waste output as close to zero as possible.
“If we just threw it away, we’d face the problem of it ending up in a landfill, and that doesn’t appeal to us,” Buonodono says. “We recycle everything we can. We even let the wort cool in buckets in the brewing space in the wintertime to save on heating costs. Donating our spent grain to a farmer is just another way for us to be good (eco-friendly) neighbors.”
Other local breweries that donate their spent grain to livestock farms include Old Nation Brewing Co.
in Williamston and BAD Brewing Co.
in Mason. Nate Rykse, head brewer at Old Nation, says he goes through between 2 to 3 tons of spent grain per week, which isn’t a problem for industrious farmers eager for free food for their animals.
“We had people showing up asking for our (spent grain) before we even opened, and we went with the first one to show up,” Rykse says. “We told him he could have it as long as he promised to always pick it up. You don’t want that much waste just sitting around out back.”
The owners of BAD, meanwhile, split all their spent grain between two small cattle farms in Mason.
“It works out perfectly,” says BAD co-owner Brian Rasdale. “It’s a product I can’t do anything with and would be expensive and wasteful to dispose of. We give something, we get something.”
But Ellison’s partner is probably the most interesting: They give their spent grain to Pure Mangalitsa
, a farm in Williamston that breeds a specialty type of pig relatively new to North American palates.
“The pork you find in a supermarket it typically about 10 percent fat,” says Nina Santucci, co-owner of Red Haven
farm-to-table bistro in East Lansing. “Mangalitsas are closer to 60 percent. They have a deep red color like beef and are really flavorful. It’s not gristly — this is melt in your mouth pork.”
Santucci says Red Haven has featured pork from Pure Mangalitsa on its menu since January, but it’s taken a little time for her customers to get accustomed to the fattiness. Mangalitsas, which were initially bred for their lard in the 1830s by an Austrian archduke, are notable for their thick, wooly coats, earning them their nickname: sheep pigs. After the collapse
of Austria-Hungary, the breed slowly disappeared, but was revived in the early 1990s. Then, eight years ago, the first Mangalitsas were imported to the U.S., drawing the attention of agriculturist Wilhelm W. Kohl.
“The Mangalitsas really piqued my interest because they’re from Austria, just like me,” says Kohl, one of the two owners of Pure Mangalitsa. “They’re an amazing animal and I wanted to help them spread throughout the U.S. And it’s been satisfying watching it quickly become part of the upscale American diet.”
Kohl’s business partner is Marc Santucci, Nina’s father. The two men have been friends more than 30 years, but this is their first business venture together. They started with their first batch five years ago, and one year later Kohl bought the farm in Williamston four years ago. The pigs began breeding, and Kohl and Santucci brought in two more shipments to the U.S. in 2010 and 2014, with the goal of creating a diversified, self-sustaining population without a lot of inbreeding. They now have more than 100 pigs. And as for food, they were receiving typical pig ratioins, but then …
“I heard about Ellison last year, and that they needed a place to dispose of their leftovers,” Kohl says. “I know that pigs love to the eat that, so we agreed to pick it up. They recycle it into pure protein.”
Kohl said his farm hasn’t killed any pigs since he started to use Ellison’s grain, he thinks this he’ll start butchering this fall.
“And yes, I intend to drop off some meat for them this fall when we kill a pig,” Kohl says. “You bet I will. This has been a great (bit of synergy) and I’m happy to be associated with Ellison. That will be a good way to thank them. It’s good teamwork.”
Allan Ross is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.