Waste Not. Want Not.

By Hendre Barnard
Head of Production, Jim and Tonic Distillery.
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Hendre Barnard, Head of Production at Jim and Tonic Distillery

 

'Waste' is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a distillery, but it is a reality we must deal with as part of our operations.

In our case it would probably not be consider food waste per se, but rather production waste.

The basic principles which we and the distilling industry at large employs, are however adaptable and relevant to the broader Food Waste category as well.

The single largest and most difficult to handle by-product of our production will be spent grains, also sometimes called thick stillage. Once grains make their way through mashing, fermentation, and distillation processes, what is left over is hundreds of kilograms of the spent grain, dozens of litres of fermentation sediment, and hundreds of litres (if not thousands) of stillage, depending on the size of the operation. For large manufacturers these measurements would be in tonnes and hectolitres.

When we are producing every day – which a successful distiller should do – that is a LOT of organic waste to deal with!

The method of disposal employed depends on the operation. Some small distilleries and breweries might consider depositing their haul at the local landfill – but as JIM AND TONIC is a brand that makes 'Sustainability' one of its core values and missions, the option of condemning our stillage to rot at the dump is one not even worth considering.

Instead of opting for disposal, we decided to give our organic waste, and all our waste, a second life.

Our current and future waste products can be grouped in the following fashion:

 

#1: Solid Waste

Though essential to the production of spirits (and beer), once grains like barley, wheat, maize, rye, sorghum and spelt (to name but a few) make their way through starch conversion, fermentation, and distillation, they are a cumbersome waste product. Although all Carbohydrates have (hopefully) been removed and utilized during these processes, this “Spent Grain” remains rich in flavour, vitamins, and other nutrients and is suitable for human or animal consumption.

Many distillers and brewers forge partnerships with local businesses and farmers to put it back into the food supply. The grains are nutritious for pigs, poultry, fish and, when baked into a loaf of bread, people. 🐖🐔🐟🥖

If stored correctly – in a way that allows access - the low pH (acidic) liquids draining out of the spent grain can go back into the farm’s irrigation system where it can be used to balance the pH of the soil.

What does not get used by the cattle or pigs for feed can also be used to make a good compost.

Even the liquid waste, the thick stillage, contains protein, a great energy source, as well as a lot of minerals. It is high in fat and has minimal fibre. This combines to make it ideal for cattle and pigs.

Spent Grain from distilleries have a benefit over that from Breweries, as it is suitable for baking, because it does not just consist out of Barley (depending on the product). As one baker explains, ““The trouble with Barley is that it has too much fibre which we cannot digest. Successful incorporation into baking really depends on which grain it is. Some grains have a softer hull than others.”
Corn-based Bourbon style grain bills work really well for bakers.

For Sourdough style breads for instance, a lower percentage of sourdough starter would be needed, as the slightly acid spent grain is giving it that extra acidic kick. Even with the lower starter volume, the taste is similar because the grain is now providing the sour taste.

Other distilleries have incorporated spent grain into dog biscuits which they sell in their tasting rooms. 🐶

Beyond industrial agriculture and small-scale exchanges, many companies now dedicate themselves to the business of grain by-products.

Toronto’s The Spent Goods Company ensures those grains are repurposed by bakeries into food items like crackers, pretzels, and muffins, sold in grocery stores, farmers markets, schools, and restaurants. ReGrained, a California-based company, upcycles spent grains from breweries (called ReGrained SuperGrain+) into food like its snack puffs and bars. Rise Products, based in Brooklyn, New York, collects spent grains from breweries to create light or dark barley flour.

The ideal solution in the end depends on the scale of the operation, the amount and type of grain available, and it will most probably not consist out of any single solution.

 

#2: Sedimentary Waste

This consists out of fermentation solids (including some raw material, but mostly dead yeast cells) that settle out of the fermentation liquid during the fermentation process, but specifically at the end during racking, cold crashing, or clarification.

The fermentation sediment is incredibly rich in nutrients, and we can expect about 12.5lt of wet sediment (6 kg dried) per 250lt fermentation. Even without clarification, as fermentation occurs, a layer of sediment forms at the bottom of the fermentation vessel. This is referred too – most commonly – as 'lees', or in the beer world as 'trub'.

This sediment comprises all the unfermentable products in the fermentation, such as fats, proteins, hops (in the case of beer), and dead yeast. The yeast layer on its own is known as the lees; however, as everything at the bottom of the fermentation vessel coagulates and lumps together, the lees can become part of the trub.

The amount of trub that accumulates at the bottom of the fermenter varies depending on the type of fermentation and its ingredients.

For example, a sour-mash whisky fermentation will have a greater amount of trub than a standard grain wort fermentation. The added stillage can improve multiple characteristics of the final product, such as mouthfeel and flavour, but they also leave behind more unfermentable by-products and proteins than a standard fermentation. These, like the yeast, settles out and accumulates at the bottom of the vessel, also become part of the trub.

Trub contains vitamins and minerals in sufficient concentrations that it can act as a fertilizer. When combined with spent grain, it also works as a completely natural herbicide (weed killer). 🌿

The grain decomposes into the soil and promotes the growth of many healthy microorganisms. These microorganisms will eat away at most weeds. More information on this is available in the book 'Alcohol Can be a Gas' by David Blume.

 

#3: Botanical Waste

Botanical waste is something JIM AND TONIC needs to deal with already. Here we are of course referring to the solid botanical waste left over from the infusion process, i.e., the Juniper cones, coriander, rosemary, etc.

Currently this botanical waste is being composted, which is a good and environmentally friendly way to dispose of the waste.

That does not however stop us from looking for a better way to upcycle the waste, adding value to it, instead of just composting it.

Some distilleries already use their botanical waste in breads and baked goods. Others are drying the botanical waste, and then using it as a potpourri or something similar.

Enterprising chefs have also started using Gin Botanical Waste to produce extracts and flavoured oils for cooking, as well as spice mixes and rubs. Seeing as how Juniper is already used in certain Venison dishes, the latter certainly makes sense.

Another use – not for human consumption – is the concentration of the waste botanicals through essential oil extraction. These oils can then be used in a variety of ways, one being Beard Oil. Definitely a product line we are looking to explore, considering our JIM AND TONIC branding. These oils could also be used to produce soaps, lotions, room sprays, etc.

Other options we have come across and are considering ourselves include:

  • Selling spent botanicals to a local Craft Brewery to produce a Gin Botanical infused Beer or Cider
  • Using the Botanical Liquid Waste (Botanical Pot Ale) in Absinthe production to soak and flavour the Wormwood


Although it depends on the recipe, JIM AND TONIC is producing approximately 3 kg (dry weight) of Botanical Waste for every 100lt distillation batch. This may not seem like a lot, but if we continue to upscale as planned, and start doing 400lt and 800lt batches on a daily basis, suddenly we are dealing with 12 to 24 kg of Botanical Waste per day, 264 to 528 kg per month. A quarter to half a tonne of botanical waste. We therefore need to start making plans that are scalable and – of course – sustainable.

It should be noted that if a distiller does single infusions of certain botanicals (for recipe, quality, or practical reasons) there are normally more options to recycling that single Botanical Waste than recycling the mixture of Botanicals. Case in point is Four Pillars in Australia that turns their waste citrus into marmalade, which they then use in their version of a Negroni.

 

Conclusion

There is no singular solution that will take care of all your food waste issues, and it does not help looking at others to provide those solutions. The best way, and the most sustainable way, would be the method that works for you, in your operation, in your location.

Humanity generates more waste than what any single sustainable solution can absorb. We therefore need to think out of the box, be original, be willing to put in some time, effort and (possibly) money.

My quick tips for those looking for a sustainable solution to their Food Waste is therefore:

  • Look at ALL the potential uses (not just the obvious) of the product or ingredient, as well as its individual components, and see which of those options are still open when the product is in its current state.
  • Speak to individuals in other industries that produce similar waste, or uses your product as an ingredient, to gain a different perspective.
  • Consider the volume of waste – for smaller quantities of waste, low tech solutions are better than high tech, and DIY solutions would be better than outsourcing.
  • Consider distances involved in your solution. Carting away waste 50 km to a piggery just so you can snap pictures of happy piglets chowing down on French salad, might look good on Instagram, but it defies the aim of sustainability. Your local community garden’s compost heap might have been a better solution.
  • Be committed. Even something as simple as having a dedicated bin that is collected and processed efficiently and sustainably takes work. You still need to separate the waste and make sure that only the right products end up in that bin. What that means in a business is that you need buy-in and commitment from all employees, and that you need to educate your customers and consumers about your values and operating principles as well. Otherwise, what’s the point?

 

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