When Bill Thornton issues a few rapid clangs from a bell hanging inside a barn on his sprawling farm on the outskirts of Raleigh, goats, cows and pigs line up at the trough. Thornton buries his scoop in a barrel of dark mush, a sour-smelling mass of malted barley used earlier in the week to make LoneRider Brewing Co.'s Deadeye Jack porter.
To the brewery, the leftover moist grain is little more than industrial waste, but to Thornton's livestock, it's part of a balanced breakfast.
"I don't know what it is, but they like [grain from dark beer] better than the lighter batches," Thornton explains. "It tends to last a little longer, too, before it gets smelly."
He motions to the particularly pungent top layer of one of the barrels, where mold has begun to bloom. Scooping a few inches down, he tosses the tainted feed to reveal an unspoiled layer to serve the waiting animals.
His daily routine is a common practice in the booming craft beer industry, which grew by more than 7 percent in 2009 over the previous year despite a drop in overall beer sales, according to the Brewer's Association.
The money-saving partnership helps small brewers looking to dispose of tons of biomass and nearby farmers looking for a cheap way to supplement or replace store-bought feed. But it's also an exercise in eco-friendly and efficient reuse.
Tons of wet waste
Brewing beer creates a lot of waste - most of it in the form of biomass. Every 12-ounce bottle creates about six ounces of sticky, moist grain as a byproduct. At Lone Rider, which uses up to 1,300 pounds of dry grain per batch of beer, that means more than 3-1/2 tons of wet grain per week.
Long before beer is shipped to your favorite bar or grocery store, the spent grain presents an immediate problem for brewers. Residual sugar and moisture make the material ideal microbial bug food. Adding to its volatility is the problem of bulk; dry brewer's grain can absorb up to 80 percent of its weight in water.
That's where farmers such as Thornton come in.
Thornton said testing by the N.C. Department of Agriculture showed the spent grain provides about 40 percent more crude protein than he could get from a feed store. Coupled with foliage from his pasture, the grain provides his nine beef cattle and 30 goats with a healthy diet.
His three pigs can eat spent grain with only the addition of inexpensive mineral supplements.
"It's like putting salt on top of your food," Thornton said. "It's just giving them the minerals they need to complete their diet."
Muscling the hungry pigs out of the way, he finished dumping the 10-pound buckets and migrated over to check on the progress of Roscoe, a young black-and-white cow munching patiently as goats weaved between his legs.
"It's amazing how a 50-pound goat can run a 400-pound cow out of a bucket," he said, giving Roscoe a sympathetic pat. "They'll just take it away from him."
Gravity-fed grain dispensers, he has learned, won't work with spent brewer's grain because it clogs the outlets. He must serve the sticky feed by hand.
"It'd be a lot more convenient just to buy feed, but I've always been all about not wasting anything," he said.
The risks of going green
When Thornton was first interviewed in winter 2009, he had only been using the feed for a few months and was admittedly in "uncharted territory." He said there were plenty of risks involved with using the grain.
"You have to be really careful with it, because mold can kill an animal," he said. "You're taking a chance in feeding this stuff. You probably wouldn't want to feed it to an expensive show animal because you're taking a risk."
But in the past year and a half, he's honed his method, spending about $10,000 on trailers, barrels and other equipment to store and dispense the grain.
"The material itself is free, but it requires quite a bit more labor than calling the feed store and filling up a feed bin," he said last month.
The brewery's output has also changed from the sporadic 3,000 pounds Thornton received every week or so in winter 2009.
Sumit Vohra, CEO of Lone Rider, said they've quadrupled production since then.
"We've grown very, very fast," Vohra said. "It's a feature of the market as to how aware the craft beer consumers in North Carolina are."
Thornton figures LoneRider's leftovers save him about $5,000 a year, enough to soon cover the costs of his infrastructure. It's also allowed him to increase his livestock twofold, not counting the 60 chickens he added to the mix. That's enough to supplement his full-time gig as CEO and owner of SouthAg, a trailer manufacturing business.
But using the spent grain is labor intensive, Thornton said. "I don't think anybody can make a living doing this. I think you'd go hungry if you tried to do it full-time."
For LoneRider, donating the spent grain is also part of its effort to go green when possible. Vohra said that's a challenge with such a capital-intensive business.
"When you're a small brewery and you're struggling to meet demand, just survive at any given time, everything that requires a lot of overhead doesn't get done," Vohra said.
Vohra said they're looking for other ways to deal with their spent grain. Coming soon, he said, is a beer bread created through a partnership with a local bakery.
"If anybody has any other ideas, we'd love to entertain them," Vohra said. "I mean, what's the point of throwing it away?"
Tyler Dukes: firstname.lastname@example.org