With microbreweries popping up all over Texas, many have probably wondered what happens to all that spent grain. For those who are not familiar with that term, spent grain is what is left of the grain after the mash has extracted most of the sugars (carbs) and nutrients, leaving primarily protein and fiber.
Spent grain constitutes as much as 85 percent of a brewery’s total byproduct, most of which ends up in landfills. Some of the more forethinking donate it to farms for composting, a great way to recycle. The amount of spent grain that is being produced right now equates to about six million tons, which can fit into four million dump trucks.
Back in 2016, Yoni Medhin was a college student at Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, which is where he met his now business partner, Matthew Mechtly. They started out as rugby teammates. “Colorado has a huge concentration of microbreweries, and I wanted to learn how to make my own beer,” Medhin said.
Through this process, he learned about spent grain. He remembered talking to one brewer in particular who was both composting and throwing away the excess. “I asked him, ‘Isn’t it a waste?’”
What Medhin learned is that the spent grain is difficult to use because it has to be dried out within a day, or it rots. “It’s pretty volatile,” he explained. “But once you dry it, you can store it for almost three years. It doesn’t have any carbs, so the bacteria has nothing to eat. It’s almost inert. It has no nutritional value outside of the protein and fiber content.”
All of this information had Medhin’s head spinning. At the time, he was taking a class that required his group to come up with a business idea they would present before Denver-based venture capital firms and angel investors. “I brought this idea to the group, so we started by making a granola cereal out of the spent grain to see if people liked it on campus, and they loved it,” he said. “At the time, we only had the concept to take the spent grain and turn it into flour that could then be sold and used for other
After the presentation, one of the angel investors approached Medhin and said he wanted to invest $50,000 into his idea, but Medhin declined. “I already had a job lined up,” he said. “The offer wasn’t as good as what I’d make as an engineer. But that stuck in my head over the next year that this guy really believed in me, and I didn’t even have a completed product yet. It was still just a concept.”
His new engineering company sent him to North Dakota. “I hated it,” he said. “So in that dissatisfaction, I recalled that the guy believed in us. It was pretty validating.”
Next, the engineering company moved Medhin to Houston to work at headquarters, which afforded him freedom to explore, and explore he did. “During the week I would go to lunch at all the breweries and ask them what they did with the spent grain,” Medhin explained. “Most were going to farmers or to landfills, which they had to pay for.”
He took home some of the spent grain and decided to address his biggest hurdle: how to dry the grain. At first, he laid it out on oven sheets to dry for seven hours. He was also researching, trying to understand drying technology from a different perspective.
Fortunately, he was able to reconnect with Mechtly, who was already living and working in Houston, also as an engineer. Some might say kismet brought these two rugby teammates back together.
“He came over to my apartment, and he got really excited about what I was doing because he’s big into nutrition and fitness,” Medhin said. “The spent grain flour is carb-free and has high protein and fiber, so it was a revelation for him because he doesn’t eat bread at all. We worked together to make some banana bread and cookies. I took them to the office the next day, and they devoured it. They just loved it, so I got excited that this may have some legs.”
GRAIN4GRAIN IS BORN
Just a few years later, and Medhin and Mechtly have proven that this idea definitely has legs. In August of 2019, they won third place and $10,000 in H-E-B’s renowned competition, Quest for Texas Best, for their product line that includes a pancake and waffle mix and low-carb baking flour.
Thankfully, Medhin was able to apply his knowledge of engineering and figure out the complex problem of drying spent grain on a mass scale. At one point he bought and altered a used clothes dryer for the task, but discovered that a pharmaceutical dryer altered to their specific needs worked the best.
Medhin, who is a first-generation Ethiopian American, gave credit to his parents for his worth ethic and natural ingenuity. His mom and dad have always been entrepreneurial, working several jobs to build a wonderful life in America. “I call them the ultimate hustlers,” Medhin said proudly. “It’s a bummer when I don’t see people take risks here. My dad [who is also an engineer] didn’t start his career until he was 30, so I have no excuse not to start something. We have so much luck in our favor; what’s the worst that can happen?”
After the big H-E-B win, Medhin and Mechtly’s company, Grain4Grain, launched their products in H-E-B stores all over Texas in October of 2019. The duo is also developing some new products that should be out sometime this spring – muffin cups in peanut butternut and double chocolate flavors.
By now, some might be curious as to what this wonder product actually tastes like. “It has a rustic, whole wheat flavor to it with a tiny bit of malty flavor,” Medhin said. “The pancakes taste like normal pancakes… really light. The beer flavor happens downstream in the process, so you don’t really get all that beer flavor.”
Making the products even more special than their origin and health benefits are the business model and give-back program the two young men designed, a result of their product’s low cost.
“When Matt and I put the numbers together on how much it was going to cost us (essentially we’re getting 40 percent of the mix for free), we realized we can give away a large portion to food banks [for] people in need… the spoils of something that is extremely healthy,” Medhin said. “For low-income people suffering from health problems like diabetes, we’re sitting on a gold mine of low carbs. We can almost become the TOMS® [shoes] of food.”
The men’s give-back concept helped shape the name. The company started giving one pound of flour away for every four pounds they made. At the time this article was written, they had fed 2,300 families 2,300 pound of flour, which would otherwise have gone into a landfill.
“It gives us a lot of pride that our entire business model is built on the principle of upcycling,” Medhin said. “Every product is making an impact.”
Keep an eye out for these two clever philanthropists. Who knows what other ingenious inventions they have up their sleeves!