Historians have long debated what came first, beer or bread. Both can be made relatively easily using grains, water and yeast, and they were some of the first accomplishments of agricultural societies.

Tens of thousands of years later, innovators are looking to these ancient staples to solve a modern dilemma: food waste. Brewing beer leaves behind excess grains, and bread doesn't keep long. Rethinking how to make these and other grain-based foods is leading to some quirky and — according to our expert tasters — occasionally but not always delicious creations.

Daniel Kurzrock brewed his first beer in a friend’s apartment as a freshman at the University of California at Los Angeles. Like most serious brewers, he soon began brewing from whole malted grains instead of malt extract. Soaking barley and other grains makes them germinate. When the new seedling begins to grow, enzymes are produced that convert the grain’s starches into sugar to feed the growing plant. Shortly after germination, the grains are dried, crushed and stirred around in a hot bath. Yeast is later added to the grainy broth to make beer.

When Kurzrock drained the broth (called wort) from his first all-grain batch of home brew, he found himself faced with a 10-gallon jug full of leftover soppy grains. He threw it in the trash but felt guilty for tossing out so much food.

Meanwhile, across the country, another student bemoaned the sight of grains in the trash. “I have a poignant memory of working with this organization in Nashville,” said Madeline Holtzman, a graduate student studying food systems at New York University. She recalls a trip to Whole Foods Market where they picked up surplus food to redistribute to soup kitchens and food pantries.

There were “these seven ginormous bags stuffed with beautiful artisanal bread,” Holtzman said. They loaded up all the other food but left behind five bags of bread. All the places they delivered to were “stuffed to the gills with bread.”

Kurzrock and Holtzman didn’t see trash when they looked at bags of expired bread or tubs of brewer’s mash. They saw food. Food that had to be grown on arable land where there would otherwise be native grasses or forests. Food that was produced using fresh water and fossil fuels. Food that would end up fermenting in a landfill if they didn’t do something about it.

Kurzrock did some research and learned it was possible to use the grains left over from brewing to make bread. “If I could figure out how to make beer, I could probably figure out how to make bread,” he thought. And so began his master plan to sell bread and make beer with the proceeds. But he soon realized the problem of what to do with grain mash was much bigger than his own garage.

Large breweries in rural areas give their mash to farmers to feed to livestock. But farmers aren’t as willing to make the trek to the hundreds of microbreweries popping up in urban centers across the nation. Some cities have the infrastructure for composting, but in others, spent grains head for the trash.

For Kurzrock, who calls food waste “the world’s dumbest problem,” the way forward was obvious. Somehow, he was going to turn that grain back into food. When he realized that bread’s short shelf life might only postpone the food waste problem, he turned his attention to snack bars and co-founded a company called Regrained.

Every six-pack of beer brewed generates a pound of grains, which give up much of their sugars to feed the yeast during fermentation but remain high in protein and fiber. Regrained, which began sales last year, turns these grains into multigrain snack bars. (More below on how they taste.)

Like Kurzrock, Holtzman decided to start a company to solve a food waste problem. Her plan was to upcycle unused bread into bread pudding. Unfortunately, “there’s only so much bread pudding you can force on people,” she said.

Then Holtzman met food-waste activist Tristam Stuart at a Feedback Global event in New York in which food that otherwise would have been wasted is used to create a communal feast. Stuart had started a U.K.-based organization called Toast that brews beer using surplus bread and donates the profits to Feedback Global. Toast partners with seven breweries in the United Kingdom to produce nine beers (including one called Bread Pudding).

The market for beer is a bit larger than the market for bread pudding, and Holtzman was perfectly positioned to help Toast expand into the United States. So she abandoned her dessert dreams and turned her attention to beer.

Holtzman found a New York bakery, called Bread Alone, willing to donate cubed and frozen excess bread. Chelsea Craft Brewing in the Bronx then adds the bread cubes at the same time as the malted grains. The mixture is up to 40 percent bread, and the carbohydrates in the bread get broken down into simple sugars by the enzymes released from the malted grains. Toast released its first U.S.-brewed beer, an American pale ale, this year. For each 30-barrel batch brewed by Toast (about 400 cases of beer), 500 pounds of bread escape the landfill.

Companies like Regrained and Toast are working hard to rebrand food “waste” as perfectly edible food. They’re not the only ones. Millions of tons of food waste crowds landfills every year. According to the brewers association, more than two new breweries opened per day last year, and a mid-sized bakery can easily produce 100 pounds of surplus bread every day, said Holtzman. That’s a lot of fodder for upcycling.

One of the challenges of marketing upcycled products is convincing people that what they’re eating is actually quality food. So we put Toast and Regrained to the test.

The expert taste testers at The Washington Post work for the Food section, and they are tough customers. They liked the very subtle sweetness of Regrained beer-grain bars called Chocolate Coffee Stout and Honey Cinnamon IPA, but they were a bit taken aback by the texture.

The bars are sticky, chewy, earthy and very grainy. “Eating this makes me feel like a farm animal,” one taster said. But others appreciated the moisture of the Honey Cinnamon IPA bar and said they would consider purchasing the bars for hikes or for a novelty gift. (Personally, I loved the farm animal effect, because, yeah, fiber!)

The Toast American Pale Ale made with leftover bread was a bit more of a crowd pleaser, though many of the tasters were admittedly not regular beer drinkers. They found the orange-colored ale to be light, thin, drinkable and mildly carbonated with a moderate hoppy flavor that a few tasters described as “clean.” Those who said they would consider buying the beer suggested serving it at a cookout or pairing it with Mexican food.

While the bars and beer don’t seem poised to win competitive taste tests, our tasters were inspired by their novelty. If the concept of upcycling food waste is not enough to drive a market for these products, environmental consciousness might be. Surveys show that consumers, especially millennials, are increasingly making purchases based on sustainability.

Regrained is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand its production and explore a variety of new upcycled grain products. Holtzman said Toast hopes to partner with another American brewery in the next six months with eyes on Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia and Upstate New York.

In the Washington area, there are at least two breweries that upcycle their byproducts. DC Brau in Northeast Washington donates spent grains to Pizzeria Paradiso during the holidays to make bread for the charity Bread for the City. Heritage Brewing converts about 5 percent of its spent grains into granola and bread, which they serve at their Market Commons brewpub in Arlington (the rest goes to a Virginia farmer for livestock feed).

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