What came first: bread or brew? It is a question Elizabeth Yorke thinks about a lot, fascinated by the symbiotic relationship between the two. It was on an internship with bread historian William Rubel, in the US’ Bay Area, in 2016 that Yorke first learnt of the link between the two age-old dietary staples. “For centuries, bakers and brewers had worked in close proximity, sharing common ingredients like grain, yeast and water,” says the Bengaluru-based chef- turned-food researcher and writer.
Yorke soon discovered that often bakers would share stale bread with the brewer, to make beer, while the brewer would share the leftover spent grains and yeast with the baker, to make bread.
“This model was really great,” says Yorke, founder of Saving Grains, an organisation that upcycles spent grains. Her curiosity about building better food systems saw her visiting the Future Food Institute in Italy in 2018 as a research scholar, part of the Food Innovation Program. “My focus was on circularity and sustainability in the food system,” says Yorke, adding that she spoke to over 160 people from the food industry to understand what sustainability meant to them and explored different models of circular food systems. “This research gave me a great foundation to prototype the Saving Grains model,” says Yorke.
In November 2021, she founded Saving Grains, a decision catalysed partly by the pandemic. Co-running another project, Edible Issues, a collective that focuses on fostering thought and action on the Indian food system, she became part of “Who Feeds Bengaluru”, a research project that attempted to understand how food moves around in the city, where it comes from and who feeds those who feed us. “Lots of conversation about sustainable food systems, food waste and urban agriculture made me look to by-products produced within the city as food,” she says.
Already in love with brewers’ spent grain by then, for both its flavour and nutritional content, she decided to mesh the two ideas. The surfeit of microbreweries in the city made it a great place to experiment with this model. “In 2019, there were approximately 200 microbreweries in India and 67 in Bengaluru alone,” she says, pointing out that a typical microbrewery produces around 8,000 litres of beer every month, resulting in approximately 320 tonnes of spent grain, which often ends up in landfills.
While the most obvious advantage spent grain flour offers is reduced food waste, it is also great from a nutrition perspective.“Research studies and investigation into products that are being made from this grain across the world show that although the grain is ‘spent’ of a lot of its starch and sugars, it still has good protein and fibre content and is potentially a great food for humans and pets,” says Yorke. For instance, the flour made by Saving Grains offers about 23% protein, 46% dietary fibre and less than 0.1% gluten, making it a great option for the elderly or people struggling with metabolic and digestive issues, compared to, say, all-purpose flour that has a gluten content of 12-14%. “Adding it to bread, chapati and cookies surprises the eater with great malty and earthy flavours,” says Yorke.
Currently, the Saving Grains team sources its spent grain from Geist Brewing Co., a microbrewery that Yorke says has “ zero liquid discharge” and “a great vision regarding sustainability”. This grain goes into making small batches of flour—“we call it Good Flour because it’s delicious and has all that nutrition”—as well as value-added products like granola, biscuits, cookies, pasta and chapati, which retail on their website. They work with a women-run community centre, Kutumba, as well as several home bakers in Bengaluru to develop these offerings. In keeping with the festive season, they even have a range of Diwali sweets made of spent flour—laddoos, chikki and halwa. These cost between ₹160 and ₹250.
Yorke says she hopes to educate more people about the deliciousness of spent grain. She sees it as not just an affordable and nutritious food source but as a way of engaging people, creating spaces and opportunities to increase their incomes, build community, enhance livelihoods and create an atmosphere for responsible food citizenship. “Often, when we think about the circular economy in food, keeping resources in use is a priority. But what if we put the world’s largest resource—human beings—at the centre of this economy?” she asks.
For now, however, she is simply optimistic about this: “ That right here in our cities, we can make the tiniest difference and build something delicious together—even if it’s with just a few spent grains.”