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Cheesemakers get crafty using spent grain from Utah whiskey, beer

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(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gold Creek Farms ranch manager Ricky Dynes fills a trough with stillage from High West Distillery at the farm near Kamas on Friday, Aug. 1, 2014.

By Kathy Stephenson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Aug 05 2014 09:46AM
Updated Aug 7, 2014 10:17AM

Like Pavlov’s dogs, the dairy cows at Gold Creek Farms in Woodland were noticeably excited every time the truck from High West Distillery drove up the road.

It wasn’t the award-winning whiskey that got these bovines giddy — it was barrels of spent grain. These leftovers from the Park City distilling process soon would be mixed into their feed, making a meal that was high in protein, fiber and deliciousness — at least for a farm animal.

It’s just one of several arrangements that brewers and distillers in Utah are using to get rid of the byproducts of their beer and booze.

"It was pretty funny to see them jumping around like little kids," cheesemaker Fernando Chavez-Sandoval said of the usually sedate cows that produce milk for Gold Creek’s award-winning cheeses. The farm makes cheddar, parmesan, romano and a new blue cheese infused with High West Whiskey, a nod to their unique relationship.

Recently, Gold Creek has started driving its own truck to Park City to pick up the High West leftovers, more than 12,000 pounds a week of spent grain. The cows don’t get quite as excited when they see the regular old farm truck, said Chavez-Sandoval, "although they still love to eat what’s in the back."

The spent grain, which Gold Creek gets for free minus transportation costs, adds "a little bit of flavor to the milk and we think it helps increase the butterfat," Chavez-Sandoval said.

The agreement helps set Gold Creek apart from its competitors, but also helps High West recycle the thousands of pounds of byproduct it creates when making whiskey and vodka.

"We’re happy to give it to them for free," said High West owner David Perkins.

When consumers find out what the cows have been eating, silly questions follow, Chavez-Sandoval said. The best one: "So are the cows always drunk?"

"That’s never the case," Chavez-Sandoval has to explain. "High West keeps all the alcohol to themselves. We get the byproduct."

Not far away, Russ Cohler, the cheesemaker at Heber Valley Artisan Cheese, has been experimenting for about a month with the spent grain from Wasatch Brew Pub in Park City. The farm has been mixing the stillage with dried and pickled alfalfa, whey, molasses and minerals.

"Our nutritionist has been testing it and it’s turned out to be a pretty good feed," he said.

The sustainability factor is a bonus.

"We’re taking something that, for us, is a high-quality, inexpensive protein source that the brewery would normally have to pay to dispose of," he said.

The Utah Brewers Cooperative that produces Wasatch and Squatters beers is excited about the agriculture loop, said marketing director Judy Cullen.

"We serve Heber Valley cheese [in the pubs] and they feed our grain to the cows," she said. "It’s recycling in perpetuity."

National trend • Breweries and distilleries across the country use tractor-trailer loads of grain every day to brew tens of thousands of gallons of beer and spirits. The grain is soaked in warm water, which extracts starch that turns into fermentable sugars. Once that’s done, the grain is separated and discarded, and the brewing process continues.

Earlier this year, federal officials backed off proposed livestock feed rules that beermakers feared would cost $13.6 million per brewery if they wanted to sell grain left from making beer to ranchers and dairy farmers.

But the industry is getting increasingly crafty about how to get rid of the grain and hops left after brewing, turning the byproducts and the beer into everything from bread and dog treats to lip balm and soap.

In Virginia, Devils Backbone Brewing Co.’s pub serves bread made with spent grain. The Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau last year installed a unique boiler system furnace that burns the company’s spent grain to create steam, which powers the majority of the brewery’s operations. Oskar Blues, which operates breweries in Colorado and North Carolina, has "beer-blessed" lip balm made from the hops and barley in its Old Chub Scotch Ale.

"Innovation has long been a hallmark of craft brewers, where the brewers are always looking for new things they can create that haven’t been made before," said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group for the majority of U.S. brewing companies. "It’s attractive to the consumer that, ‘Oh, there’s another use for what’s going into my beer.’ "

Blocks away from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Trophy Brewing Co. uses some of its spent grain to make granola and cookies, as well as the dough for the pizza it serves. And the Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland uses spent grain in the soil at its farms and as a surface on which to grow mushrooms.

Other companies also are cashing in. ReGrained, a California-based company, uses spent grain in granola bars.

In brewery-heavy San Diego, Green Flash Brewing Co., Stone Brewing Co., Societe Brewing Co. and others supply their spent grain to David Crane, a home brewer whose small company makes Doggie Beer Bones out of the beer leftovers mixed with peanut butter, barley flour, eggs and water. They’re sold in breweries and pet stores nationwide and on the Internet. But don’t worry, Fido, won’t get drunk off them — they don’t contain alcohol or hops, which are harmful to dogs.

More Utah recycling • Because of the sheer amount of spent grain in beer- and spiritmaking, the majority of it ends up on farms for animal feed or compost. That’s especially the case in Utah. Uinta Brewing Co. in Salt Lake City, for example, has contracted with a rancher near Tooele, who collects 6 million pounds of grain to feed his cattle, sheep and pigs; a cooperative collects the leftover grain from Epic Brewing Co., distributing it to farmers and ranchers in Utah County.

Matthew Allred, Epic’s communications director, said Washakie Renewable Energy in Salt Lake City takes Epic’s spent yeast to use in its biodiesel process.

Epic’s hop debris is sent to the compost center at the city dump, said Allred, who added that even home brewers can get in the habit of recycling.

"When I make beer at home, I take all the spent grain and throw it on my garden beds," he said. "It makes a good top cover that looks nice and biodegrades over time."

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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