How to turn food waste into a sellable drinks product – Sustainability Spotlight

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In this month's look at sustainability in the drinks industry, Ben Cooper meets the founder of a campaign group against waste, who is marketing a new beer, made from unused bread.

Toast is a beer made using waste bread

Toast is a beer made using waste bread

Food waste is deemed not only to be one of the gravest sustainability problems the world faces, but also one of the most senseless.

As food security concerns grow, it is almost incredible that a third of the food calories grown in the world go to waste. Owing to increasingly-global food supply chains, food is often lost in developing countries where impoverished agricultural communities producing commodities for the developed world live under the threat of malnutrition and hunger.

Every drop of water and other natural resource that went into producing that food is wasted and, as climate change takes hold, that waste will become increasingly unacceptable and, more importantly, unaffordable. In fact, if food waste were a country, it would rank third in terms of its carbon footprint, behind China and the US. The economic cost of food waste is equally staggering, representing a cost to the global economy in the region of US$750bn a year.

Last June, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) resolved to halve food waste within the operations of its 400 retailer and manufacturers members by 2025. The CGF includes Diageo and Heineken among its members, but neither company might have thought that a product they both produce, namely beer, might offer an ingenious way of tackling at least one significant area of food waste.

Earlier this month, a new beer was launched on the UK market called Toast Ale, which is made from bread that would otherwise have been wasted.

According to Feedback, a campaign group against food waste that is behind the launch of Toast Ale, 44% of the bread baked in the UK is not eaten. The idea of making beer out of discarded bread came from Belgium where the Brussels Beer Project already markets a Bread Bitter. Toast Ale is based on the Brussels Beer Project's method and the Belgian craft brewer has supported the development of the UK brew, which is produced by the Hackney Brewery.

Tristram Stuart, founder of Feedback, not only campaigns against the wasteful policies of major supermarkets, but also believes in promoting "positive, delicious solutions to food waste".

The owners of Toast Ale have even gone so far as to publish their recipe, encouraging home brewers to make the beer themselves, thereby offering a chance to save more bread from being wasted in the home.

"If you took the bread we waste, you'd have enough calories to lift 24m of the world's malnourished people out of hunger," says Stuart. "That is a colossal problem. And, if there's a solution that involves drinking and enjoying yourself, that's a cracking idea."

Having already spread from Belgium to the UK, Stuart says Toast Ale has attracted interest from brewers and food waste activists in the US, Peru, Czech, Switzerland and Iceland. "I am confident that we have helped to kick off a brewing movement," says Stuart. "In two years' time, if it's not in every continent I will be surprised."

The fact that it is both boutique brewers and campaigners who have been enquiring about Toast Ale prompts the question: Is this a campaign vehicle or viable commercial opportunity? The answer appears to be both and, moreover, the more commercially-viable such a product becomes, the better it is for the campaign, both in terms of returns and the profile it lends.

"When people ask, what does success look like for the Toast Ale project for me, if we have shifted the needle in terms of raising awareness about food waste and inspired brewers to make bread beer and other people to come up with solutions for food waste more generally, as far as I'm concerned that is success," Stuart tells just-drinks. "If, in addition to that, we create a business that becomes sustainable revenue for the charity, that is a massive and super-cool bonus."

Stuart is also sanguine about the prospects of taking bread beer to scale. There are clearly sufficiently large volumes of bread being wasted, but he believes the logistic challenge of moving it out of the supermarket supply chain to a brewer is relatively straightforward.

Thanks in no small part to campaigner pressure, supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's are backhauling bread that is not sold back to their regional distribution centres, where it generally goes to make animal feed.

"Once you've realised this is an opportunity for saving money on disposal, creating value where there is nothing, it really is not rocket science to sort out those logistics," Stuart explains. "And, if it's worth it for the relatively low-value product, animal feed, you can bet it's worth it for a high-value product like beer.

"The whole reason why this idea excited me more than many other businesses trying to tackle food waste by making it into a product is precisely because the logistics work out. The feedstock is there and you're creating an ambient product that is then stable for a long time. So, logistically it works a treat."

Stuart says he has not spoken to the major supermarkets about the product yet, nor has he had direct discussions with major brewers, though he says there has been interest from larger beer producers. For the time being, his priority is to partner with craft brewers. However, the fact that bread beer is so suited to a craft or local brewer speaks volumes and may make interest from larger brewers all the more likely.

As major brewers fall over themselves to gain access to the growing craft beer segment with authentic products, a beer that ticks the craft and sustainability boxes at the same time could prove very appealing.

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