Steers and Beers

There is a well-documented and sometimes dubious connection between cowboy culture and alcohol, but beef and brewing industries have long shared a profitable partnership.
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There is a well-documented and sometimes dubious connection between cowboy culture and alcohol, but beef and brewing industries have long shared a profitable partnership.
photo by Tom Wilmes

The cattle perk their ears as the tractor’s engine roars to life. On cue, the six pregnant heifers slowly turn and amble out of the barn through a steady, freezing sleet to a nearby trough, anticipating the first steaming shovelful of feed.

The feed ration today at Hops & Heifers farm is comprised of spent brewer’s grain from Oskar Blues Brewery, located just a few miles down the road in Longmont, Colo., mixed with several flakes of hay to aid digestion.

The 50-acre farm, owned by Oskar Blues’ founder Dale Katechis, is primarily a cow-calf operation. Once weaned, most of the Black Angus cattle calved here are shipped to sister farms, where they’re primarily raised on grass supplemented with portions of spent brewer’s grain. The grain serves as a low-fat, high-protein supplement that helps maintain the herd’s weight and nutrition, especially during lean winter months when forage is scarce.

“It’s a great stabilizer to even out their diet,” says Geoffrey Hess, who oversees farm operations. “It’s difficult to keep a high production of grass in the fields, especially in this day and age where the drought is against us and our water usage is limited, so we supplement with spent grain along with hay that we raise.

“The grain doesn’t add a lot of fat, since there’s very little sugar left in it after the fermentation process, and it’s already somewhat broken down, so the cattle don’t have to work too hard to get the nutritional benefit,” he says. “It lets them have a nice warm meal and helps keep their body condition score even throughout the year.”

The cattle are processed at a facility in nearby Greeley, Colo. The beef is then trucked back to Longmont, where it’s served at all of Oskar Blues’ regional restaurants, along with the brewery’s beer.

At the turn of the 19th century, most towns had at least one small brewery to satisfy the local populace, and it was common practice to use the by-products of the brewing process as compost or as animal feed. Producers have long recognized its value in fattening cattle, especially when forage is in short supply. Even Adolphus Busch invited local farmers and ranchers to come and pick up his spent grain when he founded Anheuser-Busch Brewery in the 1850s.

In Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest (1874) by Joseph McCoy, the man credited with setting the stage for the great cattle drives when he established the first market for Texas cattle ranchers to ship their beef east, McCoy gives a sketch of a rancher named Major Smith, who he describes as a “persistent winterer of cattle.” Smith wintered more than 1,000 head of Texan cattle in an Illinois still-house in 1873, and kept them fat on a steady supply of slop comprised of “refuse arising from distilling or manufacturing grain into liquors” that would “without something to eat it, become an entire loss.

“Little trouble is experienced in getting every bullock to learn to eat the slop, and they usually get very fat,” McCoy continues. “Inasmuch as they become mature before grass fatted cattle can be had, and at a time when the supply of corn-fed cattle is almost exhausted, they invariably command good prices and generally make large profits for the feeder.”

Today, the total number of American breweries and brewpubs—more than 2,400—has surpassed the number of breweries operating during the 1890s—about 2,100—according to the Brewers Association, a non-profit trade group that advocates for the industry. As more beer is brewed and consumed in the United States, the volume of spent brewer’s grain is also increasing in direct proportion, and cattle producers are again turning to spent brewer’s grain as a ready supply of efficient and inexpensive feed.

Hess says he increasingly fields inquiries from brewers, farmers, and ranchers around the country about the effectiveness of using spent brewer’s grain as a feed supplement, and that he’s happy to share what he’s learned.

“Spent brewer’s grain has become a very inexpensive protein source for animals,” Hess says. “It definitely has a value associated with it.”

Finding a use for spent grain isn’t much of a problem on a small scale, especially for microbreweries like Big Bend Brewing Company in Alpine, Texas, which simply gives away its spent grain to anyone in the community who can use it.

“After each brew is finished, we empty the grains from the mash tun into large trash cans, which are then palletized and picked up by whomever is picking up grain that day,” says business coordinator Shane Galloway. “Our main ‘customers’ pick up grain for cattle, but the local vet clinic also picks it up for horses, and some locals use it for chickens and pigs. It’s a mutually beneficial process—we don’t have to pay any disposal fees and they get free feed.”

But when you consider the beer industry as a whole, however, and especially when you factor in large-scale commercial brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Miller Coors, it creates a logistical quagmire of what to do with the waste. A large production brewery like the Anheuser-Busch plant in Fairfield, Calif., for example, can put out more than 400 tons of spent grain every day.

During the 1980s and ’90s, at the height of “big beer” in America, feed companies would use industrial rotary dryers to dry the wet grain and include it in their feed mixes, says Stan Cooper, director of logistics for Sierra Nevada Brewery and co-manager of its North Carolina Brewery. Cooper worked in the feed industry during that time. But the energy costs of running the dryers nearly around the clock were prohibitive, so they stopped the practice, he says, which led the way for a wet-feed market.

“That’s also when dairies were switching from a full-feed ration to commodity feeding, and they found that the palatability of the dry feed was enhanced by the wet feed,” Cooper says.

Today, wet brewer’s grain, whether served as is arrives from a brewery or mixed with other commodities, is a viable, high-protein supplement to the diet of high-producing animals—as long as there is a steady supply, Cooper says. If the supply is not consistent, or there is variation in the supply, then the grain is better suited for lesser-string animals such as weaner calves and heifers, since any fluctuation in the consistency or quality of the feed supply can affect a cow’s overall health and production.

“Especially in the dairy industry, once a cow gets on brewer’s grain and her production is up to maximum, if you pull her off of it for any reason you’ll never get her milk-production schedule back on track unless you breed her again,” he says. “It’s a challenge, but if you have enough of the right animals around it’s a fabulous product if you can get consistent availability.”

Jack Whittier, a cow-calf extension specialist at Colorado State University, says that as the cost of corn continues on an upward trend, alternative commodities like spent brewer’s grain become more attractive. There’s some transportation costs involved for the farmers, but since most breweries either give away or charge a nominal fee for its spent grain, a less expensive overall feed bill is an enticing prospect for dairies, feedlots and cow/calf programs located near a brewery.

“When the cost of traditional feed grains go up, that increases the relative value of spent grains as well,” he says. “That’s the beauty of ruminant animals—they can use an array of feed products.”

For producers, it’s a matter of striking the right balance between feed costs, animal health, and maximum gains.

“The idea is to put on body condition when it’s less expensive,” Whittier says. “When there’s green grass and grazable feed, then the need for supplemental protein isn’t as great, but when conditions are a little more harsh and feed costs are higher, supplements like spent brewer’s grains are a low-cost, highly digestible tool that producers can use to help maintain desirable body conditioning throughout the year and throughout an animal’s lifespan.

“It’s like putting money in the bank that you can draw on later.”

Steve and Maggie Safford’s Angel Creek Ranch is situated along Nevada’s Clover Valley—fertile bottomland in the shadow of the Ruby Mountains. Their acreage is rife with sweet grasses that support a healthy herd of prime Black Angus, as well as the production of high-quality horse hay.

Although their beef and hay business was steady, the couple wanted to diversify their holdings and, in 1994, Steve, a longtime homebrewer, took his favorite beer recipes and opened Ruby Mountain Brewing on the ranch. Today, Ruby Mountain is thriving as Nevada’s only microbrewery that packages beer for off-premise sale. And his herd is thriving, thanks in part to supplementing their diet with spent grain.

“We feed our grain mostly to our weaners and replacement heifers when we have them separated,” Steve says. “We definitely see the results, as our 3-year-olds breed back much better when they get that extra.”

Throughout the West, breweries and producers are linking up to form this mutually beneficial relationship. Grand Teton Brewing in Idaho gives all of it spent grain to Teton Mountain Ranch, for example, and No Label Brewing Co. in Katy, Texas, donates its grain to local farmers.

Matt Long, brewmaster at Big Sky Brewing in Missoula, Mont., says the brewery donates its spent grain to three local cattle ranchers in trade for beef, which they use for cookouts at the brewery, and Deschutes Brewery in Oregon gives its spent grain to the Borlen Cattle Company (and also serves its ground beef at its restaurants).

When Jack Joyce, co-founder and CEO of Rogue Brewery in Oregon, found out that his brewers were dumping the spent grain at the end of each brew day, the former cattle rancher and lawyer who often represented dairy farmers put a quick end to the practice.

“I said, ‘You don’t want to do that, it’s great feed!’” Joyce says. “We’ve been using it for cattle feed ever since.”

The company also operates Rogue Farms in rural Oregon, where farmers grow hops, barley, pumpkins, rye, hazelnuts, and other crops that often find their way into Rogue beer, as well as raise pigs, goats, chickens, bees, and other animals that support the company’s other efforts. It’s a self-sufficient, regionally focused operation not unlike those that populated the region at the turn of the 20th century.

“We think people should buy local products when they can, and we need to make the best use of all the resources that we have available to us,” Joyce says. “We’re not chest-thumping environmentalists, but some of this stuff just makes sense.”

In many ways, ranchers have long been the primary stewards of the land, making the best use of the resources available to them without overtaxing the ecosystem or looking too far afield to sustain their operation. Theirs is a practical philosophy rooted in efforts that “just make sense” for the good of their cattle, the land, and their business. So when a proven resource such as spent brewer’s grain again becomes available in steady supply, it only makes sense that producers would seek out a partnership with brewers that’s in the best interest of everyone involved. It’s the kind of waste-nothing resourcefulness that only benefits the land, the stock, and, ultimately, the consumer.

What is spent brewer's grain?

Beer is an agricultural product, comprised of four core ingredients: Water, grain, hops, and yeast. The harvested grain, mostly two- and six-row barley, is soaked in water until it germinates and the shoot barely cracks open the seed casing. Growth is halted when the barley is dried and roasted to varying degrees in a kiln, depending on how and in what styles of beer it will be used. This malting process produces enzymes that allow starches in the grain to be converted into fermentable sugars during mashing, the first step in the brewing process, in which brewers mill the malted grain and steep it in a mash tun filled with hot water.

The resulting liquid, now called wort, is strained into a brew kettle, hops are typically added for flavor, and the mixture is brought to a roiling boil. The wort is then set into a whirlpool to remove most of the solids, quickly cooled, and moved to a fermentation vessel. Yeast is added and, over time, the single-celled organisms metabolize the fermentable sugars into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. The result? Beer.

The largest by-product of the brewing process by volume is the wet, spent grain that must be disposed of after each batch of beer. The brewing process strips the grain of most of its starches and sugars, decreasing its overall energy content, but it also helps to partially break down the grain while leaving the roughage.

“It basically becomes a highly digestible fiber,” says Jack Whittier, a cow-calf extension specialist at Colorado State University. “It’s like the difference between corn and corn silage—the white stuff in the middle is starch, most of which is taken out during the brewing process, but the outer coat is still very digestible and doesn’t interfere with digestibility of other parts of the diet.

“When corn is fed along with a high fiber like hay, the starch content of the corn will cause the microbes that digest starch to outcompete the microbes that digest the cellulose in the hay. It’s not very efficient,” he says. “But when you take the starch out, as you do with brewer’s grain during the brewing process, then that antagonist goes away and the net effect is you get better digestion of the cellulose.”