Two years ago, Alex Villeneuve was pressing the moisture out of spent grain with two stainless steel bowls in his Olds College dorm room, wondering what he was doing with his life.
But that all changed when he was awarded a $5,000 innovation incubator grant — the “launching point” for Ceres Solutions Ltd., a company that turns waste from the craft brewing process into something useful.
“I think it’s really important to think of waste products not as waste but more as an opportunity,” said Villeneuve, a student in the Olds College brewmaster program.
“I’ve taken something that was essentially being wasted beforehand and turned it into three products. It’s just a matter of taking things not at their face value and working with that.”
Villeneuve had just transferred from NAIT’s apprenticeship cooking program to Olds College when he noticed the pile of spent grains destined for the compost heap or landfill.
“When I saw all this waste coming out of the brewery, it really seemed like a shame,” said Villeneuve. “You can either compost it or give it to a farmer or throw it in the garbage, and it seemed like you could be doing a whole lot more with that.”
But the problem with spent grains is that they’re mostly water, so they rot quickly, he added.
“If I were to leave them alone, they would rot and it would smell pretty terrible. That’s what brewers are experiencing outside of their breweries,” said Villeneuve.
Spent grains are largely composed of cellulose, so his first step was finding a solution that could break down its tough fibres. His answer? Oyster mushrooms.
“The mushrooms I’m cultivating right now are called cellulose digestion saprophytes — they’re a mushroom that grows in a tree,” he said. “I wanted some kind of organism that would break down the cellulose — those complex fibres — and turn them into something more useful, and that’s really why I chose to grow them.”
‘Not just feed’
Villeneuve begins his growing process by pressing most of the water out of the spent grains and then pasteurizing them to kill any bad bacteria. He then mixes the pasteurized grains with his mushroom spores and puts the mixture into long plastic tubes that “replicate what a tree would be like.”
At that point, he incubates the tubes at room temperature for seven days, and then transfers the tubes to a tent with higher humidity and more light, which stimulates the mushrooms to start fruiting. Seven days later, the mushrooms are ready to harvest.
“The entire process takes exactly two weeks, and then I have something that’s sellable,” said Villeneuve.
“We’re fruiting at exactly a 25 per cent ratio right now. For every 1,000 pounds of grain, we get 250 pounds of mushrooms.”
Villeneuve will be working with a distributor from Calgary to sell his mushrooms to restaurants and farmers’ markets in the city and across southern Alberta. But the leftover grain has its uses, too. It’s high in protein, making it ideal for animal feed, and Villeneuve has found other applications for it as well.
“We’ve developed a lot of secondary products. Initially, we thought it would just be mushrooms and feed products, but we’ve discovered that there’s quite a few other options along with that,” said Villeneuve. “It’s not just feed. It can be used as a composting aid, for permaculture applications, for community gardens, for oilfield remediation. It’s pretty exciting stuff.”
But right now, Villeneuve isn’t able to process as much as he’d like to. He’s almost exclusively working with the Olds College Brewery, but other breweries in Calgary have expressed interest in using his services — something he can’t do until he scales up his company.
“If I’m not in class, I’m able to process all of the brewery’s grain pretty much single-handedly with the pilot system I have right now,” he said. “But I’m not processing loads.”
In addition to the $5,000 Olds College grant (which got him warehouse space) and a $13,000 Alberta Innovates grant (that he used for “a very small production system”), Villeneuve also won the Alberta Innovates VenturePrize Student award last year — a grant that he’ll be using to invest in process automation.
“I can go from processing maybe a tonne a week to a tonne an hour,” he said, adding he’ll be using any additional funding to scale his capacity.
But what’s next for Villeneuve and Ceres Solutions is still “the big question.”
“We’ve had so much success over the last year, it’s almost impossible to say,” he said.
“I came from doing pretty much everything in my college dorm room to having a facility, a distributor, feed sales — huge amounts of success.
“It’s really exciting. I’d love to talk to myself a year from now to see how it all goes.”