In most ways, Jim Fields’ farm in southeast Bend smells just like any other farm in Central Oregon.
A vague aroma of damp soil, horse manure and composting food products hangs in the air.
But if the wind hits right, there’s another smell that distinguishes Fields Farm from others in the area: the unmistakably spicy aroma of hops.
Hops that were recently used to flavor Worthy Brewing’s beer.
“We don’t have to travel more than four miles to collect it, so we do this at a very low cost,” Fields said. “It’s a great benefit to us because we take that brewery waste and combine it with things like horse manure and coffee grounds, and it all works together to create this wonderful compost.”
To make that award-winning IPA or that groundbreaking porter, local breweries produce tons upon tons of brewing byproduct waste, such as spent grain, hops and yeast, each month.
Deschutes Brewery alone goes through 11,000 tons of grain a year to produce its yearly production of 280,000 barrels of beer. As a cost-effective measure, most local breweries have figured out a way to get rid of this waste in a manner that not only takes the material off their hands, but that also benefits local ranches and farms.
“It’s a great symbiotic relationship that happens here,” said Chris Hodge, CEO of Worthy Brewing. “They don’t charge us, and we don’t charge them. It’s a win-win for everybody, and we consider them great friends of the brewery.”
Jim Fields, who owns Fields Farm, has perhaps benefited from the local craft beer scene longer than anyone else in the area. The farmer of more than 25 years has been somewhat of a pioneer in field: He’s been using brewery byproducts as fertilizer and goose feed on his farm since Deschutes Brewery was just a hole-in-the-wall pub in downtown Bend. Fields makes between three to five trips a week to local breweries to collect some of their spent waste.
From Worthy Brewing, Fields each week collects 80 pounds of spent hops and 1,400 gallons of spent yeast and trub, the sludge sediment left behind during the brew process. Fields also transports some of this material from other local breweries like Deschutes Brewery and 10 Barrel Brewing Co. All of it goes into his compost pile. Fields said the spent hops add nitrogen to the compost and also speed up the composting process by keeping the manure moist. This compost then helps fertilize Fields’ farm, which grows enough vegetables to feed 100 families a year, Fields said.
“In the beginning it really started with horse manure,” Fields said. “We had trouble getting it wet enough. We do live in a desert, and that makes it harder. But we found that by adding waste hops to horse manure, it kicks off the decomposing process. It starts creating steam and heat.”
The composting process generally takes from six months to a year, said Fields. And while he’s saving money because he gets the brewery byproduct material for free, Fields said the labor for hauling this material ends up making the deal more of a break-even situation. Recently, he said, breweries have started to pay him for the cost involved in hauling away the waste.
Aside from the spent hops and trub, Fields also collects Deschutes Brewery’s malt dust that originates from cracked grain. He uses this as feed to attract geese. The animals then directly fertilize the fields.
After more than 25 years of using brewery byproducts in his compost, Fields said the farm’s soil has improved significantly.
Worthy Brewing disposes of the 10,000 pounds of grain it uses each week through two local ranchers, one of whom is René Schwab of Cowgirl Hideout, a ranch in Alfalfa. Schwab makes two to three trips to Worthy each week, lugging back about 7,000 pounds of spent grain weekly. This provides feed to the ranches’ 70 or so cows. Schwab said the grain is used as a protein supplement to the livestock’s diet, rather than the diet itself, as the cows will explode if they eat grain alone. Some of the grain’s nutrients are also extracted during the brewing process.
“It’s kind of like having dessert with dinner for them,” Schwab said.
Schwab has been feeding her cattle the grain since October, and said so far, both the cows and the customers who buy the beef have been happy with it. She also said using the spent grain in her ranching operations has generated plenty of interest from other ranchers in the area.
Feeding spent brewery grain to livestock is by no means a new trend. Craig Horrell, the utilities manager for Deschutes Brewery, said Henry Weinhard’s in Portland started disposing of spent grain to area ranchers years ago. In its infancy, Deschutes Brewery gave its spent grain directly to local ranches, but now the brewery has become so large, it’s had to pay for a commodities group to haul away the 11,000 tons of spent grain it produces annually. The commodities group then sells the spent grain to local ranches and farms.
“It’s such a large task, and it would be a nightmare to try to organize trucks with different individuals,” Horrell said. “It’s a lot easier just to go through one group.”
Horrell said most breweries dispose of their grain by handing it off to ranchers and farmers because it’s the most cost-effective and sensible way of getting rid of it.
“It’s something that all breweries are doing if they can,” Horrell said. “The grain is still of value.”
Shawn Jones, a Mitchell rancher who has used brewery grain for livestock feed for about a year and a half, said he had his spent grain tested for protein content and discovered it actually has a higher protein content than most alfalfa. He now uses the grain in place of the alfalfa, and mixes it with grass and hay.
“The first day we fed it to the cows, they were like ‘What is this?’” Jones said. “They didn’t want to eat it. But now, they can’t get it fast enough. They run to the truck when we get back.”
Jones, who did not wish to disclose which brewery he gets the material from, said spent grain is becoming a sought-after commodity for local ranchers because of the money it saves them, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get in on the collection market.
“It saves us so much money,” Jones said. “The grain is almost too good to be true.”
But while the grain is usually free, the cost of labor and materials associated with hauling copious amounts of the spent material is not. Rob Rastovich, the owner of Rastovich Family Farm who, along with Borlen Cattle Co., sells Barley Beef, said there’s a misconception that the spent grain comes without cost.
“I think what happens is that a lot of times, ranchers see it as free feed,” Rastovich said. “But in my opinion, there’s nothing free about it in terms of labor costs and actually getting that stuff out here. A lot goes into transportation and building an infrastructure to feed the cows.”
Rastovich gathers two kinds of brewery byproducts from Deschutes Brewery’s brewpub in downtown Bend: the brewpub’s excess wort, which he uses as fertilizer for his fields, along with a beer mash that includes spent grain, hops and yeast. This, along with spent materials he collects from five other local breweries, amounts to about 15 to 20 tons of spent material a week, and feeds about 250 cows between Rastovich’s farm and the Borlen Cattle Co. He said the spent grain not only gives the beef a tender flavor, but it also makes the cows happy.
“Sometimes we buy mama cows from off the desert if we’re looking to expand the herd,” Rastovich said. “They usually come in a little weaker. But boy, they get on that beer mash, and they perk right up.”
Rastovich also said he’s noticed his cows have a calmer demeanor, which he attributes to the spent grain product.
The beef that comes from the Rastovich and Borlen cattle is then sold locally. One of their biggest clients is Deschutes Brewery.
“We are very proud of the fact that our cows eat beer mash,” Rastovich said. “It’s a cool story that you can go to Deschutes, and get a burger that was raised on the beer you’re drinking.”
Rastovich said in his opinion, there’s plenty of spent grain to go around.
“I think the more breweries there are, and the more farmers that participate, the better,” Rastovich said. “It works out for everybody.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0354, firstname.lastname@example.org