This story is part of a collaborative series, from the Institute for Nonprofit News, Planet Detroit and four other news partners, examining climate resilience across the Great Lakes. This reporting was made possible with support from the Joyce Foundation.
Inside a nearly 50,000-square-foot bakehouse on Detroit’s east side, workers are helping reduce harm to the planet by producing sweet and savory crackers made from leftover brewer’s barley.
It’s an exhilarating time for the team behind Avalon International Breads, whose humble beginnings can be traced to a storefront bakery in the city’s Cass Corridor neighborhood. They’ve built a reputation for artisan baked goods over the course of its 25-year history and have multiple cafes across Michigan. Recently, they opened two new locations, inside Rivertown Market in Detroit and Woodward Corner Market in Royal Oak.
Eco-conscious practices, like composting and recycling, have been an indelible part of the company’s DNA. These actions are embedded within a core philosophy of the “triple bottom line,” which also commits to building community and offering employees fair wages, benefits, and a compassionate workplace. Avalon now plays a key role in a food sustainability initiative called the Upcycled Grain Project, positioning them at the forefront of a movement aligned with their values.
The food waste reduction method doesn’t just elevate Avalon’s sustainability mission to new heights. It’s good for business.
“It’s not only reducing [waste], but also creating an economic engine out of waste. I feel like it’s sort of the next wave, like what recycling was in the 1990s,” Avalon CEO and co-founder Jackie Victor said. “If you can reconstitute those grains into nutrient-dense food, you’re creating a delicious product that ideally, with scale, can be even cheaper than conventional grains,” added Franz Narowski, Avalon’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer.
An emerging field in the United States, upcycling spent grains promises to help shrink the detrimental effects of the brewing process. Roughly 30 million tons of brewers’ spent grains are produced by the brewing industry worldwide each year, according to research, and the brewing process itself can leave a heavy carbon footprint.
Additionally, for every 1,000 tons of beer created, anywhere between 137 to 173 tons of solid waste, which includes spent grain, is also produced, another group of researchers found.
Upcycling grains helps cut food waste and its associated greenhouse gas emissions by finding alternative uses for the spent malted barley from beer manufacture. Spent grains are high in nutritional value, and farmers have used them to feed animals, or as secondary fertilizers, Narowski said.
The story behind Avalon’s upcycling grain project began with New Zealand-based Rutherford & Meyer, a company that produces and exports gourmet food products. The company began processing spent grain from local breweries using equipment that mills it into flour that can be baked into food products.
The firm started selling these products and wanted to expand its reach by contracting a manufacturer in the United States, eventually landing on Avalon as a partner. It’s a co-manufacturing relationship. Avalon uses the New Zealand company’s processes and recipes to create its products.
“It’s our job to procure all the ingredients, produce it, package it, and then ship it out to distributors,” Narowski said.
A Minnesota-based company called NETZRO sources the flour for Avalon, which they use to make the final product, the crackers. So far, Avalon gets flour every few months based on demand.
The crackers are bite-sized, charcuterie-like crisps that pair well with jam and come in boxes labeled “Upcycled Grain Project.” Flavors include cranberry coconut, fig cardamom, orange sesame, and the most popular flavor, raisin rosemary.
Right now, Avalon’s cracker production is still in its early stages, and Rutherford & Meyer are working with different chains to distribute the products in 2023, Narowski said.
It’s only been a few months since Avalon began manufacturing the crackers. So far, Victor and Narowski said they’re also not experiencing any immediate challenges, like supply chain issues. But as volume scales up, maintaining quality is essential.
“You want to make sure there’s consistency in the grains that you’re processing to get the same flavor profile,” Narowski said.
As the project moves forward, Narowski sees plentiful potential in upcycling. He envisions potentially launching an entire line of snack products using this method.
Being part of a movement that not only combats the climate crisis but also reconfigures the way the local food ecosystem operates could help chart the path for Avalon’s next chapter.
“Climate change is an existential crisis all over the world,” Victor said. “It’s fitting and inspiring to be part of an international solution.”
Author: Eleanore Catolico
Eleanore Catolico is a freelance journalist based in Detroit who’s covered education, the environment, and the criminal justice system. Follow her on Twitter @e_catolico.