Norm Justice, a farmer from Gorham, pressed a button and watched as a brownish sludge sluiced down from a tall silver silo at Allagash Brewing Co. into his trailer bed.
Justice planned to take some of the sludge – spent grain left over from the brewing process – to give to his 20 cows and haul the rest to several large farms in the state.
“This feeds thousands of head a week here in Maine,” he said.
Maine’s craft brewers and farmers have had a standing agreement for years: After the brewers take malt sugars and flavors from various grains, farmers get the leftovers as cheap, protein-rich feed for their livestock. The breweries offload a waste product without paying to process it or putting it in a landfill.
“It’s just always been a very symbiotic relationship between a brewer and a farmer,” said Jason Perkins, brewmaster for Allagash Brewing in Portland.
A new rule proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could shake up the longtime, mutually beneficial practice. The agency plans to require brewers to treat the byproduct as animal feed, meaning it would have to be dried and packaged before being fed to animals, or dumped in landfills.
Brewers say the spent grain is safe and there’s no evidence that anything in it could harm livestock or endanger humans who eat that livestock.
“This is definitely a solution looking for a problem,” said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, which is urging its members to contact the FDA and plead for an exemption.
The proposed rule is part of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, which gave the FDA sweeping authority to overhaul federal food safety regulations. It came about because of concerns about tainted pet food imported from China and salmonella outbreaks caused by improper food handling. The new regulation would cover all types of foods destined for pets, farm animals and zoos.
“It was an overarching, broad piece of legislation that included breweries without really looking into it,” said Brandon Mazer, general counsel for Shipyard Brewing Co. in Portland. “There’s never been a question of whether the grains are unsafe or unsanitary.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, challenged the change Thursday, calling it “absurd.”
“I’m not really sure how we can say these grains are safe enough for human consumption but then, on the other side, they are not safe enough to feed to a cow,” Pingree said.
Brewers say at least 90 percent of Maine craft brewers count on their relationships with farmers to dispose of spent grain. Exactly how they do it varies from brewery to brewery.
At Allagash, Justice drops by with his trailer four or five days a week and hauls away 16 to 18 tons per trip. The only cost to him is equipment and gas. The grains are mostly malted barley, Perkins said, but they can include wheat or roasted malts, depending on what kind of beer was made.
When Justice started working with Allagash, 12 years ago, it was a small brewery and he could feed his own cattle all the spent grain it produced. As the brewery grew, he searched out other farms that needed grain and created a side business. He sells it for $35 to $40 a ton, depending on how far he has to truck it.
“This is coming out as a human-grade byproduct, and we actually handle this no differently than any other commodity we feed cattle with on the farm,” Justice said.
The grain makes up about 25 percent of his cows’ diet. If he didn’t have access to it, Justice said, he’d have to buy more expensive grains.
“Most of your forages that you’re feeding cattle aren’t sufficient to sustain them – your grasses and your corns – so you always have to supplement them with some type of protein, and this does that,” he said.
For smaller farms like his, replacing the brewery grain could mean spending hundreds of dollars more each week; for larger farms, it could mean thousands.
If Allagash Brewing didn’t have a relationship with a farmer, Perkins said, it would probably have to put the waste in a landfill.
“Most likely the cost of any packaging and drying that would be required would be cost-prohibitive for us, so the landfill would be the next option,” he said. “Costs aside, frankly, it’s just such a shame that such a valuable resource could just be wasted.”
The spent grain from Sebago Brewing Co. in Gorham – about five tons a week – goes to Applegate Deer Farms in West Newfield to feed deer, said Kai Adams, co-founder of the brewery.
“It’s free,” Adams said. “We’re happy to have him take it, and he’ll give us a little venison once in a while.”
At Shipyard Brewing, on Portland’s urban peninsula, there isn’t space to set up an operation to dry and package the spent grain, sometimes as much as 600 tons a month, said Mazer, the company’s general counsel.
Peter Bolduc of Re-Harvest, a company that serves as the middleman between Shipyard Brewing and farmers, said he sells the grain to dozens of farmers around the state. He said the FDA proposal is just “the tip of the iceberg” for regulating animal feed because many commercial food byproducts go into it.
“If they’re going to do that for the breweries,” he said, “what’s next, bakeries?”
At Maine Beer Co. in Freeport, about five tons of spent grain each week goes to Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick as compost and livestock feed, said Dan Kleban, the brewery’s owner and the president of the Maine Brewers’ Guild.
Kleban said the FDA rule is “well-intentioned” but smaller craft breweries would not be able to comply with it. He said his brewery would have to dump the grain in a landfill or figure out a way to have it composted, even if that meant setting up its own composting business.
“We make beer,” Kleban said. “We’re not in the agricultural business.”
Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:
Correction: This story was revised at 10:30 a.m., March 28, 2014, to reflect that the Maine Brewers’ Guild is urging its members to contact the FDA and plead for an exemption to a proposed rule that would require them to dry and package spent grains before they are fed to animals, or dumped in landfills.