Spent Grain Musings, Again

The second spent-grain experiment is going to take two weekends to accomplish. Many people apparently dry the spent grain and then grind it into flour, so I’m giving that a try. The drying process takes most of a day–you spread the wet grain out on trays and put it into a very low oven (in my case, 170 degrees F is as low as it will go), stirring it around once or twice so it all dries and doesn’t scorch. I froze batches of the wet grain last week, for adding directly into bread recipes, but I still had a big pile left, so I dried two pans yesterday and I’ll do the rest today when I get back from Pilates. Then you’re supposed to grind it in a flour mill, but I do not (yet) have a flour mill, so I’ll try the food processor and/or the coffee grinder and see what they do. For the small amounts I’m grinding, that should be fine.

I can tell that there won’t be much flour out of the whole enterprise, but it’s also true that I wouldn’t want to attempt a bread (or many other things) using only spent grain, at least not if the grain is barley or rye. Barley is most the common grain in standard beer brewing, but it doesn’t have much gluten in it (neither does rye), so you couldn’t do a loaf of bread using only that flour, or you’d have a brick. Oats have no gluten at all, so you also can’t do a 100% oat bread and have it be anything other than a brick, at least not without a lot of eggs or some other leavener. I remember talking to a brewer about wheat beer, and the opposite is true for beer. It turns out that the thing that makes for great bread–the gluten in the wheat–also makes it impossible to do a 100% wheat beer; the gluten clogs up the brewing equipment.

I think I’ll try some spent grain in the Amazing Crackers recipe and maybe in a chocolate recipe of some kind; as we know from malted milk balls (not to mention milk stout), chocolate and malted barley flavors go together nicely. And possibly in some kind of pretzel thing. This means I will continue on my quest to get a steady supply of spent grain–a quest that was inadvertently aided on Friday night in an unexpected way. We stopped in at Temperance, in part to taste the newly released IBA and in part so I could share loaves of the spent grain bread I’d made for them. As I was sitting at the bar, a woman came up to me and asked if I was me–turns out that she had lived in my dorm my first year of college, and we shared a circle of friends. Of course I remembered her, though we haven’t seen each other in at least 30-plus years, and her husband is a brewer as well and offered his spent grain to me.

All of these experiments remind me why I wanted to open a bakery. The work of a bakery is brutally difficult: long hours on your feet, lots of lifting and carrying of heavy things (50-lb sacks of flour; full sheet pans of laminated dough; 125-pound containers of bread dough), and, unless you’re the owner (and possibly even then), low pay. If you’re working with yeast, and I obviously am, that also means you have to obey the demands of the yeast. You can tweak it a bit by tweaking the temperature at which fermentation is taking place, but that requires expensive equipment, and space, to do it well. Because the product you sell is so small, you have to sell a lot–of cupcakes, donuts, loaves of bread, pastries, cookies–and you have to manage the production schedule so you have enough of everything but not so much that things go stale. The production itself requires that you work when others are sleeping; an overnight shift is almost necessary. So, yes, there are a million reasons not to do it.

But I love the experimentation. With the spent grain, I love the idea of taking what is essentially a waste product and finding a way to make it not just useful but a feature of a new product. (Most brewers find a farmer who will take the grain to feed it to cows or, presumably, pigs; a brewery in Alaska uses their spent grain to power the brewery, because shipping the grain is too expensive.) Even last week’s lime and coconut cookie experiment was born of having some ingredients on hand that I hadn’t used before and trying to figure out how to make them work.

In order to make this work in a bakery setting, though, you also have to be able to produce the same product every time. If you develop a line of spent grain baked goods, then you will need to have those goods taste the same every time the customer walks in the door, within a fairly narrow range. You would have to figure out a time when you can use your ovens to dry the grain, except that there’s no time when the ovens aren’t being used–the number and size of the ovens are two of the major rate-limiting factors in a bakery. You’d have to be able to adjust for the different roasts–a dark-roasted grain from a stout is going to give you a different flavor profile than a lighter roast from a pale ale. You have to store the ingredients.  And so on.

All of these are problems that can be solved, of course, but they have to be solved while you also run the business, which is a problem to be solved on an ongoing basis. There’s a part of me that still fantasizes about it, mind you; the complexity of the factors is one of the things that appeals to me, actually. But short of winning the lottery, I don’t see how it happens, and if I win the lottery, I don’t know that starting a business with very low profit margins is the way to go.

On the other hand, running a small bakery next to a brewery, thereby supplying the baked goods for the brewpub and using the spent grain from the brewery, would be an interesting business model . . . if I win the lottery.

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