OLDS COLLEGE STUDENT FINDS INNOVATIVE USE FOR SPENT BREWERS’ GRAIN
BY ANDREA HILDERMAN
Hearing that a college student was growing mushrooms in his dorm room might give you the wrong idea, but Alex Villeneuve is not that kind of student. In fact, Villeneuve saw an opportunity in mushrooms, and has followed through on that idea to create what is poised to be a full-fledged agriculture business.
“The idea for this business came to me my very first day attending the brewmaster and brewery operations program at Olds College,” said Villeneuve, who also has three years of experience as an apprentice chef under his belt. “When I saw the spent grain from the brewing process being—essentially—dumped, I immediately wondered if I could grow mushrooms with it instead.”
In his Olds College dorm room, he experimented with growing mushrooms using Ziploc bags and the spent grains from the brewing process to make sure his idea would work.
The idea didn’t quite come out of the blue, as Villeneuve had grown oyster mushrooms before. His initial interest in mushrooms came from his culinary past and his passion for sustainable agriculture, gardening and local food. “Back in high school, I was part of the permaculture
club,” said Villeneuve. “This is where I was able to put into action some of my passions, and earn a certificate as well.”
While researching the spent grains from the brewing process, Villeneuve realized that they were a problem for breweries to dispose of. “They could be thrown in the garbage,” he said. “There is also the possibility of hiring a private composter, but that could cost up to $2,000 per month. Some breweries do have farmers who come and take the grains to feed to animals, but that was somewhat inconsistent.”
Once his mushroom production was perfected, Villeneuve started to look at the change in composition of the spent grains before and after a crop was grown. “We found the substrate texture was changed and protein levels greatly increased,” he said. “The mushroom mycelium, or roots if you like, converted the complex fibres in the grain to protein. Over seven weeks, protein increased by 183 per cent.”
Not only could a crop of valuable mushrooms be produced from the spent grains, but an enhanced animal feed as well. “Feed trials are needed to further describe the value of the feed, but it’s another value-added product of the process,” said Villeneuve.
Villeneuve is currently working with one brewery as he scales up his business, but he doesn’t expect to be limited by substrate availability. “We determined indirectly through the annual taxable litres produced that about 130 tons of grains are used every day in Alberta in the brewing process, more than enough for this business to grow and expand,” he said.
Villeneuve started at Olds College in September 2015, and incorporated his company, Ceres Solutions Ltd., in November 2015. He has since graduated from the brewmaster and brewery operations program and is well into the scale-up phase of his business at his 2,500-square-foot warehouse space in Olds. He hopes to reach his full production capacity of 3,500 pounds of mushrooms per month by fall.
“This level of production will require about 500 pounds of mushroom substrate per day,” said Villeneuve. “I don’t know if we would have gotten this far this quickly without the incredible support of Olds College and the organizations that are helping us with grants and expertise. I feel very lucky how this has all come together.”