Too much beer? While a parched Homer Simpson may disagree, excess beer poses a serious problem in the beer world.
Particularly during the pandemic. With bars and restaurants closed, demand for draught beer has dried up. Brewers and distributors are sitting on gallons and gallons of beer, unable to start new production until prior releases sells. Often, that beer will never be sipped—According to the New York Times
There’s also the environmental qualms of disposing beer—craft beer is “costly to dispose of and can be detrimental for the environment depending on how you deal with it,” describes Dennis O’Connor.
O’Connor is behind ReBru, a revolutionary distillery that conjures craft gin, vodka and (limited-edition) whiskey from out-of-cold and overstock craft beer. Further whiskeys are patiently aging.
To date, the San Diego distillery has processed over 1.5 million pints of beer formerly destined for landfills. Their efforts have lessened the burden on municipal wastewater treatment facilities and mitigated the impact on local ecosystems.
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ReBru was founded in 2016 but officially launched in the fall of 2020. “The Covid-19 pandemic put our model to the test,” describes O’Connor. “When bars and restaurants were forced to close their doors, it caused an immediate demand for our service and we were able to provide major relief. So while the beverage industry was distilling excess beer and spirits into hand sanitizer, we were transforming it into award-winning vodka and gin.”
The craft beer segment has taken a huge blow during the pandemic, slowed by the changing tides of home drinking, the rise of hard seltzer and the bar world’s state of flux. “The pandemic-induced problem of waste beer has been catastrophic for the craft beer industry,” O’Connor continues. “Many craft beers (especially the hoppy varieties) have a shorter shelf life in terms of taste and quality. Restaurants and bars weren’t open or operating at reduced capacity to serve that beer before its code date.” Brewers and distributors were scrambling to find a home for their beers.
This waste is causing huge financial burdens on craft breweries. “Traditionally, craft breweries have to pay to dispose of out-of-code or overstock beer and during a time when profits and keeping the lights on is a real problem, disposal is an enormous financial burden and extremely time-consuming,” says O’Connor. “The only other option is to illegally dump it down the drain, which would damage our wastewater treatment facilities and possibly make its way into our ecosystem.”
These hurdles were catalysts for ReBru. “About 5 years ago, when I was at Thorn Brewing, I realized there was a problem collectively shared by the craft beer community: what to do with expiring beer.” He noted it’s expensive to deal with and is costing the community a huge amount of money. “Could we upcycle and make spirits out of it? It took years of R+D to perfect the process, but yes—you can!”
While Rebru mainly deals in draught beer—it’s available at higher volumes—the suds are sourced from a variety of locations, including bars, distributors, large-scale brewers, and local craft producers. “We have been working directly with breweries, but the bulk of our supply has been coming from distributors. As we’ve expanded to working with craft breweries directly, we have some amazing upcoming small-batch collaborations in the works.”
ReBru is a refuge for any beer destined for the dump, meaning, the team faces the challenge of creating a cohesive fermentation base to make their spirits from. “Some beer is harder than others to work with, like San Diego’s hop-heavy IPAs, but we have found a way that allows us to produce a consistent and high-quality product.” Said process is proprietary at the moment, but Master Distiller Neil Lots (formerly Desert Distilling) uses a German 1,500 liter Kothe still to produce the spirits. The hop oils from the beer enhance the spirits, O’Connor notes.
Why not compost the beer? “Compost requires a bacteria balance and high volumes of alcohol would wreak havoc on a thriving compost. The liquid must be processed, and that’s where we take over. “
ReBru does compost in some form—the distillery sends mash waste once alcohol is removed—to a local farm to add nutrients to the soil. (This is a process common among breweries, who often send spent grains to local farms.)
Further sustainability issues are in the pipeline. “We are also making use of spent grain in a proprietary pizza crust recipe at our restaurant, HotMess Woodfired Pizza. We are currently working on a way to capture the excess water from the facility and provide it to a local community garden on our street. Some other creative and fun projects are in the works,” describes O’Connor. “We’re finding the process of sustainability doesn’t have to be a burden.”
Charcoal from the smoker at the on-site BBQ restaurant is repurposed to clarify the brand’s gins, vodkas and soon-to-be whiskey. “Charcoal filtration is the best way to clarify spirits. It’s extremely porous and does the best job of eliminating contaminants that bring down the quality of the spirit,” he continues.
With hundreds of thousands of gallons of beers going out-of-code, there are other solutions. Aqua ViTea Kombucha decants and distills beer, and donates it to Caledonia Spirits to make hand sanitizer. WhistlePig’s Vermont location is using beer to distill whiskeys. The liquid is currently resting in barrels. In four years time, it will make for an intriguing release. Scientists at the University of Calgary have managed to use the city’s wastewater to create beers.
A process like this can be off-putting, but O’Connor finds that “everyone has been pleasantly surprised—’Wow! It’s so smooth! This is amazing! I was not expecting that!’ We hear these phrases often and it’s such a great feeling. We’re finding that both beer and spirits enthusiasts alike are very intrigued with the process. Most didn’t know it was possible and are eager to learn about it.”