New Mexico Breweries Give Back

What began as a simple date night at a local restaurant for Peter Valdez and his wife quickly grew into a business relationship reminiscent of an all-but-vanished barter economy. After their meal at Pizzeria da Lino, which houses Santa Fe’s newest brewery, Chili Line Brewing, Valdez, who owns and operates a tree removal and firewood service, inquired about where the restaurant sourced the wood for its ovens.

A few months later, not only does Valdez supply the restaurant’s firewood, but he receives the four hundred pounds of spent grain the brewery produces on a weekly basis to feed his fifty chickens. Extending this exchange, Valdez then provides the restaurant with eggs from the chickens fed by the spent grain.

For him and Alexander Pertusini, the restaurant manager and head brewer, this relationship exemplifies what the local food movement is all about. “This new generation really likes farm-to-table. It cuts down on your carbon footprint, but more than that, it helps out the community, and you get a really good give-and-take,” says Pertusini.

The explosion of the craft brewing industry over the past decade has also meant a proliferation of spent grain—the byproduct left after the starches and sugars have been extracted from the grain by soaking it in warm water. The water goes on to become beer, but the grain, now reduced to its protein-rich shell, is often considered waste. For brewers like Pertusini, though, who equate local with sustainable, sending thousands of pounds of grain to a landfill is antithetical to their business philosophy.

An hour northwest of Abiquiu, thirteen miles up a rough dirt road that follows the Rio Chama, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert seems an unlikely place for a brewery; yet, since 2005, Abbey Brewing has distributed its line of Monk’s Ales throughout the Southwest. While the majority of its beer is produced at a large facility in Moriarty, general manager and head brewer Berkeley Merchant still develops and refines every beer made at the monastery.

Merchant’s half-barrel system produces roughly 200–300 pounds of spent grain a week, but, considering the brewery’s isolation, even this modest amount of waste could prove difficult to remove. At first, the brewery either composted the spent grain or incorporated it into Monk’s Ale soap, where it acts as the exfoliating agent; but in 2010 the monks found a use for it that would directly benefit the brewery and the land.

That year the monastery started growing four varieties of native New Mexican hops. Even though these neomexicanus hops evolved in northern New Mexico, the clay-laden soil, which lacks organic qualities and certain nutrients, such as zinc, does not offer fertile growing conditions. For this reason, the brewery started using a portion of its spent grain to fertilize the half-acre hop farm. Since then, Merchant has noticed an improvement in the soil quality, and the hop vines now exceed eighteen feet.

Merchant is not alone in observing how spent grain can improve the quality of a product. For Valdez, spent grain has been a marked improvement over the organic feed he previously fed his chickens, who can go through a forty-pound bag in a single day. “They produce more eggs,” he observes, adding that “their shells are a lot thicker, too.”

However, Pertusini notes that finding ways of donating or reusing spent grain is as much about a sense of community as about trying to be sustainable.

Justin Hamilton started brewing professionally when he was twenty-two years old and has worked for a number of breweries in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. When he opened Boxing Bear Brewing in 2014, he wanted to be on Albuquerque’s Westside, just a few blocks from where he grew up.

Early on, Hamilton reached out to a Corrales farmer he knew from one of his previous positions, and offered to donate all of his spent grain. The farmer leaves fifty-five-gallon barrels that Hamilton fills with the 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of grain he goes through each week. When the barrels are full, he calls the farmer, who picks them up and feeds the grain to his livestock.

For Hamilton, the impulse of donating grain to help a farmer cut his costs is the same as hosting events to help local nonprofits or providing space for family and friends to get together. “Craft beer has a direct connection to the craft of life,” he remarks. “People want a better lifestyle—they’re looking for local, they’re looking for natural, they’re looking for organic.”

From feed to soap and pizza crust to dog biscuits, the uses for spent grain that brewers throughout the state have developed are plentiful. And as New Mexico’s brewery scene continues to grow, so too will the opportunities for brewers and local food producers to utilize grain in innovative and sustainable ways. Building on this, Hamilton wants Boxing Bear to be about more than just the beer. “We want to embrace the community, and we want the community to embrace us,” he says. “It’s all about giving back.”