[INTERVIEW] How brewery waste turned into pizza dough, energy bars at RE:harvest

Food upcycling startup RE:harvest's energy bars are made from discarded grain from breweries in Korea. / Courtesy of RE:harvest

RE:harvest transforms breweries' leftover grain into sustainable flour

By Park Han-sol

Wheaty scones, juicy slices of pizza and nachos grande garnished with fresh guacamole sound perfect for a spring picnic.

But in the eyes of food upcycling startup RE:harvest, these dishes become the playground for the company's signature flour ― made from the tons of grain discarded every day by breweries nationwide.

Brewing drinks like beer and "sikhye" (Korean sweet rice punch) requires crushed grain, typically malted barley, which is soaked in hot water to extract its sugar and other carbohydrates. The resulting sugary liquid can be fermented with yeast to produce beer or with rice to create sikhye. But what happens to the used barley that gets left behind?

Alex Min, founder and CEO of RE:harvest / Courtesy of RE:harvest
"It gets thrown out ― despite its high nutritional value ― with only a fraction reprocessed as compost or animal feed for farms," Alex Min, the startup's founder and CEO, told The Korea Times in a recent interview.

It is this "spent" beer grain to which RE:harvest gives new life as flour as the country's first company to specialize in food upcycling.

"We transport the still wet and hot barley through a temperature-controlled cold chain to prevent any bacterial growth and maintain quality," he said.

When the grain arrives at the company's factory in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, it is cleaned, dehydrated, dried and milled, before undergoing a final stage of inspection to be reborn as a fine powder called "RE:nergy flour."

And this ingredient has found its way into diverse sustainable recipes for major food makers across Korea.

A pizza, with dough made from brewery grain-turned-flour / Courtesy of RE:harvest

As an alternative to all-purpose white flour, it is used in pizza dough, bakery goods, pasta and fried chicken batter as part of the products developed by RE:harvest's downstream partners.

The startup also rolls out its own lineup of energy bars, shakes, granola and taffies containing RE:nergy flour. These items have proven to be highly popular among young, environmentally conscious consumers, especially women, according to the company.

While the taste of spent, or "saved" grain flour, is said to be nearly identical to that of traditional general-use flour, its nutritional value is far higher. With virtually no sugar present, Min says that the flour alternative is at least 10 percent lower in calories and 30 percent less in carbohydrates. And as it's made from barley, it has twice the protein and 21 times the fiber.

Discarded grain from breweries nationwide is reborn as a fine powder called "RE:nergy flour." Courtesy of RE:harvest

Since its founding in 2019, RE:harvest has worked with some of the biggest brands in the country to produce sustainable flour.

It procures used barley from the factories of Oriental Brewery (OB), Korea's largest beer maker, as well as other smaller craft breweries. The company has also begun to obtain grain-based byproducts recently from CJ CheilJedang, Korea's leading food manufacturer. These items include okara (soy pulp), rice bran that is left behind during production of the ready-to-eat rice product named Hetbahn and byproducts from sesame and perilla oil manufacturing.

Last year, the startup signed a memorandum of understanding with Vietnam's Hanoi Beer and Indonesia's Multi Bintang Indonesia.

How 3rd-generation Korean American strategy consultant turned eyes toward food upcycling in Korea

Born in New York and raised in California as a third-generation Korean American, Min said food has always been an intimate part of his life.

"In Northern California, where I spent my early childhood, there wasn't a huge Asian community in my neighborhood. So I naturally bonded a lot with the dishes that my mother would make," he said.

Such interest in food runs in his family, as his younger sister is a notable chef in the United States, who has catered for celebrities including Britney Spears and Kenny G.

However, the turning point of his life came after he completed his MBA at Seoul National University in 2011 and began working as a strategy consultant in Korea, mainly assisting the country's major players in the food and beverage (F&B) sector.

In fact, it was on a business trip to two different countries that his view toward the need for food upcycling was changed from simple theoretical knowledge into something real.

"When I went to Rwanda, I could see the hunger in some of the people's eyes, with food clearly not available or enough for everyone. But it was the complete opposite for the Michelin-starred restaurants that I visited in France afterward," Min said.

At one eatery, he threw a question to the French chef as to how much fully edible food waste the restaurant produces as part of its daily production. Roughly 620 pounds, or 281 kilograms, of food was thrown out per day as "unusable" byproducts.

"It was just so ironic ― one part of the world is literally tossing out kilograms of edible byproducts, while for another, starvation and undernutrition are an immediate reality," he continued.

He realized that the F&B sector in many parts of the world still lacked that virtuous cycle of converting raw ingredient waste back into food products.

That's when he decided to move on from nearly a decade of his career as a strategy consultant and dive into the field of food upcycling.

Granola made with brewery grain-turned-flour / Courtesy of RE:harvest

The reason why Min chose his motherland as his playing field, an uncharted territory when it came to food upcycling, was plain and simple.

"Korea is in a truly unique position," the RE:harvest founder noted.

Due to having little land for farming and agricultural production, the country imports nearly 70 percent of its food ingredients. And because Korea is an export-driven nation, which includes F&B products, the amount of food manufactured from these foreign ingredients is enormous, compared to the country's size.

Naturally, this means the amount of resulting edible byproducts is huge as well ― 572 kilograms per capita, according to Min. But the biggest problem lies in that nearly all is discarded. In fact, as of 2019, food manufacturers spent $27 million in environmental fees for food waste disposal.

"In the U.S., a country with a lot of farmland and strong agriculture that has long been a core part of the economy, food byproducts can be used more efficiently as they get repurposed as animal feed or composted," he said.

"But in Korea, a nation smaller in size than the state of California, there's only so much we can downcycle and reuse. Its agricultural ecosystem just can't handle the amount of resulting byproducts on its own."

For Min, this was a stream waiting to be tapped.

Moreover, Korea's geographical size is precisely what makes it an ideal place for the food upcycling business to grow.

As it takes mere hours to travel across the country from one end to another, it becomes much easier to source and transport food byproducts from the core sites of production nationwide to the factories for upcycling. This is, again, quite different from the U.S., where the transportation of goods from one state to another can take up to several days by road ― increasing the risks of decomposition and spoilage.

"Korea's small size is what makes it capable of creating this close, intricate network of core sites of manufacturing and factories for upcycling across the nation," he said.

Scones made with brewery grain-turned-flour / Courtesy of RE:harvest

As of this quarter, RE:harvest has already turned 1,020 tons of byproducts into flour ― a 10-fold increase from the corresponding period of last year.

And that amount is expected to experience another significant jump when the startup finishes building its first large, commercial-scale factory in Hwaseong at the end of August ― the first of its kind to specialize in food upcycling in Asia, according to the founder.

Another goal of the company is product diversification. While its current focus is on the production of sustainable flour, it will also release upcycled milk alternatives next year ― which can be used in lieu of dairy items like butter, cheese and yogurt.

"With rising interest in green diet recipes, we are planning to continue diversifying our product lineup that will be perfect for those looking for alternative food items," he said.

박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr

Top 10 Stories


Sign up for eNewsletter