Waste not, want not: turning bread into beer with Toast Ale

With the plight of food waste causing concern in the sustainability movement, companies are searching for innovative ways to tackle the issue. In the case of Toast Ale, they’re turning surplus bread into socially responsible beer. Deborah Williams talks to Louisa Ziane, Toast Ale’s director of brand, culture and sustainability, to find out more.

Image courtesy of Toast Ale

Sustainability is one of the dominant issues across industries but while packaging and plastic have received perhaps the most attention in this regard, a spotlight should also be shone on the amount of waste being produced. Food waste has received particular attention, with companies seeking ways to make responsible and inventive use of product that would otherwise simply find its way into the rubbish. In 2015, the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a waste reduction charity, estimated annual food waste in the UK to total ten million tonnes, with a value of more than £20bn. Clearly there must be a better use for such waste. 
In the case of Toast Ale, this means turning waste bread into beer and investing in the development of an ethical and sustainable organisation. While many in the industry are turning towards increasing the sustainability of their practice, it may be fair to say that few have done so quite so effectively from the ground up. We spoke to the company to find out just how it all works and what goes into developing a business centred around sustainability.  

Deborah Williams:

How did Toast Ale start?

Louisa Ziane:

We started in 2015, funded by Tristan Stewart, who is a campaigner on the environmental and social impact of the food system. He funded a charity called Feedback that campaigns against the systemic issues within the food sector – from the cosmetic standards at supermarket level to consumer behaviour. He visited Brussels and met a brewer there who created a great tasting beer called Babylone. He was inspired by how they worked with their local bakery, taking the surplus, end of day loaves and using that as part of the brew, replacing some of the barley. 

Tristan, through his work, knew that bread was one of the most wasted household food items. In the UK, we eat a lot of bread – we love our sandwiches but we also waste around 44% of bread. And with the growing industry of craft beer, it gave Tristan the idea to try and brew a beer in the UK, tackle food waste, and use that beer in order to communicate with customers in a really fun and engaging way. So the idea was pitched to Jamie Oliver. He tried our first brew, alongside Jimmy Doherty, as part of the Friday Night Feast TV series and it was a success. So we decided, at that point, we would make this a business rather than a project and launch with a packaged product in January 2016.

Great – so what actually happens in the process of turning bread into beer?

To make beer normally you take malted barley and put it into hot water, in what’s called a mashtun, and mash it in with all the sugars in the grains. After that, you remove the grains and you’re left with a sugary liquid called spent grain. That liquid is moved into another container, to be boiled, where you then add the hops, which brings aromas, bitterness and preservatives to the beer. The liquid is cooled, yeast is added and then it goes through for fermentation. [When we make beer], we break down the bread into small chunks, like crouton size, and use the bread to replace some of the barley. Approximately a third of the barley is displaced as we don’t need to use it. So it’s the carbohydrates in the bread that replace the carbohydrates in the barley.

In saying that, your home brew recipe has been downloaded 45,000 times. What made the company want to share it?

When we founded the company, the whole principle behind what we were doing was about addressing a huge global problem. Food production is one of the biggest impacts we have on the planet. It’s the biggest contributor to climate change, to biodiversity loss, and yet we are wasting a third of it. It’s not a problem, that at this stage as a small company, we are able to address alone. It’s something that needs everybody to get behind. We wanted to create a great tasting beer that proved that there was a resolution to this problem but we need everybody to get behind it and to be part of what we call the ‘revALEution.’ 

So we open source the recipe to engage people that are home brewing – from homes to microbreweries – and bring them in to be a part of our community. It’s really important to us in terms of spreading our mission and our impact and creating more of a buzz around what we are doing. As well as open-sourcing for recipes, we also invite breweries to collaborate with us. We’ve done approximately 35 different collaborations to date within the last three years. Most of those are within the UK but we’ve done as far apart as California and Sweden. 

And we’re actually going to be doing one with the Brussels Beer Project – our original inspiration – later this month, that enables us to share a bit more about the technical side of how to brew with bread and some of the things we’ve learned over the past three years, and to create new and exciting beers at a local level. So again, it’s about spreading our impact amongst this amazing community of brewers.

I know you’ve just touched on it briefly, but through those efforts have you seen any specific changes in consumer habits towards sustainability and waste?

Yes – definitely. So when we started off, food waste was an issue. It was something that was made much more prominent through the work that Feedback had done with other organisations that had focused on food issues – based on a food poverty and waste perspective. But I guess it wasn’t front of mind for everybody. In the past few years, we’ve seen a huge increase in environmental awareness, led by the plastics movement, through the work of Blue Planet and David Attenborough that really made people connect with some of the impacts we have as consumers of products on the planet. And then this year, we’ve seen Greta, Attenborough and the Extinction Rebellion movement raising the profile of climate change as a broader issue, and the reports from the UN. So I think we’ve seen a huge shift in the consciousness of people about some of the challenges that we’re facing.

Toast Ale became a certified B Corp, last year, so that’s a community of businesses who are meeting the minimum standard of environmental and social responsibility, and accountability – that movement has been growing as well.

We’ve also seen changes and expectations around packaging – a lot of it led by the awareness around plastics. That’s been really interesting to follow. For example, Waitrose launched their unpacked trial, which we’ve been a part of with kegs of our beer. It will be really interesting to see how that trial goes and whether consumers are prepared to change the way they shop, as well as what they buy.

Okay – so you’ve recently hit you milestone of saving one million slices of bread – congratulations.

Thank you!

You’re next milestone is to hit one billion. How do you aim to achieve this?

Primarily, we are looking at offering our customers more alternatives for their choice of drink. We’ve launched a Crowdfunder and we’ve been looking at packaging and whether bottles or cans are better for the environment. Both come with positives and negatives but I think the market is moving towards cans. They’re lighter, easier to stack, quick to refrigerate and keeps the beer nice, and fresh. So we’ve launched this Crowdfunder to raise funds to invest in canning, so we can get our range into cans and reach more people to give them more option to drink beer the way they prefer.

And every year we’re scaling. So as we grow as a business, we’re able to use up more bread. We’re also looking at ways to better share our learnings and our way of working – so taking that idea of collaboration to the next level and looking at, not just how we can share a recipe but share expertise, create a network, so that the community can live within itself and not necessarily rely on our very small team and limited resources to make things happen, and to get the whole brewing industry behind the idea of a circular economy.

There’s a few exciting projects that we have in the early stage of development. But yeah, essentially looking for ways that we can do more, brew more, sell more and that others can do it as well.

Toast Ale funds food charities around the world, such as Gastromotivia in Brazil and some here in the UK. Could you tell us more about how that began, how Toast Ale connected with these charities and what interested you in connecting with those specifically?

So our main partner for our UK operations is Feedback and when we do collaborations we find a local or national charity. For example, we’ve done two collaboration brews with Stroud Brewery. The first brew we did with them, the proceeds went to Stroud Foodbank. The second brew we did was in partnership with Friends of the Earth and the proceeds went to their climate change campaign. When we work internationally, we make sure that there’s a partner aligned with each of our international partners. So we don’t export any of our beer – it’s brewed locally with locally sourced surplus bread, a local brewer and a local charity. To find those partnerships, it’s really been leveraging Tristan’s network of activists from all around the world. The food sustainability world is quite small and sometimes those charities have driven Toast to be in that region rather than Toast deciding to go there.

I know that you’ve already touched on the Crowdfunder efforts but what can we look forward to for Toast Ale in the next three to five years?

Well we’re only three years old and so much is happening for us, it’s so hard to predict that far into the future. As you said, we have our Crowdfunder that’s live for the next three weeks. In August/September we will be re-launching with new branding that helps better communicate our story and environmental missions – explaining that it’s not just about bread – it’s the wider impact that food waste has on the planet. So the re-brand is quite a big project that we’ve been working on, which we’re really excited to get out there.

Going into next year, we will continue to expand across the US and looking at ways in which we can collaborate more on an international basis. We’ve recently done a collaboration in Australia, which is probably our furthest one. It’s still brewing – it’s fermenting at the moment, so it’s not quite ready yet. But yeah, we’re looking at more opportunities internationally to spread the knowledge of brewing with surplus bread and supporting charities internationally.

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