Spent grain, coffee chaff and grounds.

Average beer drinkers and java junkies probably don’t ponder the waste byproducts generated during the production of their favorite drinks.

However, behind the scenes, organic matter produced during brewing and coffee roasting processes is becoming a farming and gardening staple — an effective, low-cost alternative to commercial fertilizer and feed.

In Maine, scores of farmers are knocking on brewers’ doors, seeking this organic resource. As more microbreweries pop up every year, brewers are finding ways to embrace green practices. These natural byproducts take on a second life by eliminating waste and doing double duty in the farm and garden.

“This is part of the food chain, and we are recycling it,” said Norm Justice, a Gorham farmer who started partnering with Allagash Brewing Company to feed his cattle years ago. “Allagash is very progressive in that regard. I’ve grown with them.”

No longer just feeding his own herd the spent grain produced after brewers extract sugars, flavor and color from malted grain, Justice now runs a successful side business selling the feed to dairy farms in southern and western Maine.

“Dairy farms are huge consumers of it. It’s a lot lower cost feed than commercial,” Justice said. “Any animal that is going to eat grain will consume this — except for horses.”

Allagash, one of the more established breweries in Maine, now has a spent grain silo, making it easy for Justice to pull his tractor-trailer up to the machine and collect 70 to 80 tons of spent grain per week.

“For us, it’s a great resource all around,” said brewmaster Jason Perkins, who is pleased the relationship with farmers including Justice has endured.

“Basically, it’s waste for us. We have something that turns into good, solid food for animals. It feels great, for sure.”

A year ago this relationship was threatened at the federal level, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relented on its proposed restriction. Now the spent grain partnership is stronger than ever and has diverted waste from the landfill to the trough.

Lisa Webster, owner of North Star Sheep Farm in Windham, recently switched from commercial grain to low-cost spent grain from local breweries to supplement her sheep herd’s diet.

“It helps them better digest grass,” she said of the natural roughage.

Her “brew to ewe” program is making use of Portland’s microbrew clusters. On brewing days she picks up spent grain from Rising Tide, Shipyard Brewing, Bissell Brothers, Foundation Brewing Company and Austin Street Brewery.

“It’s working excellent. It’s beautiful feed for the sheep,” Webster, who keeps a trailer on-site at the small breweries and receives a supply delivered by Shipyard, said.

“It’s a win-win. Brewers don’t have to dispose of their product, and I am able to take it away at a cost savings,” she said.

Spent grain makes up about 10 percent of their diet, enhances their pasture diet with taste and texture, making a more flavorful experience for the animals, which is important in their quality of life, she said.

Recycled coffee chaff from Maine’s growing roaster Coffee By Design is getting a similar upcycled treatment in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood.

Lisa Fernandes of The Resilience Hub and Portland Maine Permaculture struck up a collaboration with the roaster and couldn’t be more pleased with the results.

“We have been making use of all the chaff very successfully via several channels for composting, mulching and duck and chicken bedding because it absorbs nitrogen so well,” she said.

The husks of the coffee bean discarded during roasting go back into the earth. In its 21 years in business, Coffee By Design only recently began making use of chaff.

“We are bigger and have better technology,” co-owner Mary Allen Lindemann said.

When the company purchased state-of-the-art roasters for their new headquarters on Diamond Street in Portland, they were able to separate the chaff making for an “easy transfer.” They have an arrangement with the Resilience Hub, and no money is exchanged.

The company, which operates cafes in Portland and Freeport, also donates coffee grounds to farmers. Used grounds, discarded after brewing, are an excellent addition to composts piles. They also help with mushroom growth and serve as a mulch.

“As we grow, we are trying to minimize waste,” Lindemann said. “The goal is to reuse everything you can to get to zero.”

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.