OLDS, Alta. — Alex Villeneuve has always been interested in sustainability and diversification.
The 20-year-old Olds College student has used that interest to produce an award winning business concept converting spent grain from craft brewers into a substrate to grow mushrooms. In the final stage of the process the used grain is sent to the college feedlot.
“We’ll take a product, upgrade it and produce something that is far more valuable to the feedlot and we can produce gourmet mushrooms,” he said.
Villeneuve, owner of Ceres Solutions Ltd., was awarded the Alberta Innovates Venture Prize student award and received $20,000. In addition to the money he will receive mentoring, business plan guidance and network opportunities.
When he started the Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management course last fall, he wondered what breweries did with their grain after the beer was made.
The college feedlot accepts deliveries of the water-saturated product and Villeneuve realized it was a waste management problem for the dozens of craft breweries around the province.
“A lot of these nanobreweries are opening up downtown and it is pretty much impossible to get somebody in with a truck,” he said.
A small brewery might have 20,000 pounds of spent wheat or barley and no one wants it. Composting companies charge to haul it away and few farmers want to go to a downtown brewery in Calgary or Edmonton with a large truck to haul away wet grain that decomposes quickly. It often ends up in a landfill and in the future, more municipalities will reject organic waste of this type.
Villeneuve said he has a better option.
Once the mushrooms are harvested, the leftover material will be checked for nutritional value and fed to steers at the college feedlot. The spent product has about 27 percent protein so formulations will be developed for a healthy feedlot diet.
With help from the Olds College Centre for Innovation and from research scientist Paul Tiege, they figured out how to pasteurize the grain as a substrate for growing oyster mushrooms.
His grandfather, father and brother have helped with the machinery to pasteurize the grain as well as preparing the substrate. They use recycled materials to sanitize the product and Villeneuve keeps the grain inoculated with mycellium in old quart sealers from his grandmother.
“I’ve had a lot of help. It would have been completely overwhelming if I had to do it all by myself,” he said.
The college provides building space for the work and the mushrooms are growing in two temperature controlled tents.
“We are intimately involved in these kinds of projects. It fits perfectly with the college’s mandate,” said Tiege.
“Primary production has always been the emphasis but in recent years we started paying a lot more attention to projects like this,” he said.
“It dovetails so beautifully into the government’s recent focus on building a bioeconomy,” he said.
Villeneuve is also a culinary arts student at a college in Edmonton. He has fulfilled most of the requirements and hopes he can combine his knowledge of beer making and cooking into a diverse business.
At full capacity, his system could produce 1,900 kilograms of mushrooms at a time. He hopes to reach the point where he has a weekly harvest.
The mushrooms are considered a gourmet item and can sell for about $30 per kilogram.