By David Yaffe-Bellany
In all his years in the beer industry, Keith McAvoy had never taken much professional interest in Coco Pops.
From time to time, McAvoy, who runs the craft brewery Seven Bros. in Manchester, England, would raid his children’s supply of the chocolate-flavored breakfast cereal for “a cheeky bowl” or two — though only, he said, “when nobody was looking.”
Recently, however, Coco Pops have become more than a guilty pleasure for McAvoy.
For the past seven months, Seven Bros. has been using breakfast cereal to make beer. The aim of the venture is nobler than the inevitable “beer for breakfast” jokes might suggest: namely, to address — even in a small way — the global issue of food waste and its effect on climate change.
Last year, Seven Bros. became partners with the U.S. cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s to create Throw Away IPA, a smooth, mellow beer made from Corn Flakes that had fallen short of quality-control standards at the company’s production facility in Manchester. In June, the brewery released two more beers made with Kellogg’s cereals: a pale ale from Rice Krispies and a dark stout that owes its chocolate flavor to Coco Pops.
In the past, the Kellogg’s factory sent more than 5,000 tons of wasted flakes a year to local farms, where the cereal would be fed to livestock, according to Kate Prince, the company’s United Kingdom social responsibility manager. Now, a small portion of that cereal goes to Seven Bros. Kellogg’s has begun talks with a local bakery about sending food waste there, as well.
“How can we find a home for these perfectly edible flakes that are just slightly overcooked or a bit too big or a bit too small?” Prince said. “You can use Corn Flakes for all sorts of different things, whether it’s the coating on chicken or cheesecake bases.”
Around the world, a third of the food produced for human consumption each year is lost or wasted, according to the United Nations. Much of it ends up in landfills, where it releases methane into the atmosphere as it decomposes; in total, food waste accounts for 8% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency has urged food producers to repurpose what would become waste so that humans can consume it.
“If the food is still safe, it should go to people,” said Emily Broad Leib, who runs the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard University.
At Seven Bros., the process of converting cereal into beer ultimately boils down to ratios, or how much cereal to add to the grain mix that is combined with hot water in the early stages of the brewing process. From there, McAvoy said, “the process is pretty much the same as we would make any beer.”
But does it actually taste good? At the moment, it’s not available in the United States, though Seven Bros. is looking for an American distributor. At the Dockyard, a chain of Manchester pubs that stocks the cereal-based beers, the Throw Away IPA was a hit with customers.
“We’ve got to constantly be buying more,” said Tommy Rowland, a Dockyard manager. “You just get constantly asked if you’re stocking it or where else they’ll be able to get it from.”
Seven Bros. is not the first brewery to convert food waste into beer. The conservation-minded approach, known as upcycling, has roots in ancient Mesopotamia, where some of the world’s earliest brewers used crumbled bread to make beer. Toast Ale, which specializes in turning recycled bread into craft ale, started in England in 2016 before opening a New York branch a year later.
“It’s the old coming back to the new,” said Janet Viader, who oversees sales and operations at Toast Ale in New York. “The idea that we’re taking what has already been baked and would otherwise go to waste — it’s really going back to the roots of beer and the original beer recipe.”
The Mesopotamians did not have access to Coco Pops, however, and the transformation of sugary cereal into craft beer is a definitively modern phenomenon. Since 2013, Black Bottle Brewery in Colorado has made beer using Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms and Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, though none of those incorporate food waste. The Prison City Pub and Brewery in Auburn, New York, about 30 miles southwest of Syracuse, created a cereal-based beer that “tastes exactly like the milk left over after a delicious bowl of Cocoa Puffs,” according to Bon Appétit.
Kellogg’s has promoted its partnership with Seven Bros. as a key initiative in a broader sustainability campaign that led to a 12.5% reduction in food waste at the company’s United Kingdom facilities last year. Elizabeth Balkan, director of food waste at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Kellogg’s deserved credit for working to eliminate waste from its production process.
“While it’s not going to solve the problem,” Balkan said, “it’s incredibly important for both environmental reasons and financial reasons that companies that are producing food are using it to its fullest potential.”
Still, anti-waste advocates argue, major food manufacturers can do more. In developed countries, much of the waste occurs when consumers throw away groceries, rather than via supply-chain inefficiencies like the one that Kellogg’s is seeking to eliminate in Manchester.
In the United States, advocates have long called for manufacturers to stop labeling food with expiration dates, which are not governed by federal safety regulations and often encourage people to throw away still-edible food. In 2017, two major food-industry trade groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents Kellogg’s, and the Food Marketing Institute, moved to standardize the language on date labels to dispel confusion.
But those new policies, which call on companies to limit the wording on labels to the phrases “best if used by” and “use by,” did not go far enough in meaningfully addressing the global food waste problem, Balkan said.
“We need to see more sincere and comprehensive efforts,” she said, including public-awareness campaigns to educate consumers about waste.
Prince, the Kellogg’s official, said the company has worked with Wrap, an anti-waste group in Britain, to educate consumers about portion sizes and food safety. And she noted that the labels on the company’s cereals typically advised consumers to use the products within one year.
“It’s very, very unlikely that a pack of cereal would sit in the cupboard for 12 months and have to be thrown away,” she said.
McAvoy said he had taken a number of steps to eliminate waste in Seven Bros.’ production cycle. Years before it formed the partnership with Kellogg’s, the brewery started supplying local farms with grain left over at the end of the beer-making process.
McAvoy has been making beer since long before “upcycling” became trendy. As children, he and his six brothers helped their father run a brewing operation in the cellar of their home in Manchester. These days, the sons, who now range in age from their 30s to their 50s, manage Seven Bros. together, though some are less involved than others in day-to-day beer production.
“As we got older,” McAvoy said, “some of us got a little bit more interested in actually just drinking it rather than making it.”