Recently, my girlfriend Cynthia took an annual family trip to Birmingham, Alabama, to visit a friend. Cynthia was good enough to bring me back a few six-packs of beer from Good People Brewing Co., one of the top craft breweries in the South.
But it was her mom, known to most only as “Mimi,” who surprised me by buying me some locally made bread. You might think, “Bread is an odd souvenir,” and you’d be right – except that this is bread made from spent grains from, you guessed it, Good People Brewing.
I was intrigued for a couple of reasons. Spent brewing grains – which is what’s left after the sugars, proteins and other nutrients are extracted during the mashing process – usually are donated to local farmers to use as feed for livestock. (This may explain why beer tastes so good with burgers and barbecue.) At Apocalypse Brew Works, Jane Krauth uses spent grains to make dog treats. Sometimes spent grain is used for compost. But I’d never tasted bread made from spent grain.
And what made it even more mysterious was that the bread came from a Birmingham farmer’s market, so there are no markings on the bag. But it made me wonder why more local vendors don’t gather some spent grains to make bread for people. With craft beer’s ongoing popularity surge, it seems like local restaurants would be all over that concept.
I did just a quick search and found that Craft House on Frankfort Avenue has a spent- grain cobbler on its dessert menu (a perfect application). Craft House also has apparently had spent-grain biscuits with bacon jam, which also sounds darn tasty. A few years ago, Hometown Pizza used spent grains from Cumberland Brews to make pizza dough. But other local examples are tough to find.
And using spent grains from the brewing process in baking isn’t a new concept – it takes only a couple of clicks to find spent-grain bread recipes on the InterWeb, and the ingredients are just what you’d think: eggs, flour, powdered milk, butter, sugar and bread yeast to go with the grains. Most households have this stuff in the cupboard right now.
Anyway, I found myself with a loaf of the stuff, so I figured I would conduct a little private tasting. I had a few nibbles of the bread on its own, tried a few bites with some hummus, made a meat sandwich with a couple of slices (because bread, to me, is usually just a way to keep the mustard off my fingers), and of course had a few bites with a craft beer.
I took a couple of bites straight to start out and can report that it’s sort of a dry, coarse brown bread similar to soda bread, but with a fantastic earthy-sweet aroma. It’s dense, and the remaining bits of grain husk provide an occasional small crunch. Flavorwise, it really is in that soda bread/whole wheat family, maybe with a hint of nuttiness.
Adding a layer of hummus changes everything, because it added moisture and a flavor that played off the bread nicely. And yes, you’ll want to add something moist to this kind of bread – or at least dip it into your oatmeal stout.
When I turned the next two pieces I yanked from the bag into a roast beef and Colby sandwich, I found that the bread flavor actually seemed to emerge more assertively but without completely overpowering the contents of the sandwich. Still, the bread does take on a fairly big role because it is so dense and distinctive – I would have had to use three slices of cheese and at least half again as much meat and spicy mustard to truly balance it.
But the more the flavor settled into my palate, the more I appreciated it. I had some early thoughts that maybe more spent-grain bread didn’t already exist because it just didn’t make very good bread. Now I have to reconsider – I think this is bread for people who really like to focus on the flavor of the bread and getting the most of the grains within. In other words, if you’ve spent your life eating nothing but Wonder Bread, well, this may be a bit too much to bite off.
I finished my little experiment by pairing the bread and sandwich with a Brown Ale straight from the grain source: Good People Brewing. Heck, for all I know, the bread was actually made from grains that went into making the very beer I was drinking. It boggles the mind.
Not surprisingly, it was a sweet combo. And by that I mean that it seemed to me the nutty sweetness in the beer’s malt profile emerged just a tad with the bread involved (I even ripped off a piece of bread and dunked it, which bore out what I was tasting).
I don’t know that I’ll make my own spent-grain bread anytime soon, but it’s always fun to try something new. And any excuse to drink a beer in the name of journalism is fine with me.