Local lab uses brewery waste as a resource to grow mold for fermenting foods

Richard Preiss, Angus Ross, and Nate Ferguson met while working at a research lab at the University of Guelph that focused on yeast. Richard and Angus were interested in homebrewing and had a solid understanding of the importance of yeast and its lifespan. Many Canadian brewers face challenges accessing liquid yeast in a timely manner and Richard and Angus wanted to address this issue. When discussing their ideas for the business, they knew what they wanted to do but did not know how to execute it. Fortunately, Nate came onboard as a key component in the development and launch of Escarpment Laboratories in 2015. With all three founders having a background in Microbiology and Chemistry, they needed support on the business side of things. Escarpment Labs began at the University of Guelph’s CBaSE (now the John. F. Wood Centre) which provided mentorship through Innovation Guelph at the time. They decided to stay on with Innovation Guelph through the Startup Program to further develop and scale their business.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Escarpment Labs had to limit staff capacity at the lab, which meant there were more opportunities for the scientists to experiment with cooking and food fermentation at home. Beyond yeast, a range of filamentous fungi (molds) are used in fermented foods. The two types of molds they were trying to grow were: Koji, which is used to make soy sauce, miso, and rice wines; and Rhizopus, the culture which binds tempeh together. While working at home on these two projects, the team was able to develop some proof of concepts and are now looking at how to produce the mold cultures in a circular way. It was the perfect time for Escarpment Labs to apply to the Seeding Our Food Future (SOFF) program as they were already trying to integrate more circular practices. Their project for SOFF focused on using waste as an input and helping their customers reduce waste or create value from waste. With the help of their mentor at Provision Coalition, they have been experimenting with growing the mold cultures on spent grain from local breweries. Typically, these cultures are grown on rice or barley. However, Escarpment Labs wanted to see if they could not only use an ingredient that was not for human consumption, but something that was previously seen as waste.

Escarpment Labs has also been looking internally at ways to utilize their own waste as a resource. One of the inputs for growing yeast is yeast extract, which is dead yeast that has been grinded down. As much as Escarpment Labs tries to have all yeast made to order, they also keep a small amount on hand for overflow orders which means it will sometimes spoil. The SOFF program helped Escarpment test if they could take their own expired yeast and turn it into the yeast extract needed for growing fresh yeast. They have succeeded in freeze drying and grinding up their wasted yeast and are now performing laboratory-scale tests to validate the in-house yeast extract as an input.

At Escarpment Labs, circularity means being smart about running a business and recognizing the opportunities for reducing waste. At the end of the day there is so much time, money, and energy that is wasted trying to produce the products that are being sold. If there are opportunities to think creatively about wasted materials and turn waste products into profits, it is key to explore those avenues. One of the biggest challenges that Richard recognized in the food industry is profitability. Many food businesses operate with incredibly challenging margins and circularity in food presents so many opportunities for added profit. Circularity requires businesses to work together because often there is no use for waste internally but there is externally. Richard reaffirms that the more circular a business is the more opportunities they must become sustainable both environmentally and economically.

 Photo provided by Escarpment Laboratories