A little while ago I had a great conversation with Shawn Leggett of Groundup Eco-Ventures in Okotoks, Alberta, Canada. Shawn is, by his own account, founder, president, CEO, manager of operations, marketing guy, sales rep, head of packaging department, chief driver and head dishwasher, all with part-time support from his wife Candace and occasionally their children. A start-up family business could not be more classic.
Groundup Eco-Ventures upcycles spent coffee grounds and spent grains. The idea to make something out of the unused coffee grounds first came to Shawn when he heard about companies like Kaffee Form in Germany making cups out of coffee grounds, Bio Bean in the UK making logs, pellets and biodiesel out of it, and Kaffe Bueno in Denmark turning this waste product into flour and oil. As he no longer had much desire to keep pursuing his job at the time, he gave it up and founded GroundUp Eco-Ventures shortly afterwards. In order to expand his product range, after a while he also began to process spent grains, also called brewer's grains.
When upcycling by-products like spent coffee grounds and brewer's grains, there are two big challenges: the logistics of the collection, and the dehydration. For Shawn, neither is a problem, at least not a big one. As far as collection goes, rather than visiting numerous coffee shops every few days, collecting small amounts of spent coffee grounds (which are often mixed with paper filters, etc.) he collects them instead from a cold brew company. As soon as they have finished a new batch, Shawn goes there immediately to pick up a large quantity in one trip. This saves time and money, and since the company is only 8 km away, microorganisms hardly have a chance to become active. Similarly, he handles the logistics with spent grains from several nearby breweries.
The second challenge is dehydration, and the problem there comes in the form of energy costs. Mechanical squeezing of the grounds to remove water is possible, but not only is this not completely energy-free, it requires higher investments for equipment, and only a part of the water can be removed. This is sufficient for the production of logs or pellets, but not for converting coffee grounds or spent barley into flour. On the other hand, a major advantage of dehydration by heat is that, given an adequate temperature-time ratio, the coffee grounds and spent grains are pasteurized at the same time. Grinding the material into very fine flour also leads to high temperatures sufficient for pasteurization. This means that the coffee grounds and spent grains are exposed to temperatures that guarantee sterility more than once during processing. Without going into too much detail, Shawn says his energy input is very acceptable; and with increased use of green energy, he can reduce the energy demands even more significantly in the future.
Extracting the coffee oil
However, before Shawn mills the dried coffee grounds into a fine flour, he extracts the oil contained within them. This can be done by solvent extraction, supercritical extraction or mechanical extraction, i.e. primarily by pressure. The method Shawn decided for was the one that´s closest to his heart, as he could draw on experience from his previous job. (You read it right: Shawn would like to keep the chosen method for himself!) However, as is well known, oil cannot be extracted from spent grains.
Shawn now offers this Coffee Oil as a topical skin care product, in addition to products like Brewer's Barley Saved-Grain Flour and Gluten-Free Coffee Flour, as well as Better Breakfast High-Protein Pancake Mix, containing the Saved-Grain flour, and Born Again Protein Brownie Mix containing a mix of the two flours. The current bestseller is the Coffee oil, followed by the brownie and pancake mix.
What about caffeine?
It is important to note that the range of coffee-derived products contain only small amounts of caffeine. Since most of the caffeine has already found its way into the cup when the coffee is brewed, the oil contains only 0.106% or 0.106g/100g, and the flour only 0.16%, or 0.16g/100g caffeine. In comparison, despite wide variations in cultivar and growing conditions, roasted Arabica beans average about 1.2% or 1.2g/100g of caffeine, and Robusta beans average about 2.5% (2.5g/100g)!
Health Canada recommends the following daily maximum caffeine intake for children:
- 45 mg for children aged 4 to 6
- 62.5 mg for children aged 7 to 9
- 85 mg for children aged 10 to 12
Since one brownie (one pack of Born Again Protein Brownie Mix makes 12 brownies) contains only 5.3 mg of caffeine (!), a four to six year old child could eat 8.5 brownies per day! This would meet Health Canada's caffeine guidelines, and certainly the child’s preferences, but most likely not the parent's "acceptable snacking guidelines". In short: even if they eat more than one brownie a day, caffeine-wise the child is on the safe side!
From an environmental hazard to a food product
Since coffee grounds can only be collected in a limited radius in order to be economically reasonable, Shawn's goal is to expand his production first to other provinces and later to the whole of North America. He has already taken the first steps in the province of Ontario. The more production facilities he can set up, and the more sales he can make, the more the environmentally hazardous coffee grounds can be removed from the environment and converted into a food product. According to Shawn, converting 1000kg of coffee grounds into flour and oil avoids the release of 340 cubic meters of methane. With around 200,000 tons of coffee grounds produced each year in Canada alone, there is a lot of room for this small Okotoks-based company to grow.
We as consumers must (or at the very least, should) finally get used to the idea of consuming what we have until now thought of as waste throughout agriculture. Sticking to the example of coffee, consider that about 96% of the coffee cherry, which contains two highly sought-after coffee beans, has for centuries been categorized as waste or, in the best case as a by-product, and treated as such. If we can come up with ways to make use of these materials, then we can only imagine how many new "upcycled products" will be coming our way in the next few years.
This will require two things: open-minded consumers and courageous entrepreneurs - entrepreneurs like Shawn Leggett, who crafts delicious brownie and pancake mixes from coffee grounds and spent grains in order to satisfy our appetites; as well as a coffee oil that supports and replenishes the skin. If GroundUp Eco-Ventures continues to grow, and sales and profits increase, then at some point the brave entrepreneur may rejoice as well!
Written by Anna Belanger
After talking with Hans, Shawn was kind enough to send some samples of Groundup products for us to try, so we put together a team and had a lovely pancake breakfast at the Happy Goat Coffee roastery, with brownies and cookies for dessert! The texture of the pancakes was fairly similar to conventional pancakes, but slightly coarser, imagine the difference between a slice of white bread compared to whole-wheat. They had a slightly toasty, barley flavour, which one would expect given that the spent grain flour is 100% barley. Spent grains contain less gluten than they would have started with before the malting and brewing process, so this flour would contain less gluten than all-purpose (that’s less, not none!) so while they don’t have the same elasticity and bounciness as a regular pancake, the mix contains baking powder, so they still puff up nice and fluffy, and since pancakes are eaten immediately, there’s no time for them to deflate. (I did reheat a leftover one the following day, all in the name of science, and it was still nice and fluffy.)
The brownies were also well-received here at the roastery. Different people have a lot of differing opinions about what qualities a brownie should have, and if you fall on the fudgy, gooey end of the brownie lover’s spectrum, you will love these! Our batch was baked exactly to the package directions and the end result was moist, with a dense crumb. If you are the type who loves crispy edges and always goes for the corner piece, it might be worth experimenting by replacing the required vegetable oil for melted butter! Having tried a few products containing coffee flour, I think a brownie is the ideal vehicle for such an ingredient.
Meanwhile, as I was considering the possibilities of these novel flours, one of my colleagues returned from the cafe with a peanut butter cookie, and inspiration struck. One can make a perfectly good peanut butter cookie with no flour whatsoever, so the structural differences between the spent grain flour and conventional all-purpose flour would pose no obstacle! I began a meta-analysis of peanut butter cookie recipes and came up with the following;
1 cup peanut butter or sunflower seed butter*
1/3 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup saved grain flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
· preheat oven to 350°F.
· cream butter and sugar, add seed/nut butter and egg, mix well.
· combine dry ingredients, add them to wet ingredients and stir to combine.
· chill dough for at least 1 hour in the fridge, roll into 1?” balls, and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet, leaving space for them to spread.
· Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until the edges are just slightly brown. Allow the cookies to cool completely before trying to handle them. Store in an airtight container.
Both sun-butter and peanut-butter versions of the cookies came out pretty tasty, harmonizing with the flavour of the spent grain flour rather than masking it. After experimenting a little bit I think either flour makes an excellent and nutritious addition or substitution in recipes that already have an interesting texture. Chiffon cake? Probably not, but an oatmeal raisin cookie? Sableé shortbread? Banana bread? Muffins? The topping on an apple crisp? Absolutely! There are many delicious potential applications to discover and the nutritional benefits when compared to refined wheat flour are very compelling!
*One interesting thing about making this recipe with sunflower seed butter is that once the cookies have cooled all the way through, the inside will turn emerald green! This is totally normal, and is caused by a chemical reaction of chlorogenic acid naturally present in sunflower seeds. The recipe uses baking soda as a leavener, and the alkalinity of the baking soda makes this green effect even stronger, as does limiting the cookies’ exposure to air by storing them in an airtight container. We think this green middle is cool and unique, and these cookies would be a great thing to make for St Patrick’s day, Earth day, or any other green occasion! If, however, a green cookie is not to your liking, (or you know a child who associates all green things with vegetables) mixing a teaspoon of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar into the wet ingredients should reduce the effect without impacting the flavour too much.