Growing gourmet mushrooms from brewer's grain

An idea born in an Olds College dorm room is moving closer to commercialization. Supported by the Alberta Innovates voucher program, Ceres Solutions Ltd. is scaling up a technology that processes spent grains, a by-product of the beer brewing process, into a substrate to grow mushrooms commercially.

One of the first things Ceres Solutions' founder Alex Villeneuve noticed during his first days in the Olds College Brewmaster program was the difficulty and cost of removing the spent grains from the school's brewery. With his background in culinary arts, he wondered if there wasn't a way to put this grain to good use. He took his idea about mushroom growing to the Olds College Centre for Innovation and they put him in touch with Alberta Innovates Technology Development Advisor Matthew Cornall. Villeneuve was able to leverage support from the ATREK Fund (entrepreneurship funding for Olds College students) to receive a micro voucher from Alberta Innovates to develop his idea.

"The micro voucher got us off the ground," says Villeneuve. "It took my business from an idea to a functional prototype. Without help from Alberta Innovates, this wouldn't have happened."

Since then, Ceres Solutions has used another voucher to further develop the technology. The company has acquired equipment to process large amounts of spent grain substrate. Once processed, the substrate is inoculated with a pure mushroom culture (oyster mushrooms currently, as they are in high demand from restaurants). The substrate is then bagged in tubes which are hung in modular climate-controlled growing chambers (also designed by Ceres). Once the mushrooms are harvested, the substrate is processed into a protein-rich livestock feed called Mycopro. Ceres is working with the Olds College Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production on the registration of this product with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

For Villeneuve, these are exciting times as his company is on the cusp of commercialization. He believes there is enough capacity to have at least one modular facility in every Canadian province and potentially every US state. Importantly, the technology Ceres has developed will work with any fibrous waste product, not just spent grains. Villeneuve is also fielding international interest in licencing the technology. "The key differentiator for us is that we are local. Local brewer's grain is used to produce food that is used in local restaurants, and the by-product from this process is used on local farms. It's a powerful concept."