Beer could benefit the environment.

Thomas Jefferson once quipped, “Beer, if drunk in moderation, softens the temper, cheers the spirit and promotes health.” As it turns out, the brewed spirit also can be good for the environment. Spent barley — the leftover malt and adjuncts in barley after brewers have extracted most of the sugars, proteins and nutrients — is by far the largest byproduct of beer brewing. But the used grain is far from being considered waste. It can be used to fertilize gardens, feed livestock and is used in cooking.

And now, spent barley might play a role in keeping our waters clean. According to the article “Toxic Algae is Ruining Our Lakes. The Solution: Beer” posted this month in, the used grain could be used to help reduce toxic algae blooms in lakes and ponds. For the past several years, barley straw has been used to help control algae growth. While scientists aren’t exactly sure how it works, the straw, when exposed to sunlight and oxygen, produces chemicals that prohibit growth of the noxious scum without harming other aquatic plant life. In some cases, the presence of the straw actually has helped the growth of beneficial plants. The only drawback is that barley straw needs to be put out months before the algae begins to grow so it has time to break down and release the beneficial compounds.

But Taylor Armstrong, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, thinks that beer might hold a solution to that. Armstrong and her professor, Al Place, have been examining spent barley grain as a speedier alternative to straw bales. Brewers use barley hulls to make beer. Those hulls have more phenolic acids and flavonoids than does barley straw. Even better, the barley already begins to degrade during the brewing process, which could translate to a significantly shorter lead time than is required of barley straw. While Armstrong says test results are promising, she warns brewers not to start throwing their spent grain into local ponds just yet. Much research remains to be done.

But still, beer drinkers everywhere should be happy to know that their pints might benefit the environment.

— Robin Beres

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