Grain Gains: Canvas Spins Beer Byproduct into Plant-Based Protein

The next innovation in the red-hot plant-based protein drink category may be coming from an unlikely source: beer.

Canvas, a beverage startup backed exclusively by Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB) “disruptive growth organization” Zx Ventures, is looking to spent grain — the nutrient-rich byproduct of the beer brewing process — as the key ingredient to fuel its new line of plant-based barley beverages launching this fall. Using a proprietary fermentation process developed by AB, Canvas is able to refine the protein and fiber left over after the starch used for making beer is removed from the barley grain to create a drink that co-founder and CEO Sarah Pool described as “holistic, all-encompassing nourishment” with a strong sustainability message.

“The idea of Canvas is simple, but powerful – it’s about finding the good in everything, and that often it’s the things that are cast aside that can have the biggest impact,” Pool said in a press release. “Our goal is to turn as much spent grain into ‘Saved Grain’ as possible to expand access to better nutrition for everyone.”

Before Pool, the former president of organic snack company Pacific Superfood Snacks, co-founded the company along with AB global craft supply and innovation director Jason Stamm earlier this year, scientists at the beer company were already exploring new ways to use their share of the nearly 8 billion pounds of spent grain produced by the global commercial beer industry each year. The initial concept for a spent grain-based consumer product, which Pool describes as a “superfood smoothie,” was developed last summer within Zx Ventures’ internal accelerator Zxlerator, a three month program that explores how to develop internally-generated ideas into fully formed, launch-ready businesses. After joining, Pool helped steer the challenging process of creating and working with spent grain isolate, experimenting with numerous formulations to find a flavor profile that masked some of the drink’s bitter and sour notes without sacrificing nutritional content.

“The idea of [barley milk] was that juices and smoothies only go so far, as a lot of times the fiber is stripped out of those beverages,” said Pool in an interview with BevNET. Packaged in 12 oz. bottles, each of the five dairy-free varieties — Original, Matcha, Turmeric Chai, Cold Brew Latte and Cocoa — contain 11 to 13 g of fiber and 8 to 10 grams of protein. Spent grain isolate represents about half of the liquid in each bottle; other ingredients include coconut milk, cashew milk, pea protein isolate, chicory root extract and natural flavors. “Most milks have maybe protein or they are going after a certain type of micronutrient; we were like, ‘Let’s hit them all,’” she added.

Outside of the liquid itself, Canvas also represents an intriguing development in sustainable ingredient sourcing. For now, the company uses a retrofitted shipping container-cum-production facility inside AB’s Newark, N.J. brewery to receive and process the spent grain for the beverage. However, Pool emphasized that the proprietary technology and fermentation method employed by Canvas could be easily integrated into more breweries in the future, further reducing costs associated with waste disposal.

“We could work with any brewery, that’s what is so exciting about the process and the technology that’s been developed,” said Pool, noting the possibility of working with craft breweries on new flavor profiles. “Literally we could place it at any brewery around the world and be saving the grain.”

To support the initial production run and build awareness for the brand, Canvas announced the launch of a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign on August 1. The company has since blown past its $25,000 goal, having raised over $39,000 to support an initial production run as of August 10. Pool said the brand would shift towards preparing for retail placement this fall, entering select outlets through the end of the year before “looking at a much bigger scale with key partners” in 2018.

Beyond sourcing, Pool noted that for distribution Canvas would likely employ a combination of AB’s distribution network and independents when the product goes to retail. All five varieties of Canvas, which is heat pasteurized and refrigerated through the supply chain, will have a suggested retail price of $4.99.

“AB doesn’t have infinite cold chain capabilities, but obviously the excitement and the stake in the ground of having this come from AB, we’re just excited to get it out there and do it with the right partners,” she said. “We’re going to have to go outside of AB’s distribution in certain ways, but they are also our biggest partner.”

Combining an on-trend offering with innovative technology and access to seemingly unlimited, sustainable raw materials, Canvas is positioning itself as a potential brand platform that connects with consumers on multiple levels.

“For us, the goal is to save as much spent grain as possible and turn it into plant-based food and beverage products,” said Pool. “Not only that, if you think about the potential impact of being able to place the technology anywhere in the world, the opportunity to provide people fiber and protein in really key places, particularly places that are in desperate need of access to good nutrition, the opportunity to make an impact is really big and that’s really the goal behind this.”