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CLOSING THE LOOP

at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

BY CANDACE BYRNE

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A pile of compost at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. awaits distribution over the hops field and organic garden.

This is not a story about the largest and arguably most famous Chico restaurant establishing an organic vegetable garden to supply the restaurant kitchen.

This is a story about Sierra Nevada’s efforts to keep its solid waste out of landfills.

It’s a story about a refrain often repeated in talking to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. workers, “closing the loop.” Yes, two acres of organic garden now supply the restaurant. But this is no Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the largely self-sufficient farm/restaurant in Pocantico Hills, New York, made famous by chef Dan Barber. At Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., the organic garden and greenhouse fit into its business-wide efforts to prevent waste, recycle, and reuse. It’s what Cheetah Tchudi, who was hired early last fall to oversee the new organic vegetable garden and greenhouse, calls “the real deal in a time when greenwashing is so prevalent.”

loopdiagram_72At a round table in a small conference room just inside Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s business office, Cheetah flattens out a folded paper on which he has drawn various circles representing Sierra Nevada facilities and processes. Arrows arrows show how they interconnect. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. founder and president Ken Grossman opens his laptop to show off a key photo in a slide presentation he was preparing. The photo shows a five-gallon plastic bucket labeled for compostables and sitting in a Sierra Nevada break room.compostbucket_72dpi

The two homely graphics set up the story.

The Scheme
Cheetah’s schematic demonstrates the foods produced and utilized in Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s beer and restaurant operations, both input and output. To close the loop means that inputs and outputs switch places until they cancel each other out, with the goal that nothing takes a trip to a landfill. In Cheetah’s words, “To close the loop means utilizing by-products of the restaurant and brewery as raw materials, to go cradle to cradle.” At the heart in terms of maximum input/output, of course, is the brewery, where malted grain, hops, yeast, and water come together to produce those famous brews—considerable input and output. While much of the grain, hops, and restaurant produce come from elsewhere, Sierra Nevada produces some of the hops used in flavoring their beers—those big leafed plants climbing the poles and strings in the corner field adjacent to the brewery. Out on Hegan Lane, the Brewing Co. also cultivates about a hundred thousand pounds of organic barley annually. These two products now create the special, organic Estate Ale, with a goal of a thousand barrels annually (about fourteen thousand cases).

But back to other inputs and outputs and their loop-closing utility. As the schematic shows, some spent grain and yeast from the brewing process feed the cows raised at California State University, Chico’s farm, animals harvested for the beef served in the restaurant. Since the advent of the organic vegetable garden, spent yeast also serves as a beneficial soil amendment. Cheetah experiments with it to discover useful applications, first and foremost as a nitrogen fertilizer. Notice how these outputs of the brewing process become inputs to the food served in the restaurant.

Such synergy vibrates along all the arrows of Cheetah’s schematic.

The Restaurant
With four to five hundred guests each weekday and seven hundred fifty guests on Saturdays and Sundays, Sierra Nevada’s restaurant serves a lot of food. Executive Chef Micheal Iles reveals that the restaurant uses four hundred pounds a day of potatoes alone. That’s a lot of potato peels, and those are just a portion of the food waste from the kitchen. In addition to all the vegetable scraps, there is also the food left on patrons’ plates. Before last fall, both kitchen and plate waste was collected by Recology Butte Colusa Counties in Chico and sent to their compost facility in Marysville.

Walk through the restaurant kitchen and you’ll wish you could turn sideways and become thin enough as to disappear. The kitchen is all bustle. About the only stationary objects are the items in the walk-in cooler. This day, the walk-in holds a large, flat food container of lovely young mixed greens picked and washed that morning in the organic garden and another of carrots in various shades of white and pale orange. The other stationary objects are the forty-gallon garbage cans for food scraps, one of which sits at the start of the dish line and into which wait staff scrape the plate waste.

In the scheme of food recycling, restaurant plate waste presents a huge recycling problem, as it contains meats, bones, oils, dairy—food products not easily compostable the way raw and cooked vegetables are. In all, (brace yourself) each day about five hundred pounds of food waste gets collected from Sierra Nevada’s restaurant, vegetable waste as well as the problematic plate waste. That output once prevented closing the loop at Sierra Nevada, because it made its way offsite.

Now, however, it all goes into a state of the art composter called the HotRot.

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The hungry HotRot.

The HotRot
The HotRot is a machine beautiful in its simplicity and astounding in its capacity. Engineered in New Zealand, the machine consists of an enclosed modular stainless-steel U-shaped chamber, about forty feet in length, inside of which is a tined shaft that rotates both to stir the compostables loaded into the system and to move the material along the chamber. Periodic rotation of the shaft ensures aeration of the contents by the tines, which evenly distribute the moisture in the waste and the heat produced by composting. Forward and reverse shaft movement controls the pace of movement along the chambers such that what goes in now as plate waste emerges in two weeks as compost. Fully in the 21st century, the HotRot monitors all functions via a microprocessor control unit that reads sensors installed in the unit. It sounds complicated, but the machine is mechanically very simple—and the HotRot folks in New Zealand communicate with Sierra Nevada employees by telephone and web dialoguing and can even troubleshoot via remote operation of the microprocessor.

composthands_72dpiThe HotRot Composting System website touts it as first “an environmentally superior and cost effective alternative to landfill,” then mentions “that [it] also produces top quality compost.” It’s a description that, in its priorities, undoubtedly appealed to Ken Grossman, whose values drive Sierra Nevada’s investments. As he looked to close the loop on the restaurant operations, Ken researched many large-scale composters, including an anaerobic food composter at UC Davis, and traveled to Nova Scotia to view the HotRot. An aerobic composter, the HotRot was employed in Nova Scotia to transform regional food waste into usable compost. The HotRot’s engineered simplicity plus its proven functionality in operations like he witnessed in Nova Scotia sold him.

The most amazing applications of this technology may be the HotRots in service at the Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire, UK, and the Envirocomp Nappy (Diaper) Composting Plant in Balcairn, NZ. At the zoo, a HotRot transforms animal waste and bedding, prunings from the zoo compound, and other organic matter into compost used around the zoo. At Envirocomp’s plant, disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, and incontinence products supplied by new parents, pre-schools, and homes for the aged in the North Canterbury area of New Zealand feed into a HotRot, which works its composting magic on these products.

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Mandi McKay readies food waste for HotRotting.

At Sierra Nevada, the HotRot resides in an outbuilding behind the restaurant. Its inputs include those five hundred pounds of food waste produced in the restaurant daily, the compostables from the break rooms, used paper towels, some spent grain and hops, and wood chips added as a bulker to optimize air flow in the composting process. The hopper that feeds Sierra Nevada’s HotRot holds 5.5 cubic yards of such waste, about 3.5 to 4 cubic yards of which is waste collected from the facility, and all of this waste goes into the HotRot daily to start its two-week journey down the U-shaped chamber. The HotRot yields about 3 cubic yards of compost daily, about a half ton of compost. The compost is lovely stuff, light and flaky, definitely covetable as a soil amendment. As Cheetah’s schematic demonstrates, this compost goes out to the hop yard and the organic garden.

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Key Performance Indicators are monitored on a screen in the break room for all employees to follow. This screen compares actual waste recycled to annual goals. 

Cheri Chastain, Sierra Nevada’s Sustainability Coordinator, and Mandi McKay, Assistant Coordinator, operate the brewery’s HotRot, which includes forklifting the day’s restaurant waste into the HotRot’s hopper, mixing in the other inputs, and monitoring the machine. “It eats, it digests, it clogs,” they joke, “with a mind of its own.” They’re convinced she’s a she, a bit demanding and persnickety about her preferred ratio of inputs; they consider what to name her. They also seem astounded by the amounts of waste the HotRot consumes and the amount of compost she produces. Their goal in 2010, the first year of the HotRot’s operation, was to keep 99.5% of Sierra Nevada’s solid waste out of the landfill; they achieved 99.6%. This year, the goal is set at 99.7%. It’s what’s known at Sierra Nevada as a Key Performance Indicator, and how close they are to this goal is graphically represented each month, as are all the Co.’s KPIs, accessible on the computer screens at each desk, as well as on three giant touch screen monitors strategically placed within the buildings.

In the Garden
cheetah1_72dpiSierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s organic produce and herb garden occupies two acres on the side of the property next to Costco. One morning in late spring, his step lively as one would expect from a chef about to host five hundred or so diners in the next several hours, Micheal Iles moved through the garden. He quickly plucked and chewed arugula and chive blossoms to gauge their flavors, and he asked Cheetah to harvest them for salads in the restaurant. One acre of the organic garden still yielded plenty of greens, the mixed salad greens in the kitchen walk-in as well as a good batch of kales, both smooth- and curly-leafed, and the last of the beet crop, both red and orange. The four corners of this plot yield the estate herbs: basil, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, chives, sage, thyme, mint. Pots of hops also reside in the herb gardens. Micheal pinched off a young hop shoot and passed it for tasting; it’s the new growth leaves he uses when he pickles hop shoots for the restaurant. In addition to the vegetables and herbs, the plot hosts an insectary, where grow yarrow, stasice, amaranthus, zinnia, rudbeckia, and digitalis, some of which Cheetah harvests and dries along with barley and hops to grace tables for events in the Big Room.

greenhouse_72dpiNext to the acre in production lay an acre in cover crop, the grasses, field peas, and fava beans a thick riotous mixture. The field peas are inedible, but Micheal requested a harvest of favas before Cheetah mows and tills the crop to transform the acre into garden. If picked young enough, says Micheal, fava beans do not required time-consuming shelling. It was hard to imagine such a harvest, so dense and varied was the covercrop, but Cheetah would likely manage.

An adjunct to the two acres in production is the greenhouse, under construction this late spring and planned spacious enough for both early starts of what grow in the organic garden and some year-round production. Cheetah plans to grow mushrooms under the greenhouse benches and along-side the vegetable starts, utilizing spent grain as the growing medium.

Back in the Kitchen
Despite placing orders for arugula and chive flowers and fava beans, Micheal Iles makes clear that the kitchen is in the service of the garden, the result of “a great gardener and a flexible kitchen staff.” The kitchen reflects the garden, not vice versa. “We make some plans,” he says, “but plans and gardens don’t fit.” For example, an expected four more weeks of carrots could fall victim to 100-degree days.

Micheal does make clear some goals: producing a wide variety of heirloom vegetables, choosing them for taste, not for yield, and planting them multiple times for an extended season. He proudly claims to use the garden produce “voraciously” and in illustration names the roasted peppers, pepper salads, and stuffed peppers, the Estate Pasta with tomato, eggplant, and roasted romanesco broccoli, Estate Garden Flatbread, and the many heirloom tomatoes served with the restaurant’s favored burgers, all on the restaurant menu into last fall. For this summer, too, many staggered plantings of heirloom tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, green beans, corn, squash, peppers will yield up their bounty for the kitchen.

This day, at the back door to the kitchen, Micheal nods to a farmer from Bordin Farms in Durham; at another moment it might have been a delivery from another local farmer. The kitchen lassos such local products, demonstrating, as Micheal says, “We purchase locally whenever we can,” including Llano Seco Pork. This ethos is evident in the restaurant when the wait staff first brings the bread to the table. That famed balsamic and olive oil bread dipping sauce contains a reduction of Dewey Lucero’s balsamic vinegar (in Corning) and the Isern family’s organic olive oil (olives grown in Durham). While Sierra Nevada’s own garden offers up “Estate” salads and entrées for the menu, like the “Estate” beers in the brewery’s beer production, those will never be the Co.’s entire restaurant offerings.

Sierra Nevada Estate Garden Flatbread
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One ball pizza dough (store bought or homemade)
8 ounces cream cheese
1 teaspoon basil, Estate
1/2 teaspoon thyme, Estate
1/2 teaspoon parsley, Estate
Local organic greens
Favorite vinaigrette
2 ears of corn, Estate
2 red peppers, Estate
2 cups green beans, Estate
2 heirloom tomatoes, Estate

Let pizza dough rise at room temperature for 15 minutes. Divide pizza dough in half. Lightly flour a board and, using a rolling pin, stretch each half of pizza dough into two circles. (Can be free formed as well.)

Heat sheet pan in oven while warming up to 500 degrees. Remove from heat and sprinkle with corn meal or polenta. Add stretched dough onto hot pan. Bake in 500-degree oven until brown and crispy, approximately 12 minutes

Clean corn ears. Season with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. Grill on hot barbeque. When corn is caramelized and kernels softened, remove kernels from cob.

Take red peppers, rub with olive oil, and place over high heat on grill. Move around until outside of peppers are charred.

Place in bowl covered with plastic for five minutes. Remove skin, seeds, and stem from peppers. Cut into strips.

Drop green beans in boiling salted water until bright green (still crisp), about two minutes. Move immediately into ice water to shock them so they keep their color.

Mix cream cheese with herbs and a touch of salt and pepper. Spread cream cheese mixture on flatbreads.

Toss local organic or garden greens in your favorite vinaigrette. Top each flat bread with greens. Decorate with roasted peppers, corn kernels, wedged heirloom tomatoes, and blanched green beans.

Enjoy!


Back in the Loop
It might seem more than a little loopy: grain is input into the brewing process; spent, it becomes output to feed the cattle. Their meat is input to diners’ plates in the restaurant, then these same diners leave some output for the HotRot, which, by the time it gets to the hopper, is input for the HotRot’s compost output, which Cheetah puts into the organic garden. The garden’s organic herbs and veggies become input for the “Estate” items on the restaurant menu. But in fact, the efforts at Sierra Nevada are rooted in Ken Grossman’s values. About the relationship between garden and restaurant, Cheetah describes “a back and forth flow of energy,” not a garden-dependent seasonal menu. “Sierra Nevada’s the real deal,” he says. “I’m impressed with it. I’m proud to be a part.”
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