I spoke with Saimon Skurichin – the founder and CEO of Brøl – microbrewery producing beer from leftover bread. Saimon has a very down-to-earth approach towards food systems we create. Please enjoy my interview with him!
Q: Can you tell me something about yourself? How did you get to Denmark?
A: I’m from Lithuania. My background is in civil engineering, things like designing offshore wind turbines and bridges. When I came here, I kept focusing on engineering. That’s when I started getting interested in urban planning because that’s where the decisions are made. I was studying at DTU and becoming a chef in different industrial kitchens. Asking a lot of questions didn’t make sense. I didn’t see any meeting point whatsoever.
Q: What happened next?
A: Then I started looking into the food waste being around 30 – 40% of everything that’s grown, so many things being pulled out in the kitchens. I was supposed to do the Ph.D. and focus on that. That was the only group of people that were interested in the systemic engineering approach to the system. Unfortunately, there was a lot of talking but no one was interested in actually making a change. Or maybe at the heart, they were but the practical protocol wasn’t around that. I finished my master thesis and decided to take action.
It was 2016 when we established the Foodsharing Copenhagen – a very practical take on food waste. It’s a non-profit, volunteer-based organization. We were just giving food to the people for many years now. We’ve worked with many retail chains, restaurants, bakeries. I think we fed more than half a million people in Copenhagen.
Q: Was there any particular food product that got your attention?
A: One thing that stood out for me was bread. Throwing out those bags and bags of fresh produce. The competition in the bakery sector is very big. Everyone is excited about the circular approach in Copenhagen, literally taking stale bread and feeding animals that live in the pastures. And they are happy about it. How is that right?
Q: What’s wrong with that?
A: What we call “circularity” doesn’t affect us, people, if it’s upcycled and consumed as new products. But to the animals, the consequences might be very bad. So many pigs and birds were killed last year because of that. Of course, all this came from viruses and pathogens. In my gut feeling – it’s not natural.
Q: How did your brewery Brøl start?
A: Where I come from, we didn’t waste anything, we reused so many things. And we had this drink called kvass. I used to make it as a child and eventually, we decided to make it here from stale bread. We started experimenting with it. Basically, it’s a grain that has been formed and processes into a product. And then beer just emerged.
When we started it was all the circular things with the brewery. I was happy with the way it was, but being sort of an angry activist I started checking what it takes to make a beer. We found out that it is one of the most resource-heavy industries in the world. To produce one liter of beer an insane amount of energy is being used. The damage is aggregated through so many different streams – from the equipment to the ingredients, all the distribution parts, the packaging side, and so on…
Q: What is your perception of that?
A: The way I look at it is: if the manufacturer of the equipment doesn’t care about offsetting what they produce, then at the end of the day, if I want to pursue that, it’s my responsibility to make sure that I offset. Even if this material is going to be around for 100 years or 50 years, I have to take care of it in my lifetime. I think that’s our direction from the beginning.
We started very “silly and simple” with the upcycling approach. But the project is very complex with all the elements adding up into a big picture. We can’t start exporting, even if we want, if we have a demand for a product. We are thinking about the CO2 emissions and it becomes contrary to what we want to do. So at the end of the day, I’m the biggest critic of what we’re doing. I can’t be sloppy with these things, sending products all around Europe and being silent about that.
Q: Do you think that your approach makes a difference?
A: Even if we’re not making the biggest impact by being so small, I believe that with this approach it will be much easier when we scale up. We don’t have to change all the equipment, we don’t have to invest a lot of money, and then do things differently. We can set out the pathways from the beginning.
Q: You are making alcoholic and non-alcoholic beer. Why’s it so special? What values stand for your products?
A: With the question you asked, there is already a challenge for us as a brewery – to make it special. Beer and all the other alcoholic drinks are the last items on the menus. Sustainability is not something you want to think about when you’re enjoying your beer. So before we get to be special, we have to make the case WHY it should be special, WHY we should care what we drink.
We talk about sustainability. But let’s take hops as an example – a trend-driven ingredient used in breweries all around the world. And most of it is coming from the States, no one is looking into growing around us. At the end of the day, everything should turn down to getting everything closer, supporting all the local businesses, our suppliers, the packaging, the ingredients. Then it’s about focusing on how we can be more flexible in terms of what kind of ingredients we can use. That’s where our technological part comes in at the brewery. Whereas the other breweries are able to extract 10 to 20%. After that, they’re going to have problems with the efficiencies. At our brewery, we’re going to get up to almost 100% extract efficiency. And that’s the goal, even though you’re small, being that efficient is connected to many other things. Every waste that every brewery produces now is still a waste, downcycled to the animals. For us, the same spent grain should be used within the food system for humans. Animals deserve better than just eating that.
Working with the bakeries, we are trying to change the recipes a little bit. So the product they make and sell and some of it ending up wasted is as clean as possible. In that way, it could be very easily upcycled back to the system. So the same we’re doing on all our outlets: spent hops, yeast, grains, all the water and different kind of aromatics. The one that we now identified as the best, in our case, is to grow mushrooms. We share the building with Funga Farm. That’s where we’re playing with the spent.
The circular biodesign approach lets us think: what else we’re going to have left from brewing? Usually, it’s something that adds to the costs, waste management. For us, all the affluence, like the yeast, becomes a sort of capital management. We are still making an awesome beer, but also making sure that all these side streams have a potential value.
Q: What about other materials?
A: I feel that I don’t have all the knowledge that I would like to have. When you start looking at, let’s say, packaging, bottles versus cans. You can find research papers to support both sides. The same model replicates to other elements. Unfortunately, with all the greenwashing happening out there, it is very difficult to trust the suppliers and what they’re doing.
Q: Many restaurants and food companies in Copenhagen start collaborating to actually tackle the food waste issues. How do you perceive the growth of this movement in Denmark?
A: There are so many creative people out there. We are still trying to figure things out, but it really depends on it being done in partnerships. So you have to be very flexible. For startups, it’s alright to be that flexible but for bigger companies playing with every little change is such a huge logistics challenge. From a business perspective, you really have to have strong partners. Especially with circularity, you can’t be alone.
If you look at the upcycling scene, compared to the density of the urban space, Copenhagen is quite crazy. It is very good at promoting these solutions. But how good is it, that on one hand Denmark is the greenest country and on the other side, when you look at the CO2 per capita, consumption and spendings per capita, it’s also on the top of the list. Where to go from here? Are we trying to sort out the problems, or are we oblivious to them? I don’t think it’s an intentional attitude. It’s just cultural.
I’m trying to keep up with the circularity and upcycling in the world. I’ve been using LinkedIn for that a lot. A lot of creativity is happening in general but I’m more interested in the ones that are established in modeling and actually can make a change and impact while being financially sustainable. The real question is: What’s next? We should address all the other issues. That should not be solely my responsibility, it should also be the responsibility of our suppliers and the producers.
Q: You mentioned that sustainability is inevitably intertwined with fermentation. What’s your take on that?
A: Fermentation represents all the connections and everything else in the world. I love that approach, how much we can learn from these little microorganisms. I think it’s such a great, intuitive and simple way to go about, when we talk about climate change and how it’s going to affect us. The planet doesn’t care. It’s all about us. I think that’s what’s interesting. Learning and seeing that minuscule changes with microbes’ profile, the vitality of the fermentation.
We’re talking about something so small, we can’t even see it. It is a whole universe of living organisms. We employ them for certain jobs and we treat them as a tool. That’s one of the things why spent yeast exist. We engineer it, use it once or twice, and then we dispose of that as a waste that probably could be used for something.
Q: How does it translate into operations of the brewery?
A: Talking with Mike, the CTO of the brewery, we often discuss the evolution types in the industrial revolution. For us, humans and societies, there have been so many different pressures that we developed and evolved around – socially, environmentally, psychologically, atomically. When we look at our brewery, we also applied the same evolutionary view, thinking about what kind of pressures are we having there. And then we started looking at every little aspect from the perspective of climate change.
We are seeking the answer to what is the best solutions we can implement in every little step to address these pressures. Inevitably, we ended up on the biological part and the fermentation. We focused on the organisms, to know which ones actually could help us out the most. They have been evolving for so many years in so many different places. At the end of the process, you want to have a product with specific organoleptic characteristics. Looking at the microbes, you can differentiate them by how much CO2 they produce, how sensitive to changes like with the temperature they are, how much energy and care we have to give to a specific yeast, in comparison with the others. There are all these microbes that can do things much efficiently, much faster, much better, with less care. And this is where we started playing with all these microorganisms and tried to see how they actually can back the circular approach.
Q: How do you think people perceive the fermented food products scene in Denmark?
A: During the lockdowns people had more time on their hands, to do all these different projects at home. When I came to Denmark I noticed that the knowledge of DIY is a little bit lost among the young generation. There’s a lot of people that are pushing it, but in general, I don’t see it. It’s a “dispose and buy new” attitude, whereas in Lithuania you use everything. The way we were using things and redoing things and rebuilding them. It felt like a generational gap here. And now everyone is discovering “the newest things” – kimchi, miso, sauerkraut. It’s like a new wave, but it’s all very old stuff. Cultural consciousness has emerged. People started thinking about their immune system, especially with the ferments, and how to boost it in different ways. That was beautiful to see. Hopefully, it’s going to catch up and people are going to do that more.
On the other hand, not all the products are that pure and healthy. You go to the shop to pick up stuff or you go to the restaurants and kitchens and eat other foods. Even most of the vinegar that we use is synthetic. It’s mass-produced things. Many of them are produced in ways that kill all the advantages that we want to consume. I hope that it is going to change a lot and we’ll start recognizing it again.
I might be taking it to the extreme, but there is a sort of PTSD around kombucha here. I don’t know where it started. There was no knowledge of how to do it before. Then someone introduced it and messed it up for the rest of the people. I don’t know what people tried but when people hear “kombucha” they just want something else. If you want to appeal to the masses, you have to make it sweet. And it’s so annoying – increasing the sugar content of the thing just to match the palates.
There are flavor, sustainability, and diversity. But it is not something that we need to talk about. We simply need to do it. We can share our stories and inspire others to follow. In social media, there’s a lot of promotion of organic stuff. So what? It doesn’t mean anything. We just keep supporting each other’s public images. We have to reach out to all those producers and look at the whole system.
Q: Considering everything that we talked about – what is your mission as an activist?
A: I don’t think that I’m gonna go beyond food in my lifetime. I think that’s going to be my sole focus – what we eat and drink. Always thinking about what is the current system, what we would like to have, and being in the middle – how do we get that. So I’m living in this tension, still trying to figure it out. There are so many moving parts, so many bubbles out there. Thinking about how we can encapsulate all this in every single drink, pushing that into the functionality realm. It’s sort of like with people who try psychedelics or acid, and when they reach the happiness point and have a surplus of it, they want to share it. It’s not super ethical, but some people always thought about spiking it on our whole society. Just a little bit, so everyone could see this interconnectedness with the world and everyone else. I’m trying to do that without these specific stimulants.
Q: That’s a really interesting approach. Thank you for your time.