Salvage Food Products and Chicago's Growing Zero Waste Movement

Food companies waste food. It’s an unfortunate fact of the industry, and in an age when every ton of carbon counts, it’s is a humanitarian triple whammy. Not only is edible food not going into hungry mouths, but the fuel used to harvest it meaninglessly contributes to our carbon footprint and much of that discarded food goes into methane-burping landfills. As consumers wake up and demand change, companies large and small are starting to question the wisdom of large-scale corporate food waste. Salvage Food Products is one of the most creative of these entrepreneurs. Their mission: turn the residue from the hard cider brewing process into delicious vinegar. It’s the latest development in a zero waste movement that is starting to catch fire worldwide.

Who are Salvage?

Nicholas Beaulieu

Nicholas Beaulieu

Nicholas Beaulieu and Jason Garland knew one another long before they began Salvage Food Products together in 2017. Both chefs, they’d been friends for years by the time they sat down with a plan to open a business and tackle food waste. 

Although the idea was fresh in the Chicago area, Nicholas was already an old hand at recycling brewery product. He’d worked as director of sales in North Bay, Ontario, for a brewery that generated a significant amount of waste product. He quickly realized that the money the company was spending on marketing, packaging, and merch was completely wasted if perfectly good brew was going down the drain. There was more than a little waste involved, too. Even the vats where beer and cider are brewed end up with some extra dregs that don’t make it into the bottle.

Where one person might have shrugged the unusable brew off as the cost of doing business, Nicholas saw an opportunity to both reduce waste and profit. He started recovering beer that otherwise would have gone to the dump and turning it into vinegar. That vinegar, in turn, went to local restaurants. Good beer made good vinegar, and the idea was a hit. Soon, other breweries wanted to work with Nicholas, too. It was a valuable experience.

Nicholas eventually married and moved to Chicago, where he reunited with his best friend and fellow food professional, Jason Garland. They were both interested in vinegar, and by coincidence, so was Charlie Davis of Right Bee Cider. Together, they hatched a plan to save unwanted cider from obscurity. The moment for upcycled vinegar had arrived. 

Now Salvage makes excellent vinegar that not only saves the environment, but spreads the word about Right Bee’s products. Responsible businesses like this one represent ideal products for a generation that notoriously buys based on its values. According to recent data, 73% of millennials prefer to spend extra money on sustainable products. More are going zero waste, too. 

Since starting, Salvage has grown tremendously. They’re acquiring more clients and starting to explore new product lines. (Who wouldn’t love a jam or hot sauce made from their favorite cider?) This will take some extra licensing and additional equipment, as well as cooperation with new partners, but the future looks bright. In just two years, they’ve become a unique fixture on the Chicago food scene.

What is zero waste?

Jason Garland

Jason Garland

When you think of “waste,” you might have visions of plastic toy packaging piling up on the floor during the holidays, plastic grocery bags riding the breeze down trash-strewn alleys, and endless junkyards full of rusting metal. But waste isn’t just extra material. It’s material that doesn’t need to be waste in the first place! Styrofoam packing peanuts, which don’t decay, get thrown out after one use, and require energy to manufacture and transport are an obviously pointless source of garbage. (After all, there is such a thing as paper packing material.) But even though food is renewable and biodegradable, wasting it is deceptively dangerous for the Earth. It’s easy to tsk about styrofoam, which is obviously destined to end up polluting the planet for centuries to come, but harder to notice the huge, largely invisible effect that wasted food has on our environment. Even dedicated environmentalists who do notice it are sometimes at a loss as to how to deal with the problem. Consumers can compost and resist discarding food, but so much of the waste involved happens at the production level that consumer behavior changes can only do so much. Think about all those weird-looking but otherwise normal apples that never make it to the supermarket.

That’s why, when an enterprising startup shows up to interrupt the waste cycle at the corporate level, people sit up and take notice. Salvage Food Products are determined to strike a blow against waste at one of its big sources: the brewery. By partnering with Right Bee Cider of Chicago, they’re showing Illinois that zero percent waste can mean a hundred percent better for both business and nature.

Right Bee Apple Cider Vinegar

Right Bee Apple Cider Vinegar

How it works

The idea of “waste cider” may not sound terribly appealing to you at first blush. Don’t think of what Salvage uses as garbage, because it’s not. In fact, it’s usually just extra cider - not enough to bottle and sell, but perfectly fine to drink. 

There are a few ways that brewing companies end up with this unsaleable excess. First of all, they may happen to generate bottles of product with incorrect or faulty labeling. Think three labels on the bottle, or the wrong label on the wrong product. Distribution issues can result in extra cider as well, as can mistakes in the brewing process. Sometimes, brewers will even have to contend with returns or product that hasn’t sold. Alcohol does go off-date, but only in the sense that it starts to change into vinegar. That’s where Salvage comes in.

Salvage puts that alcohol into fermenting tanks and lets it keep progressing on its journey toward full vinegar status. To understand how this happens, it helps to know a little bit about the chemistry involved. Making vinegar is a fermentation process that fundamentally changes an alcoholic substance into an acidic one. You may have personal experience with this phenomenon if you’ve ever kept an open bottle of wine too long. Eventually, instead of sweet and intoxicating, the wine will just taste sour. Popular Science has a pretty good article about how this happens and why it is no tragedy. Vinegar made from great alcohol generally makes a fantastic cooking ingredient. This chef secret has a lot to do with the success of Salvage.

At the cellular level, vinegar-making is a group effort. A type of bacteria called acetobacter consumes the ethanol that makes wine and beer intoxicating and replaces it with acetic acid. Salvage Food Products simply takes excess, unused, and unloved alcohol - which would otherwise be thrown out - and lets those bacteria eat it up. 

Right Bee Cider

Right Bee Cider

The company accomplishes this en masse by using vats quite a bit larger than your forgotten bottle of table wine. A small amount of alcohol in a bottle turns into vinegar fairly easily because it’s well-exposed to the air. Acetobacter needs oxygen and warm temperatures in order to work its magic. (It’ll live quite happily between 59 and 94 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why it thrives on your kitchen table, but if you really want it to grow well, you’ll need to keep it between 80 and 85 degrees.) Knowing that, it’s easy to see why a huge amount of alcohol in a deep, mostly airless vat could take months to change into vinegar.

Traditional vinegar brewing is a static process. The Orleans method, a famous French vinegar-making process, is a good example: the wine or beer just sits around until its alcohol has turned to acid. Then, the vinegar brewers empty most of the vat, leaving the bacterial mat as a seed for the next batch. Nicholas and Jason have customized the more modern submerged acidification technique, which pumps air into the fermenting vinegar. By exposing the brew to more oxygen, they can turn a vat of cider into vinegar in less than a week.

Great for nature, great for business

Brewing involves a significant amount of unavoidable waste. When a brewer ends up with a bunch of cider or beer that they can’t get rid of, then they need to spend even more money to have that stuff shipped away and safely disposed of. Pouring it down the drain is against the rules, and recycling alcohol is expensive. Nicholas reports that one Chicago brewer pays out of pocket to get rid of thousands of gallons of alcohol at a time. Add that to the money already spent packaging, labeling, marketing, and shipping the product, and you’ve got a big financial pain in the neck, no matter how well your brewery is performing. 

It’s no wonder that so many beer and cider companies are interested in what Salvage is doing. By making wasted cider into something useful and delicious, this innovative company recovers up to 75% of that lost product...not to mention a great deal of the lost investment! A tank malfunction suddenly turns into a golden opportunity to create something new. Unwanted product doesn’t have to be a liability anymore. 

In a society where waste culture is ingrained, most people - and companies - think next to nothing of tossing away waste. Changing this will involve both cultural shifts and some serious out-of-the-box thinking. Solutions won’t always be as straightforward as compostable cutlery and beeswax food wraps. Salvage is stepping into a niche that the food industry didn’t realize it needed: efficient, smart recovery of food that we can no longer afford to throw out. 

You can learn more about Salvage Food Products on their Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or Website.