When's the last time you picked up a pre-packaged sandwich and found it was made with the heel of the loaf? Never. So what do you think happens to all those thousands of unloved ends of bread, tossed into a skip every day by sandwich makers?
This was the question posed (far more eloquently) by food activist Tristram Stuart in his 2012 TED talk and, now, four years later, what lead him to create Toast Ale, the first British beer to be made with surplus bread from bakeries that would otherwise be sent to landfill.
It's a simple enough concept—using bread in place of grains when brewing up beer—but Stuart thinks that it could begin a revolution in helping to combat food waste, especially with the profits of the beer going straight to his charity, which tackles this very problem.
Currently, the UK bins an estimated 15 million tonnes of food each year, with bread as the most wasted product. That's the equivalent of 24 million slices of bread being tossed away unnecessarily, not to mention the amount of would-be sandwiches that never reached their true potential.
But following Stuart's initial call to arms in his 2009 book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, he reckons beer could be the catalyst for changing how we deal with all this leftover food.
As the beer launched officially last week, Stuart tells me from the Dalston-based offices of his charity Feedback, that it's all about finding a practical and fun solution. And booze definitely ticks those boxes.
"We've always tried to be uncompromising in our criticism of those who waste food but we also want to demonstrate and celebrate how nutritious, delicious, and business-friendly solutions to food waste can be," he explains. "There is no better example I've come across in my life of that than making beer out of perfectly good bread, which at the moment is being wasted in unbelievable quantities up and down the supply chain across the world. We want to start a global movement of using bread to make beer."
Which is where the craft beer experts at the Hackney Brewery come in. After his initial brainwave in September last year, Stuart started the search for a local brewer who fancied the challenge of creating a bready beer, which led him to Jon Swain, the co-founder of the Hackney Brewery.
"I was fascinated by the concept as soon as I heard about it," Swain tells me, while making the third ever batch of the carb-loaded beer at his brewery. "When Tristram's team called to talk to me about the project, I actually ended up chatting about it with them for an hour—I was so enthused by the idea."
Swain and the Hackney Brewery have always been a little avant-garde when it comes beer. Opening five years ago, they started off only making cask beer, but as the craft beer scene exploded quicker than the lid off a potent home-brew, they began to get more adventurous with their products.
"There was suddenly a real excitement in how beer was made and the whole experimental side of things was a natural progression for us," explains Swain. "We were always interested in doing these sorts of things but we didn't think it was commercially viable. But we found it really exciting, and we'd think, 'What about this idea we came up with a few years ago?' Then we'd go ahead and do it."
Which is why, alongside their classic American Pale Ale or Golden Beer, the Brewery also created a Japanese-inspired beer called Okawari Kudasai, brewed with sushi rice and green tea. Or a German-style beer infused with real raspberries. Taking up a whole wall of their East London brewery is a whiteboard filled with scrawls for new ideas, names for beers, and recipes. It's easy to see why Swain and his crew were so keen to get on board with making beer from bread.
But the real masters of the bread-brewing scene are the Brussels Beer Project in Belgium. Luckily Stuart managed to persuade the founders to come over to work with Swain and his team on creating Toast Ale. The result was like a super-group of brewers, riffing on new ideas.
"They were lovely guys, we ended up chatting about beer and going for drinks all night long," says Swain. "We were swapping methods and writing recipes, left, right and centre."
From this meeting of the heads, the unique recipe for Toast Ale was created. Normally, beer is made by mixing a grain (like barley) with water, adding hops and yeast and leaving it to ferment. The Hackney Brewery have replaced about a third of the malt barley with the leftover bread, toasted to add a caramelly note. The starch and the sugars in the bread are broken down by the enzymes in the barley and after fermenting for about four weeks, the beer is ready. Each bottle from the batch of about 2,400 beers contains roughly a slice of bread in each one.
While I'm at the early morning session at the brewery, a delivery of 70 kilos of bread toasted by by nearby E5 Bakehouse arrives, ready to be mashed up into the next batch. It's heavy work: the head brewer and his team haul up the sacks of the toast and barley and pour them into the huge two metre-high containers, washing them and mashing them in with hot water to kick start the fermenting process.
Inside the barrels, it smells and looks like an industrial sized bowl of soggy Weetabix. I suddenly realise I haven't actually had breakfast yet. Probably should eat some of that bread.
This third-generation batch of Toast Ale has been tweaked slightly from the initial recipe.
"It's still fun and games—we've lowered the bitterness slightly and we've upped the percentage of bread we used," says Swain. "So we used to take a third of the grain away and replace it with the bread but we upped it a bit as we got so much extract from it. We now use about 40 percent bread."
And the result? It's a really, really good beer: a well-balanced, full-bodied brew with a malty and caramel finish from the eponymous toast. As Stuart tells me, it wasn't just about making a beer, it was about making an excellent beer.
The bread is mixed with hot water and mashed to start the fermentation process. Photo by the author.
"I took a case to a beer sommelier and I honestly didn't know how it would go," he remembers. "He said, poker-faced: 'I was really skeptical about this beer. I thought it was going to be sweet and sticky and not my cup of tea, but this is a classic English ale.' And it was that moment when I thought we haven't just got a cool food waste solution, but we've got a really great beer that's a contribution to the brewing world—bingo!"
And rather than having just a self-congratulatory piss-up in a brewery, the launch of the beer—the profits from which are donated to the Feedback charity—has now set further plans in motion to take it global.
Stuart hopes that he'll be able to help set up local bakers with local breweries to make their own regional variations of the drink both in the UK and abroad.
"We're going to open source what we do as the more bread that can be saved and turned into classic beer for local consumption, the better," he says. "We want to work with local partnerships to make it a functional business in their area and raise money for charity."
The team has already been contacted by people in Iceland and Peru interested in making global batches of Toast.
So what's the next for Stuart? Making vodka out of left-over potatoes? Limoncello out of rogue lemons?
"I've got infinite ideas on what to do next," he says. "Ever since I was growing up in Sussex, we'd go around the gardens in the village and take people's apples from the trees, and make cider. It's a natural course of events that I've been doing for years. There's pretty much infinite permeations of this idea that we could do."
Which gives us all the perfect excuse to get ethically wasted.