Making beer from old bread
Rethinking the problem
Food waste is often thought of as natural and inevitable, a consequence of food production and oversupply. But what if we were to think of it as the opposite—unnatural and avoidable? This is the core philosophy of Travinder Singh, CEO of the CRUST Group.
Having grown up in a traditional Punjabi family, in Singapore, to whom the very notion of allowing food to go to waste was unthinkable, Singh says, “My mother would always save any leftover food from a meal to use the next day. And not just food. Utensils, plastic containers, and all such things would be reused to the point where the family would need to intervene!”
Even in your own family, this was probably the attitude of your grandparents, and it was most certainly the attitude of the generation before that. Wasting food, fabric, or energy is a modern practice that is worth challenging. Thus, in reality, “sustainability” is not just a contemporary buzzword but the return to a way of thinking common throughout most of human history. Singh explains, “I grew up learning that sustainability was natural. Until I entered the market myself, I had no idea that others considered it a revolutionary concept. People call my company a ‘sustainable brand,’ but it is really just a ‘brand.’ Sustainability has moved so far away from the normal that it is now just a buzzword.”
Finding implementable solutions
Singh’s CRUST Group, based in Singapore, is a food-tech company with global aspirations. CRUST works with food producers or suppliers to upcycle their surplus, waste, or other by-products for use in products that appeal to consumers. Their foray into this market was with a pilsner beer, followed by the craft beer CRUST Lager, made from surplus bread that would have been otherwise donated or disposed of.
It takes a fresh perspective to mesh the old idea of sustainable living with our modern way of thinking and living. “I considered many different food and beverages for our first product, but I settled on beer since I personally enjoy it,” laughs Singh. “To find my feet, I had to go back to preindustrial brewing methods, experimenting at home before eventually approaching suppliers to acquire their surplus bread and rice.”
From beer, CRUST Group quickly expanded to produce CROP, a line of healthful nonalcoholic beverages. To this point, CRUST Group has handled everything from bread, grains, and fruit and vegetables to coffee grounds , and even tropical plants. CRUST Group never wanted to be limited to just beer. Singh explains, “Beverages are our proof of concept, but we are already encountering waste and surplus products that we can’t use in beverages, such as high-protein spent grain in beer production. We have found a way to make that into a pancake mix and are also working on a granola bar. We are constantly optimizing.”
As it took shape in 2019, CRUST Group set itself the mission of reducing global food loss by 1 percent by 2030. “If you don’t set a target, you have nothing to work your business model around,” explains Singh. “It doesn’t matter if your target is idealistic or practical, you need something to aim for. If you don’t have a KPI, ‘key performance indicator’, sustainability becomes just another buzzword.”
Collaboration, not competition
Competition is often thought of as a leading driver of innovation, but Singh has a different perspective: “That is only true as long as companies’ competitive instincts don’t create business models that cut each other out of the market. This kind of competitive mindset will always be detrimental to environmental and social goals.” This way of thinking led CRUST Group to develop a business model based on collaboration. “First and foremost, we are a food-technology company,” adds Singh. “Beyond creating a successful product, we are developing a model that adds value and respects vital environmental and social concerns.”
This model is CRUST Group’s Sustainable Unique Label (SUL) program, which was originally targeted at food and beverage businesses but is now offered to any organization that regularly finds itself with a surplus of food. CRUST Group acts as a research and development partner to create co-branded products with a company, with planned data services to follow by the end of 2022.
With a product conceptualized, the next step is supply chains and logistics. “This is the most difficult area for companies entering this market, including us,” Singh acknowledges. “But we developed our supply-chain systems in Singapore, which imports most of its produce, and taking the same concept to countries with extensive agriculture industries, like India or Japan, is easy by comparison.” In Japan, groups like the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA) are a gift to those seeking a swift implementation of the CRUST Group model. These groups have a wide-ranging infrastructure that CRUST Group can be part of, and collaboration with groups on this scale make a 1 percent reduction in food waste by 2030 all the more attainable.
Existing infrastructure is important, but so too is the legislative environment of the market in question. The Japanese government’s collaborative stance on social and environmental causes was the impetus for CRUST Group choosing Japan as its first foreign market. Singh explains, “We clearly saw an opportunity to come in as the case study for how to reduce food waste. Knowing that you have support at the government level, even indirectly, is key.” The government may understand the strategic value of learning from other countries and models, but consumers, who make the purchasing decisions, often find that irrelevant. To them, “waste bread” may as well be “rotten bread,” but this is rarely the case. Waste bread could be bread that is still fresh but unsalable due to imperfections or an approaching expiry date. Singh summarizes, “The final step of collaboration involves the consumer, understanding their tastes and making sure the product is in tune with their needs and their culture.”
Societal solutions across cultures and generations
Singh understands and appreciates that different perspectives are essential for reaching consensus on a concept as diverse and interconnected as sustainability. In practice, sustainability links SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals, such as Zero Hunger, with Climate Action, Responsible Consumption and Production, and Sustainable Cities and Communities, so it follows that cooperation across borders is also necessary.
“Before founding our Japanese subsidiary, CRUST Japan, I tried to learn about the culture of the country,” continues Singh, “but there is a limit to what you can learn unless you work with a local team. You may tend to apply your own solutions to local issues, and while this is important, you can’t effect change without understanding local culture.” CRUST Group is expanding to the Taiwan market in 2022, and despite that market’s similarities with CRUST Group’s other markets, Singh acknowledges that there will be learning required on both sides for change to take place: “Attitude is not something you necessarily need to change, you can try adopting a mentality to see if it works better. That kind of flexible thinking is ideal.”
In uncertain times, especially for the food and beverage industry, the humility to adapt and to collaborate is one way to navigate the future market.
Read an interview with the general manager of CRUST Japan via the link below:
CRUST Group Global Website