Beer lovers in Japan faced with many lager options have turned to craft beers to find flavor, but with increased demand has come a challenge for small brewers who now have to discard huge amounts of malt leftovers but wish not to waste.

To tackle the problem, a startup in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, began an upcycling operation using brewers' dregs to produce "craft beer paper," which is appearing at beer promotion events in various forms, including menus, coasters and drink holders.

Around three years ago when demand for craft beer began booming, Shoki Matsuzaka, 33, chief executive officer of kitafuku, was approached by a local brewer with concerns about how much malt lees waste was being produced.

Supplied photo shows Shoki Matsuzaka (L), chief executive officer of kitafuku, holding up a "craft beer paper" ticket. At his side is Kengo Saito, chief brewer of Number Nine Brewery in Yokohama, near Tokyo. (Kyodo)

Kitafuku was founded in 2019 to offer solutions to regional problems.

Some big brewers have their own facilities to dry the lees for the production of animal feed. But small craft brewers have no choice but to rely on outside help and struggle to find ranches and farms that will accept processed feed and compost.

As he searched for a solution, Matsuzaka got an idea from a paper wholesaler in Nara Prefecture, which was producing popular recycled paper from rice plants and grass. He naturally thought the process could also be applied to the leftovers of beer production.

Since December 2020, kitafuku has collected an estimated 1,500 kilograms of malt lees free of charge from eight brewers and manufactured cardboard boxes and other items, thanks to the skills acquired from the paper wholesaler.

Supplied photo shows Shoki Matsuzaka (L), chief executive officer of kitafuku, and Kengo Saito of Number Nine Brewery in Yokohama, near Tokyo, handling the malt dregs generated in the process of brewing craft beer. (Kyodo)

Number Nine Brewery in Yokohama, which creates more than 200 kg of malt lees a week, used to pay roughly 150,000 yen ($1,150) to dispose of the waste each month. "It was a wasteful expenditure," an official in charge said.

Learning of kitafuku's innovative operation from another brewer, Number Nine now supplies the lees free to the startup. Some 300 kg of lees has been recycled into menus and other paper products at its restaurant chain.

Kengo Saito, 49, chief brewer at Number Nine, uses a business card made of the paper. He says it is something he considers "a conversation starter with customers and business associates."

Supplied photo shows Kengo Saito, chief brewer of Number Nine Brewery in Yokohama, near Tokyo, holding up "craft beer paper" products used by the company, in January 2023. (Kyodo)

"I would be happy if this groundbreaking initiative spreads around the world and establishes a system that prevents malt lees from being wasted," Saito said.

An association of craft beer brewers in Shizuoka Prefecture, central Japan, is planning to ship beer in cardboard boxes made through the process.

Although costlier than conventional cardboard boxes, Tetsuya Kataoka, 38, head of the association, said, "We hope it will pave the way for widespread use of craft beer paper."

The distance from Yokohama means free collection of malt lees by kitafuku has not yet become realistic in Shizuoka.

"We will be happy if the collection becomes more frequent through an increase in the use of craft beer paper products," Kataoka said.

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