By Brieanne Graham
When you hear of someone starting a business growing mushrooms in a dorm room closet, it’s typically a very different story than the beginning of Ceres Solutions.
Founder Alex Villeneuve entered Olds College’s Brewmaster & Brewery Operations Management Program with a background in culinary arts and an interest in fermentation. Little did he know that his knowledge of mushrooms would inspire novel and sustainable uses for a common by-product in beer making.
“On my second day at Olds College, I noticed the piles of crushed barley kernels left over from the brewing process, this waste is commonly known as spent grain,” he said. “While most breweries dispose of spent grains using a composting system, I thought there had to be a better way to use those grains.”
What makes spent grain disposal difficult is its high moisture content and inconsistent availability. Alex found a way to upcycle these grains, while simultaneously solving issues experienced by both brewers and farmers. Once processed, grains are inoculated with mycelium (the root of mushrooms), the grains are able to cultivate mushrooms. This process is ideal with mushrooms that grow on trees, such as oyster mushrooms, because these mushrooms can digest the fibres in spent grains.
It also provides a unique opportunity to provide locally-grown mushrooms to restaurants and farmer’s markets.
“Many of the mushrooms used in Alberta restaurants are imported, but there are a variety of wild mushrooms that grow locally,” said Alex. “Our processes at Ceres currently result in high-quality oyster mushrooms in less than two weeks. Comparatively, wild oyster mushrooms typically take two years to fruit.”
With Alberta’s growing local brewery and food industries, it didn’t take long for the mushrooms to leave Alex’s dorm closet, as Ceres Solutions operates in a facility on the Olds College campus. That facility allows the company to help more breweries dispose of spent grains without interrupting the brewer’s day-to-day operations, while growing larger amounts of fresh and dried mushrooms.
Chefs and brewers are not the only ones to benefit from Ceres Solutions, as the company provides dried spent grain pellets to a number of Alberta based farmers, ranging from backyard chicken owners to larger producers. In the future, Alex would like to use the mycelium-enhanced grains as livestock feed.
“Based on our research so far, the mycelium enhances the protein in the spent grains by 17 per cent and could provide great benefits to livestock, particularly in ruminants such as cattle. We’re really hoping to get this product on the market soon.”
Regardless of that result, it is full steam ahead for Alex and Ceres Solutions. As the grand prize winner of the Canada 150in150 Video contest, the winner of this year’s TEC Edmonton’s People Choice Award and a finalist for the CNE Emerging innovator’s pitch competition, it’s no surprise that there is increasing local, national and international interest. That includes the Alberta brewery industry, as local breweries are reaching out to Ceres Solutions for its disposal services.
“We’ve come a long way, but the recognition is extremely validating,” admitted Alex. “It truly is amazing to see the support during these early stages of growth, especially from the public. That means they can see the benefits on the dinner table and for the environment.”
Moving forward, Ceres Solution is looking to apply a modular growth system that would allow their model to be implemented anywhere. While Olds College has provided great support to the start-up, Ceres Solutions is generating interest across Alberta and Canada, as well as investigating international markets.
However, even as the company continues to grow and faces new expansion opportunities, Alex hasn’t lost sight of how Ceres Solutions helps enhance collaboration, sustainability and quality.
“Ceres is about providing high-quality, home-grown and healthy mushrooms to consumers, while enhancing sustainability and inspiring culinary creativity. Most importantly, Albertans can feel good about buying our products or using any of our services because it supports Alberta’s craft brewing industry and Canadian agriculture.”