Here’s a fun thought experiment: someone you know will probably drink almond milk today. It's probably not just your vegan friend, either. And someone else you know? Well, they will be drinking beer (that's definitely the vegan). That’s not me being psychic (although: yes, five, the pink ones, and Tuesday) -- that’s just a matter of fact. And it turns out, a lot more closely linked than you'd think. At least, in theory, anyway.
Almond milk has become the choice of a new generation of milk drinkers, no cow required. And you don’t need to be a math wizard to discern that where there’s almond milk, there’s some kind of leftover almond parts, particularly hulls, the outer layer that covers the almond shell and kernel.
California grows most of the world’s almonds. In 2017 the state produced 2.1 billion pounds of almonds, which means it also produced 4.3 billion pounds of almond hulls, reports Fast Company. “We’re always trying to figure out the best use of these,” Danielle Veenstra, an almond farmer who also works with the Almond Board of California, an industry group, told the magazine.
While the almond industry came under fire in recent years for its excess water needs, the industry is far more committed to sustainability than it’s been given credit for. Almond hulls have been used in animal feed for ages or used as livestock bedding. But it’s a bit of an ouroboros cycle -- as almond milk outpaces sales of dairy milk there are fewer cows in need of the hulls. In short, the almond industry is drowning in its own hulls.
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Enter the USDA, which, as Fast Company reports, has been funding research in numerous areas where hulls could be used, like turning the leftover almond parts into energy. “At the lowest end of the value chain, you can put almost anything in a digester and make methane,” says USDA researcher Bill Orts. “You could compress them and almost treat them like coal.” The scant amount of sugars in the hulls can be converted to ethanol for biofuels. “The Wonderful Company, the world’s largest grower of tree nuts, plans to build a biofuel plant that will convert almond shells to renewable diesel,” Fast Company notes.
Almond waste may soon find yet another purpose making that mid-afternoon latte worth the splurge: plastics. Converting food byproducts into compostable bioplastics could help reduce the number of plastic products clogging up waterways and landfills -- it could make people feel less guilty about plastic straws, forks, or other takeaway utensils. And USDA researchers note making use of almond hulls could help to replace product packaging with more eco-friendly alternatives. Starbucks and McDonald’s both recently announced plans to up their reduction of greenhouse gases -- Starbucks by creating a compostable cup and McDonald’s pinpointing packaging as one of its three key target areas for improvement. There are also applications to turn almond husks into material used in tires, replacing a petroleum-based ingredient.
But there’s one other possibility that could be the most exciting, and the most achievable in the short term: beer. “You can make really bitter IPAs,” says Orts. “There’s a market for that.” The sugars in the hulls work for hard cider and beer -- and craft versions of both alcoholic drinks are indeed having a moment now. Add a little tagline about how they're made from California's 4 billion almond hulls, and that bitter IPA goes down a lot smoother, especially for the green set -- those Millennials and Gen Zs who want products that are cleaner and more ethical as well as artisan-crafted. And in some ways, it’s a perfect circle -- from the almond milk in our coffee to start our day to finishing it off with a sustainably-made almond-husk beer-- it's an anti-establishment stance without sacrifice. And it sounds delicious.
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