Calgary

Gourmet mushrooms a growing business for Olds College student

Alex Villeneuve, 21, started growing mushrooms in a closet on his college campus in Olds, Alta.

Brewmaster student finds profitable new uses for spent grains from beer-making process

An Old College student has turned leftover brewing barley into a growing concern. 0:46

Alex Villeneuve, 21, started growing mushrooms in a closet on his college campus in Olds, Alta.

"I was growing in my dorm room closet, which got some unwanted suspicion at the time," he laughed.

But that initial experiment led to the creation of a full-fledged mushroom growing facility that could soon be supplying markets and restaurants across Alberta.

"I'd always been interested in permaculture and sustainable design and always appreciated local food, so mushrooms just kind of made sense," said Villeneuve, who is in his final year of the college's brewmaster program.

Alex Villeneuve, 21, started growing mushrooms in a closet on his college campus in Olds, Alta. as an experiment that led to a full-fledged growing facility poised to supply markets and restaurants across Alberta. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

He realized he could grow gourmet mushrooms easily and quickly using the waste barley left over after brewing batches of beer, otherwise known as spent grains. Villeneuve also came up with a plan to recycle the barley as a feed product to sell to ranchers, since the mushroom growing process leaves the grains higher in protein. 

"I really thought, since it was such a high-value product, these spent grains really could be used for something more," he said.

Villeneuve pitched his ideas to research scientists at the school, who told him they were viable. The college then helped him get set up with space for his projects and grants to help him get going.

"So that initial support is really what's been able to get me to where I am now, having distributors, having feed sales," he said. 

Jason Dewling, vice-president of academics and research at Olds College, says Villeneuve's innovation perfectly exemplifies what the school strives to promote. 

Alex Villeneuve's operation at Olds College is currently experimenting with two varieties of oyster mushroom. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

"At the college, part of our culture is entrepreneurship," he said. "Seeing Alex take advantage of value-added agriculture, and then taking waste from that value-added in the brewery, and then turn it into another monetizing product, is exactly what we want to be contributing back to Alberta." 

Villeneuve is currently cultivating three varieties of oyster mushrooms. 

"They're round on the top, not your typical button mushrooms, they're ones that you typically see growing on trees," he said. "From getting the grain into my facility to having a fully grown mushroom that we can sell takes two weeks."

Villeneuve says in the wild these mushrooms could typically take up to two years to grow.

He is currently working with a mushroom wholesaler that supplies farmers markets and restaurants to work on getting his mushrooms to market.

He now runs his own company, Ceres Solutions, and is honing new skills in the business world while looking at new equipment and methods to further improve on his product and his productivity.

"It's pretty incredible. I don't like to make too many predictions because it's half the fun to see where it goes."

Alex Villeneuve says the mushrooms that grow at his facility in used brewing barley leave the grain higher in protein, making them great to then recycle further as a feed product. (Monty Kruger/CBC)