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Distillery turns expiring craft beer into award-winning spirits during the pandemic

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Posted at 1:48 PM, Mar 08, 2021

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Throughout the pandemic, craft breweries around the world have been forced to toss out expiring beer.

“Millions of gallons," said Dennis O'Connor, founder of ReBru Spirits in San Diego. "Nationwide, I would guess it’s tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of bad beer that had to get dealt with."

It's a nightmare for craft beer lovers and the people who make it. While some breweries donated excess supplies to make hand sanitizer, O'Connor's team went in a different direction.

“When beer goes bad, it’s not like milk where it’s bad for you. It just gets stale. Beers, like hoppy beers, which have become really popular, most of the time, retailers and bars and restaurants won’t purchase it if it’s over 90 days old," said O'Connor.

While amplified during the pandemic, it's not a new problem.

O'Connor is also the co-founder of San Diego's Thorn Brewing and says the issue has long been a source of headaches for brewers everywhere.

“You were kind of limited to what you could do with it. A lot of times, you would give it away to staff or give it away to some event," said O'Connor. “Some places are known to, and have, and been fined for it. Just dumped it down the drain."

He says serving beer to the pipes can have serious consequences: harming wastewater systems or making its way into rivers and oceans. Disposing of it properly comes with a fee.

“Craft beer isn’t ideal for distillation, but we felt there was a concept there," said O'Connor.

On a mission to waste less, ReBru Spirits was born. After years of research and development, they figured out how to make high-quality spirits from expiring craft beer.

“Literally two weeks after we plugged in the still, the pandemic hit, so instead of us getting what we thought would be one to two trucks a month, it turned out to be about four to six trucks a week," said O'Connor.

Christine Cole, creative director at ReBru Spirits, says it was both nerve-wracking and exciting.

“Is this really going to work? They knew they could do it on a small scale, but can we do it at such a large scale? And they can, they really can," said Cole.

"Because of the pandemic, it was in such high volumes that the traditional ways of getting rid of it, minus paying for someone to destroy it, weren’t really an option. And paying to get rid of it would have been really costly," said O'Connor.

With years of preparation and some luck, they took beer off the hands of distributors and breweries by the truckload.

O'Connor says they've distilled about 200,000 gallons of craft beer, which is nearly 2 million pints.

“We’re actually getting really, really high-quality products. Even though the name ‘Out-of-Code’ doesn’t sound so great, it actually is a fantastic product," said Cole.

One that is already making a name for itself. At the San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge, ReBru's vodka was awarded gold and their gin silver.

Distilleries in New England and Japan have also used Out-of-Code beer to make spirits, helping small breweries during the pandemic.

“So, we’re kind of providing a service to the breweries and distributors by taking it off their hands, so they don’t have to pay for getting rid of it. And on the same token, upcycling it into another product," said O'Connor.

He says they're incorporating sustainability into the entire food and beverage operation, using spent grain in their pizza, composting food scraps, making zero-waste cocktails, and using charcoal from their on-site BBQ restaurant to clarify the spirits.

O'Connor says they hope to replicate the ReBru model in other craft beer-loving cities, saying it can be sustained long after the pandemic.

“The business model was, it was luck. A lot of it is timing and luck," said O'Connor. “It definitely tastes better than hand sanitizer.”