My niece and her husband own a brewery–just a little microbrew outfit, called the Brickside. There’s little in it for me, beer is not gluten free. But my sister and her husband get a serious side benefit…spent grain.

Spent grain is a by-product of beer production. It is rich in nutrients and fiber. Some people dry it and bake with it. A lot of small farmers use it to augment the diets of their livestock. And gardeners use it for compost, and for direct amendment of their soils. My brother-in-law’s garden is lush and productive, in large part because of spent grain. It’s too bad that they’re 450 miles away.

2020 was supposed to be the year that we went in big with spent grain for our garden. We have friends, here in town, who have a brew-pub. Or, had. Just as we were gearing up for the great spent grain experiment, Covid-19 hit. And our friends had to make the difficult decision to close their establishment. Restaurants run on slim margins–doubly so for seasonal restaurants. That’s true, even if you can offer delicious artisan crafted beer on your menu. Our friends are one of the many who do not anticipate re-opening. So much for our foray into spent grain. It’s hard to complain about the loss of a perk, when our friends have lost their way of life.

There are other micro-breweries in the area. Rick decided to do a mass email to see if any of them were looking for folks to take their spent grains. Most locals already have farmers lined up to take them. But one answered in the affirmative. Sometimes he does “short runs” and his farmer can’t make the small batch stuff work for him. So this week, we received our first run of spent grain.

It was three huge bins of steaming, aromatic, wet grain. Each of the bins weighed in at well over 200 pounds. With it being mid-winter, we weren’t exactly geared up for this, so we decided to use the first load to top-dress our raised beds. We dumped the bins directly from the bed of the pick-up truck into our winter sled–five full sled loads, which we hauled down to the garden. We gave some to the chickens–but mostly, we loaded up the gardens. We finished, just as we lost daylight, happy and satisfied that our soil amendment experiment had begun.

The next morning I returned the bins. That afternoon, we walked down past the garden to scope out where we’d put our spent grain composting operation, when the next load was ready. We were shocked by what we saw. Deer in the garden!

Apparently, spent grain is heady, tempting stuff. Because those deer had come through that garden fence like it wasn’t even there. Over, through, (between the wires), however they could do it to get to that delicious all-you-can-eat buffet of sweet spent grain. All around the perimeter, and all over the garden, the snow was trampled with their hoof prints. I don’t think we’ve ever seen so much deer activity. Of course, once inside the fence, they weren’t limiting themselves to the grain smorgasbord–they were nibbling on the orchard trees, too!

Quickly, we set up barriers around the most vulnerable baby trees. But we knew that we had to deal with the grain–because it had created an irresistible invitation into a previously deer-free zone.

So, today, we went out to cover all the amended beds with heavy black plastic, weighed down with concrete blocks. We had to cover, or remove, all of the spent grain we’d spent half a day spreading. Rick is convinced that, come Spring, a new, taller, stronger fence will be installed. But just now we have to make it through the rest of the winter. A couple of hours later, we were cold and filthy, but it was done. The grain is fully covered–and we are spent.

Tonight Rick’s been checking the garden every hour or so. He stands on the front porch and shines a high beam flashlight into the garden. The light catches their eyes, in a strange ghostly way. So far, so good. Only one made its way into the garden. But we can see them, standing around the outside of the fenceline…wondering what happened to that great feast.