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Economy & Business

St. Louis is becoming a hub for plant-based protein manufacturing

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EverGrain
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EverGrain, a company backed by Anheuser-Busch, is constructing a new facility in St. Louis to turn spent grains from the brewing process into barley protein and fiber to be used in plant-based alternatives, such as protein bars and barley milk.

A red-brick building under construction at Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis brewery complex looks much like the buildings surrounding it, but it has nothing to do with brewing beer.

Starting next year, the $100 million facility will use spent grains to produce barley protein and fiber for plant-based alternatives, such as barley milk and oat crackers.

Greg Belt, CEO of EverGrain and former sustainability chief at Anheuser-Busch, launched the company last year, and he said it’s part of a growing industry of local companies that are leading the way in producing plant-based alternatives that outdo the bland veggie burgers of the past.

“You will see that change dramatically with all the companies in St. Louis that are focusing on it,” Belt said. “That's a really bright future for us as consumers that we're going to get healthier, tastier and more sustainable products, but it's also great for the St. Louis community too.”

St. Louis executives in the growing plant-based protein industry say the region is uniquely situated to drive the space forward because of resources like the Danforth Plant Science Center and the high concentration of skilled workers in plant science. St. Louis also has a long history of supporting agriculture, food manufacturing and biotech companies.

Other companies in the industry have recently doubled down on St. Louis.

Earlier this month, Israel-based ICL Group, which operates its North American headquarters in Creve Coeur, made a big investment in the space by opening its first plant-based manufacturing facility — an $18 million plant in the Carondelet neighborhood in south St. Louis.

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ICL Group
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ICL Group opened a new $18 million plant to produce plant-based protein earlier this month in the Carondelet neighborhood in south St. Louis.

Philip Brown, senior vice president of ICL’s Global Phosphate Specialty business, said it’s the first commercial facility to use a fiber process to turn split yellow peas into products that mimic white meat, such as chicken and fish.

“The change we see going on right now, whether that's for health reasons, environmental sustainability, animal rights — you see a lot of really valid reasons for more and more of our protein diet to move towards vegetable protein, especially as a much more renewable source,” he said.

The facility currently employs about 130 people, and Brown said it’s still looking to fill some roles. He said expanding in St. Louis made sense because of the skilled workforce in the region, the city’s central location and the presence of legacy companies in agriculture and biotechnology.

At full capacity, the ICL facility is expected to produce 15 million pounds of protein. The company will sell it to food companies that would use the ingredient to create consumer-facing products.

St. Louis is also home to Benson Hill, an agtech company that grew locally from a startup into a publicly traded company. In October, it opened a crop accelerator in Creve Coeur that uses technology to grow and test more nutrient-dense soybeans and yellow pea plants at a faster rate.

CEO Matt Crisp said one of the goals is to cut down on the processing needed to create meat alternative products.

The result is “an ingredient that is not just less processed and more affordable perhaps, but that also has required less energy and less water in order to manufacture and supply,” he said.

Crisp said one big challenge facing the industry is that most plant-based options are still more expensive than their meat counterparts.

“Unless we can really focus on bringing down the costs of these types of products and making them more accessible to a wider population, I think the total overall growth of the category could be limited,” he said.

Crisp said another benefit to being based in the St. Louis region is the close proximity to farmers that the company partners with to grow its protein-packed seeds. He said the growing plant-based meat industry is a big opportunity for farmers too.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

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