By Gretchen Kurtz
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By Patricia Calhoun
Joe Cleveland is driving his truck through the streets of LoDo, right past the night crawlers who are out imbibing local brews. But thanks to Cleveland, bar hoppers aren't the only breed enjoying the wonders of hometown beer: Front Range cows do, too.
Cleveland runs Micro Grain, a company that stops at breweries, picks up the spent grains (left over from the mashing process that converts grain starches to the sugars needed for beer-making) and delivers the waste to area farmers, who welcome the grain as a bovine dietary supplement. "I like cows. I get to feed them," Cleveland says. In fact, the logo of his company shirt features a smiling cartoon cow.
Local brewers are smiling about Cleveland's service, too. "Spent grain, you can't just dump it out in the parking lot," says Todd Usry, brewmaster for Breckenridge Brewery, one of Cleveland's clients. "He's taking a hassle away from us; it's one less thing that I have to worry about."
On this evening, Cleveland pulls up to a bin at Great Divide Brewing Company, one of his clients, and gently guides the lift arms of his rig into small slots on the side of one of his bins that's marked "Grain Only." (The qualification is crucial. Any trash mixed in with the spent grain can end up in cows' bellies, with dire consequences: Broken beer bottles in one load killed a client's cow.) The truck's front end dips under the weight as the arms lift the can off the pavement and up over the snub nose of the vehicle. Cleveland's right hand works a series of levers that control the rig's lift mechanism, tilting the bin into the steel-reinforced, Teflon-coated truck bed. The two-ton load hits the bed with a thump, shaking the truck.
"I've been in three trucks when the can came down on top of me through the cab," Cleveland says. "It's almost old hat when it happens now." It also helps that Cleveland currently drives a souped-up Volvo dumper topped with a vintage Dempster body he's reinforced with steel; the truck's lift arms have been strengthened with steel plating to avoid broken limbs and crushed cabs.
Cleveland faces other hazards on the job, however. He works at night to avoid traffic, and while dumping grain bins outside the Wynkoop Brewing Co. one evening, he was bombarded with apples thrown by an angry (and naked) loft-dweller upset by the noise. Cleveland has also had to wrestle with addled street people, some of whom eat the malt from his bins. (Many of the cans are now locked to avoid such minor losses.)
"Cows eat better than a lot of people," Cleveland says, pointing out his window toward an alley across from Coors Field. "Right here, there was a guy right in the mouth of the alley -- dead. He was blocking my cans."
Cleveland grew up in the trash-removal business. His father, Ed, a longtime veteran of the trade, started Micro Grain with a partner in 1997. Two years later, the pair sold the business to a Denver waste-management company, Diamond Disposal; Joe Cleveland stayed on to run the grain-removal operation. But Diamond was more interested in the trash-removal portion of the business, and in April, 2001, Joe Cleveland bought back Micro Grain.
For farmers, the twenty-plus tons of grain that Micro Grain moves every day represent low-cost, life-sustaining nutrition. Ken Ulrich is an owner of Ulrich Farms, a family-run feedlot in Platteville that feeds about 10,000 head of beef cattle. The farm pays a small fee for Micro Grain's product, which is then mixed with corn and silage. Brewers' grain "has a lot of protein in it, it's got a lot of fat in it, and it's very palatable," says Ulrich. "The cattle really like to eat it." Better yet, it's reasonably priced feed that helps the family compete against the economies of scale enjoyed by Ulrich's larger-sized competitors.
Using recycled grain is also true to the farm's philosophy. "We're taking a product that would be waste in the environment," Ulrich points out, "and feeding it to cattle and ending up with a sellable product in the end." The green nature of Cleveland's service is also a selling point for breweries. "The main benefit is that the grain gets reused for something good," says Steve Indrehus, a brewer at Tommyknocker Brewery in Idaho Springs. "Just throwing it away doesn't make sense."
Colorado's largest brewery, the Coors Brewing Company, recognizes this; it distributes over 600 million pounds of spent grain annually, according to Coors staff. Sixty percent of the waste is dried at the firm's Golden location and sold as feed to farmers; the balance is trucked through a subcontractor to area farms. Many of the area's smaller breweries rely on farmers to pick up the spent grain themselves, usually in 55-gallon drums. But that system has shortcomings, brewers say, because farmers sometimes fail to show on time, creating backlogs of refuse.
Conventional waste-removal companies aren't particularly interested in the job. According to Bryce Isaacson of Western Disposal, hauling the heavy organic material requires heavier-duty trucks that can withstand the weight of wet grain; truck beds also must be sealed in order to avoid having material spill onto the highways. Cleveland can haul grain at lower rates than conventional trash haulers, Isaacson points out, because he avoids the landfill disposal fees that a company like Western incurs. "He has carved out his own niche," Isaacson says of Cleveland.
And so far, he's also managed to carve out a living. While Cleveland's truck pickups are a one-man operation, his wife, Tina, handles Micro Grain's bookkeeping chores while keeping an eye on the family's three kids. "If she didn't support me the way she does, I couldn't do this," he says.
While some people might not consider hauling beer waste from midnight to sunrise a dream job, Cleveland's not complaining. "It's not very glamorous; it's the same life as a garbage man," he says. "But I've always been a night person. Besides, there's better talk radio on in the middle of the night."
Still, one injustice has raised a slight bump in his chosen career path. "When you're working seven days a week," Cleveland points out, "you don't have time to drinkbeer."