Cultivating exotic mushroom species, such as shitake, with beer residues in the heart of Brussels is the project of a group of young people that have started to produce mushrooms in some of the city's well-known wine cellars that have been converted into a center for innovation in food and agriculture.
A start-up company has been working on a particular production technique for three years: using the residues form from a famous Brussels brewery, Cantillon, and other local breweries to minimize the ecological impact of growing mushrooms and contribute to the circular economy.
The initiative, dubbed Le Champignon de Bruxelles (the mushroom from Brussels) is a cooperative created by three young graduates that are convinced that cities are also a good place to produce food.
"Most of the food is consumed in cities. The idea is to produce food closer to where it is consumed and reconnect the citizens with their food," said economist Hadrien Velge, one of the founders of the project.
The greenhouse where the mushrooms are grown occupies 750 square meters of the 8,000 square meters of "Les Caves de Cureghem", some cellars built in the 19th century. "We currently produce 1.2 tons of mushrooms per month. We would like to reach 2.6 in order to be profitable," Velge said.
The particularity of this production is the substrate in which the mushrooms are grown. It is a compound based on beer waste rescued from the urban breweries that proliferate in Brussels, and which replaces wood as the main compound of the soil where the mushrooms grow.
The production, according to its promoter, is a simple process completely faithful to the concept of local economy: once the beer substrate is generated, the cooperative plants the seeds that it acquires in a Ghent laboratory, then they are put in plastic bags, at 22 degrees and in a dry place, where the mushrooms grow.
The whole process lasts three months. Then the mushrooms are collected and stored in boxes, and sent to organic production stores or Belgian restorers.
"We don't plan to export. It is a product for the local market. In addition, it would be a contradiction if we wanted to sell the mushrooms on the other side of the planet," Velge said.
The group is growing exotic mushrooms to open a new market in Belgium, with varieties that have no competition and that contribute something new to consumers.
Shitake, one of the fungi most consumed in Asia because of its supposed anti-tumor properties, is progressively being used more in European cuisine.
The Belgian mushroom producers also produce nameko mushrooms, a more viscous and highly consumed variety in Japan, where it is essentially used to fight infections, and maitake mushrooms, which have been used in Chinese medicine for centuries, have a grey color and a shape that is similar to that of coral.
According to data of the European Association of mushroom producers (AEPC), Poland (25.7%), Holland (23.5%), Spain (8.8%), France (8.7%), Ireland (6.2%), Germany (6.1%) and Italy (5.6%) dominate most of European production of mushrooms. Belgium ranks tenth in the European Union (EU) with 2.5% of the total volume.
In 2015, the AEPC, which is composed of these countries, as well as Denmark and Hungary, produced 1.11 million tons of mushrooms, 727.000 of which were for fresh consumption and 383.000 for the processing industry.