Updated: Dec 2, 2019
Ebbe Korsgaard is the director of Beyond Coffee: a company that grows oyster mushrooms and Lions Mane in coffee grounds – a waste product that most of us flushes into the sink anyways. But what you will learn from this article is that the future of this industry holds more than edible mushrooms – it also includes medicine, biodegradable materials and remediation of contaminated soil. I called Ebbe a Tuesday evening while he was drivingto Sweden and he introduced me to the world of fungi, sustainability and circular value. In the following article I would like to share some of that magic with you.
Grounds that matter
Ebbe, why are you a part of Beyond Coffee?
When Tobias Lau introduced me to the idea that you could take the urban waste product that everybody knows – coffee grounds – and make it into healthy food in the city I was sold. That was too cool. It is tangible and it is about sustainability – just what I find exciting!
What we do matters to people: they eat what we produce and they value it. Our procedure is that we collect waste, we make it into something useful and when we can’t use it anymore it becomes valuable somewhere else – in this case as compost for farmers. I know that if we didn’t do this, there would be more waste and less food in Copenhagen than there is now. That’s why it makes sense for me.
What are you working on in Beyond Coffee right now?
These days we are trying to move our mushroom farm. It was located in an old industrial building we can’t use anymore. Hopefully we will move to an old kebab-factory in Nordhavn. I think it is symbolic for the time we live in: that the meat industry is being replaced by non-animal protein production.
Furthermore we want to develop new types of mushrooms in collaboration with restaurants we want to grow mushrooms that nobody else grows. We sell our mushrooms to some of the best restaurants in Copenhagen - which means some of the best restaurants in the world -and they ask for fun and different mushrooms.
There are two things that matter to me when we talk about growing new types of mushrooms. First we want mushrooms that can grow from waste products only. The resource is waste. Second we want mushrooms we can sell – something there is a demand for. We don’t necessarily want mushrooms that people already know ..
Another focus for our company is some of the health-promoting qualities that the mushrooms have. Mushrooms produce several things that can be very beneficial for your health and different types of mushrooms contain different things. Oyster mushroom - that we grow –contain lovastatin that lower the level of cholesterol in the body. Heart patientsare given pills to lower their level of cholesterol and oyster mushrooms contain the same substance. Lions Mane – that we grow too - is even more attractive. People eat it to improve their memory and to benefit their nerve system. So right now, we consider the possibilities of drying mushrooms and making powder or extract that can be used as health-promoting supplements.
The 10th mushroom
Do you work within a specific philosophy?
We like to say that we work within the circular economy in contrast to the linear economy. In a linear economy, aresource is made into a product that is consumed – the value will increase more and more until the product is discarded as useless waste. A circular economy aims at a continuous value of the resource for example by reusing waste. For us that is coffee grounds but also wood waste that we collect from our local woodturner around the corner. He removes 90% of the wood from the tree stump to produce a smaller piece.
We also reuse our packaging. We deliver our oystermushrooms and Lions Mane to the restaurants in plastic baskets and make sure to get the baskets back for reuse. Typically mushrooms are imported to Denmark in theseplastic baskets and thrown out afterwards. The basket weighs 230g which means that around 10% of the mushrooms’ weight is plastic single time use. Next time you buy pizza think about that every 10th mushroom is a piece of plastic. We can only wash and reuse the baskets because we are locals – it wouldn’t make sense for polish mushroombreeders that provide restaurants in Copenhagen to do the same. The problem is the distance between the producer and the consumer ..
What does the future of your industry hold?
Obviously materials made from the roots of the mushroom: mycelium. You can produce lamps, chairs, tables, isolation material etc. from it. This summer Beyond Coffee were apart of a Realdania funded project making building materials from mushroom mycelium. We delivered the mushrooms and used different kind of waste to produce materials like acoustic boards and rockwool.
The mycelium work as glue between any kind of granulate made from straw, wood or the like. The mycelium will grow on the material and make a lot of tiny, tiny threats that bind the granulate together. It all turns into a firm mass that you dry to kill the mushroom. You end up with a material like styrofoam that is very usable and biodegradable.
The biggest challenge in this is that the competing products – like styrofoam – are very cheap because it is mass produced with fast machines. The benefit of mycelium material is that it can produce shapes and figures that a machine can’t just mass produce. If you got a big machine that can make one shape of boards very fast then it can’t really produce materials in a special 3D figure – the mycelium can do that, it can grow in any shape you want it to.
Mushrooms can also clean contaminated soil. An oyster mushroom that grow in oil contaminated soil will break down the oil and change it into nutrients. Mushrooms can do the same with other problematic matters – I think there is a great potential in this! Maybe something will happen next year ..
I saw a documentary about fungus communicating underground with trees over long distances – what is all that about?
It is called the Wood Wide Web. It is the internet of the forest. If you look closely you will see that it is built just likeour internet. Nature did something very smart .. The communicating fungus you refer to are called mycorrhizafungus. There are several groups of fungi that work very differently. Mycorrhiza fungus penetrates the roots of the tree, becomes one with it and they live in symbiosis. The tree makes photosynthesis and feeds the fungus sugar. Porcini mushroom and chanterelle mushroom are examples of mycorrhiza fungus. Oyster mushroom is not a mycorrhiza fungus – instead of becoming one with the tree it just eats the tree. Oyster mushroom grow on sick or dead trees and cleans the forest – so that’s another function.
A study of trees nearby a river in Canada showed that the trunks contained a great percentage of salmon. Bears threw salmon on the bank of the river and fungus decomposed the salmon and transported the nutrients to the trees. It really is an incredible infrastructure ..
I think mushrooms are going to play a much bigger role in the future than it has before. Especially because we eat less meat and mushrooms have nutrients and umami taste that meat has. If we eat less meat, we eat more plants and because mushrooms are not plants they have nutrients that plants don’t have. That make them super important for our future health.
Before we end our call Ebbe wants to fill up coffee at a gas station. This whole conversation has been very beyond coffee to me – actually beyond my imagination. But to Ebbe everything seems very straight forward and simple. He appears just as grounded and futuristic as the nutritious soilhe is working for. Maybe that’s why his mushrooms grow so nicely ..
Interview and text by Ida Marie Andersen, writer in Rewild Studio.
Photo credit: Beyond Coffee