Recyling from “Grain to Glass to Ground”
Along Carbondale’s Main Street, the Marble Distilling Company (MDC) cranks out internationally award-winning spirits. They also crank out tons of an aromatic by-product.
“In the vodka distilling process you do a 500-gallon mash,” explains co-owner and Head Distiller Connie Baker. “It then goes into the strip still. From that, we pull off 125 gallons of low wines. That’s the start of the alcohol process. So that means there are 375 gallons of waste from every ferment.” Baker throws her hands up, eyes bugging out, and her voice rises. “That’s huge! The whole time we were getting ready to do this, we were thinking, what are we gonna do with our stillage?”
Baker’s spouse, Wm Carey Shanks, who is MDC’s spirits advisor, knew the solution needed to be a local one because “sustainability is Marble Distilling’s foundation.”
From its physical structure to energy systems, procuring resources and all the way through to use, reuse, and recycling of resources—closed loops drive the MDC business model. “We’re now trying to get recognized for something more important than just our spirits—what we put in behind it,” says Baker. “We want to be #1 in the state for sustainability.”
Baker and Shanks reached out to the farm and ranch community, offering their stillage for compost or feed. Connie admits, “A lot of people didn’t want it. Or they tried it and went ‘Nah.’ I don’t know why,” she exclaims. “I was shocked because it’s great animal feed!”
Closing the Loop on East Mesa
On a shelf of East Mesa above Carbondale, life and action hum. Wild turkeys hang out under a juniper tree, scratching and stirring as a tractor purrs by. Further beyond, a watchful buck beds down on the side slope of an arroyo, its 4×4 tines blending with the dark boughs of a cedar as the flat gray of winter presses down on the Roaring Fork Valley.
Manure stains the compacted snow of tractor treads.Thick-haired horses and cattle mill about the yard. The family dog, a red heeler, nips at a calf’s ankles, being a brat. It’s a typical afternoon at the Nieslanik Ranch.
As the tractor’s motor expires, new sounds cut in: the grunting, snuffling, and squealing of 30 adorable, young hogs. They went nuts at the sight of the tractor, dashing, leaping, and scrambling about, wild with desire. It’s feeding time. As brothers Parker and Johnny Nieslanik fill the long metal troughs, a cocktail of aromas fills the air: dank mud, pig… and the sweet stew of stillage.
It was a different kind of cocktail, though, that brought rise to hogs for Nieslanik Beef.
It was booze, actually. The award-winning vodka produced at MDC, less than a mile downhill from the ranch.
Built on a Handshake
Last spring, Parker and Johnny Nieslanik were at the Marble Distillery when Parker noticed that MDC’s grain sacks were stamped “Alamosa, Colorado”. That was the nearest that MDC could source its grain. In a light-bulb moment, Parker, one of three generations that run the Nieslanik’s family beef ranch, thought, “We’ve grown oats our whole life, feeding our animals. We could grow this stuff. So I asked ‘em, ‘You wanna give it a shot?’”
“The coolest thing about this whole deal,” Parker marvels, “We were sittin’ down in the distilling room—”
“Doing shots,” the younger Johnny interjects.
“—And it was like, ‘Let’s grow this. When you harvest it, we’ll buy it.’ We shook hands. That was the deal. No paperwork, no contracts. A handshake. They’re just good old fashioned people. There’s not many people like that anymore. There’s a lot of trust built into our relationship.”
Grain to Glass to Ground
Recognizing gold, Parker Nieslanik sent a sample off for nutritional analysis. At 36 percent, the stillage came back 10 percent higher in protein than any commercial feed available.
“The pigs just love it! They literally ‘hog’ it up,” Connie snorts, laughing. The Nieslaniks also fatten up their cattle, topping the hay-alfalfa mix they feed twice a day. (See Nieslanik beef story page 18.)
While MDC isn’t certified organic, the Nieslaniks trust that the stillage they feed to animals that will soon sizzle on grills valley-wide is pure. “We grew the grain!” Parker says with pride. “We don’t use chemicals.”
Shanks is all over it. “You get that full cycle of community. The stuff we’re doing with Parker, and what we’re doing here, it’s strong. ‘Grain to glass to ground.’”
“What makes community to me,” Shanks continues, “is connections. Our connections with the Nieslaniks go way beyond business at this point.” He scrolls to an iPhoto. “That’s what gets me. I go up, hang out up there. That’s our wheat in the background growing. And that’s me, going up there to feed animals and just being able to take this moment, take a deep breath. This is why I get up every day. We get up every day and we’re not begrudging having to go to work. We love what we do.”
This first season, the Nieslaniks grew 12 acres of wheat for MDC on their East Mesa ranch. Two miles away as the crow flies, they leased six more acres for rye and triticale, putting fallow fields into production. Both sets of fields have been prepped to double the harvest this spring.
“The local and the sustainable,” Baker grins, “Two separate things, but they go together. We’re supporting the local economy. That local aspect of all the grain being grown here and then being recycled here with a low carbon footprint. That’s where it seems combined: money stays in the valley and we’re not shipping shit all over the place.”
“If we focus here—we don’t want Carbondale to be Aspen—but if we just focus our energy here,” predicts Baker, “It’s just going to get better and better. I think that’s why Carbondale is so cool, because a lot of like-minded people feel that way. Now how do we get that message out to the world?”
“If you ask me,” Carey says, “it’s blossomed into a much larger area that’s connecting people and businesses around town. And it’s got legs. It’s actually growing.”
Pining for pork raised humanely? For dibs on a half or whole, phone the Nieslaniks at 970.963.1644 or 970.379.5437.