Chestnut Products a Growing Business for Treeborn ProductsBy Jane Whitttington on December 16th, 2016 /
Tis the season for “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, and many of us are ready to enjoy this holiday treat. Treeborn Products, however, knows that chestnuts can do so much more than that! Treeborn is bringing chestnuts to new markets for new and exciting uses and, not incidentally, helping Michigan’s economy grow.
Treeborn grew out of Spartan Innovations at Michigan State University which provides educational and financial support to turn MSU research technologies into successful businesses. Treeborn brought Brian Polowniak on board; he changed the focus of the company from the production of snack items to its use in brewing. They are now a separate business entity and no longer affiliated with Spartan Innovations, and they are in the process of paying back Spartan Innovations’ original investment.
Treeborn Products and its leadership team of Brian Polowniak, CEO; Dennis Fulbright, VP of Product Development; and Roger Blackwell, VP of Business Development who also serves as President of Chestnut Growers, Inc. (CGI), have found that chestnuts can play an important role in the booming microbrew business as it continues to grow across Michigan and other states. Joe Dowd, a customer of Treeborn and a brewery owner in St. Clair Shores, also works with them to promote and develop the business.
Fulbright retired from MSU where, as professor and researcher in the Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences Department, he became an expert in chestnuts and is now bringing that expertise to Treeborn as they develop their “growing” business.
It is important to realize that there are two types of chestnuts. Horse chestnuts are inedible, but Treeborn uses edible or sweet chestnuts. In fact, Michigan is the largest producer of chestnuts in the United States.
Treeborn is housed in Jackson, MI at the Rogers Reserve, which was donated to Michigan State University to grow and study chestnut trees. The facility includes labs, offices and the only commercial chestnut peeling line in the Western Hemisphere. Processing, packaging and distributing their products is done at the Rogers Reserve.
Treeborn is focused on craft-roasting chestnuts for use in the brewing process for gluten-free as well as regular ales, stouts and porters. Customers throughout Michigan include Jolly Pumpkin Brewery in Dexter; Short’s Brewing Company in Bellaire; and Perrin Brewing Company in Comstock Park, a suburb of Grand Rapids, and eight others. These breweries use chestnut chips, created at Treeborn, as an ingredient in their product. They also produce chestnut flour and sell frozen and peeled chestnuts for use as an ingredient in food products.
Europe and Asia have long used chestnuts and chestnut products, but the US is only recently entering the market. Much of the equipment used in Treeborn’s processing facility is imported from Italy. According to Fulbright, “We purchase chestnuts from Chestnuts Growers, Inc. then clean and disinfect them and put them through the peeling line. We collect the shells. They have strong microbial properties, and I am researching ways that we can use them. The peeled chestnuts are then inspected, and the bad ones are discarded. It’s important to remember than chestnuts are full of anti-oxidants. They then proceed to be packaged and frozen. They can be sold in this form, but, based on research, we have developed a way to slice and dehydrate them.”
He continues, “We then bake the slices, and this is the product that goes out to a brewery or a flour mill.”
Dowd says, “We add the chestnuts chips to our mash in our brewing process. The flavor seeps out into the final product and adds a subtle, sweet, nutty taste to the beer. Each brewery creates its own recipes. They’ve been using chestnuts in brewing in Europe for a long time, but it’s relatively new in the US.”
Fulbright points out that since Polowniak came on board and decided to focus on the use of chestnuts in brewing, the business has really taken off. He says, “We were getting whiplash, we were moving so fast. Over the course of just months, the business changed.”
He continues, “This benefits us, the growers, small business, and the Michigan economy. We all win.”
Polowniak says, “We are the only automated processor in the US, so we are more efficient and can produce a better and more consistent product. We have the capability of manufacturing almost 500 pounds of chestnut chips a day in this facility.”
He continues, “We started out buying all our chestnuts in Michigan, but as we have grown, some of them are purchased from outside Michigan. Demand is growing, our production is growing, and we anticipate this growth will continue.”