Meet Travin Singh, the Singaporean who founded Crust Group to upcycle surplus bread and fruit peels into beers and sodas. He describes how, within just three years, a side hustle has grown into a seed-funded startup that is fast expanding into Japan, Taiwan and beyond.
18 Apr 2022 / By SGN
Food waste is a global problem of colossal proportions – a whopping one-third, or 1.3 billion tonnes, of food is thrown away yearly – and the solution lies in collaboration, says Travin.
“The future of food is going to be more collaborative and less competitive,” he predicts. “Crust Group has a mission of reducing 1% of global food losses by 2030, but we know we can’t do this by ourselves.”
While there is growing awareness among consumers, the Asian market remains far behind the West in terms of sustainability policies and solutions – a gap that Travin hopes to bridge.
“Governments in Asia are starting to take sustainability action,” he says. “Our go-to-market strategy in the region might require a longer process, but if we build the right relationships, we can pioneer a movement.”
Homebrewing trials and tribulations
Crust began as a homebrewing project, after Travin learnt that beer could be made from bread. He invited friends over for the initial trials, which unfortunately produced “very, very bad beer”.
“I ground the bread up, which was the worst mistake ever,” he recalls. “When you do that, you can’t extract enough sugar, and it messes up the taste profile. It was a disaster.”
Motivated by a love of American-style beers, he took a month-long trip to California, visiting 11 breweries across Santa Rosa, San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles. Along the way, he absorbed as much as he could about brewing methods and processes.
Back in Singapore, he reattempted homebrewing with greater success, using leftover bread collected from a small bakery. After commercialising the process, he dived into the market with his first product: Breaking Bread Ale, a bright, velvety brew with citrus notes and a malt finish.
Two more flagship products (I Knead An Easy IPA and Toasted Lager) followed and, as the business grew, it went on to source surplus bread from bigger partners such as Tiong Bahru Bakery, Gardenia, Cold Storage and Redmart.
Exploring new flavours and ingredients
During recipe development, Crust aims for the taste of “regular beer” as far as possible. “When you make a product that’s too different, nobody wants to buy it,” Travin notes.
Occasionally, however, their experiments – led by an in-house food scientist – incorporate more adventurous flavours and ingredients such as coffee grounds (from Bettr Barista), pumpkin and quinoa (from SaladStop!), and kaya toast (“a Singaporean breakfast in a bottle”).
At the Singapore Food Festival last year, Crust explored an alternative route to sustainability, working with Gardens by the Bay to substitute a local botanical for hops – the essential ingredient that gives beer its characteristic fruitiness and bitterness. Not having to import hops from remote countries meant reducing the supply chain’s carbon footprint while avoiding 10 to 15% losses during shipping.
“We experimented with many plants grown at Gardens by the Bay,” Travin shares, “but we ultimately settled on lemon myrtle, a herb with a high citral content that lends the beer a refreshing aroma.”
Earlier this year, his team launched a sister beverage brand, Crop, which turns surplus fruits and vegetables into an essence or concentrate for making sodas. Parabiotics are also added to make them functional drinks that benefit gut health. Crop’s first flavour – pineapple tart, perfumed with cinnamon and clove – was released during the Lunar New Year season.
Recent collaborations with Singapore brands include Citral (with Gardens by the Bay) and Born & Bread (with CS Fresh).
Collaboration on a larger scale
On top of product innovation, Crust Group’s business model has also been evolving. The company has introduced the Sustainable Unique Label (SUL) service, which applies their ethos of collaboration on a much bigger scale.
In an SUL collaboration, Crust partners a large business or institution – supermarkets, hotels, airlines, government bodies – to upcycle their food waste and create a unique co-branded product that supports their sustainability goals.
When COVID-19 significantly affected Crust’s Singapore business, Travin started exploring bigger markets abroad and became drawn to the potential in Japan – a traditional market that is awakening to sustainable solutions in the food industry.
Thus far, Crust has struck deals with luxury hotels Aman Tokyo and The Ritz-Carlton, Osaka, and formed SUL partnerships with Cafe Company, Maison Kayser and Zipangu Curry Café – the last of which supplies surplus rice instead of bread. Leveraging Japan’s abundance of local produce, the startup is in talks with Ehime and Hokkaido prefectures to turn discarded citrus peels into Crop beverages, which could serve as unique souvenirs (omiyage) for tourists.
Although Crust continues to offer flagship products to consumers through restaurants and retailers, Travin says the SUL model, with its repeat bulk orders, generates higher revenue and is the key to scaling the business.
Building a Crust universe
As his company expands into more markets, Travin aims to build its product portfolio into a “Crust universe” of sustainable solutions not just in beverages, but also in food and packaging. One of the team’s current research projects involves turning spent grain from beermaking – which is rich in protein and fibre – into a pancake mix.
Rather than target a niche consumer segment with premium sustainable products, Travin wants his offerings to be approachable to a wider audience. After closing more SUL contracts, he intends to build a dedicated production facility, which will help drive costs down.
“It’s great that sustainability has become a trend but unfortunate that it’s not yet the norm. By offering great-tasting products at an acceptable cost, we hope to influence the public and make it easier for them to choose to live more sustainably.”
Want a taste? Crust products are available at CS Fresh, FairPrice Finest and crust-group.com.
Travin is the founder and CEO of Crust Group, a Singapore startup that upcycles surplus food into innovative beverages. Its partners include Tiong Bahru Bakery, Gardens by the Bay, Redmart, Aman Tokyo, and The Ritz-Carlton, Osaka.
Connect with him here.