How Toast Ale Began Changing Food in “Bread City”

by Carly Brand

I knew that I would see Madi at Vegan Drinks BK; wherever Toast Ale is, so is she. For that reason I brought my favorite spiral bound notebook, already inscribed with the following questions: How does the cost of Toast Ale compare to conventional beer? Why is all this food being wasted? What do normal brewers do? Truthfully, I knew all these questions were already answered on Toast Ale’s Q&A, or somewhere in the ever-growing vortex of positive press highlighting their recent journey to the USA (Jamie Oliver, NY Times). I was pretty pleased, then, when we ended up talking about a whole different story, a story I’m not sure has been told, and one you can’t help but love.

Toast Ale makes craft beer with surplus loaves from bakeries and pour 100% of profits into charities fighting food waste. Click here to support their mission to bring the rev-ALE-ution to NYC!

As I enter Reclamation Bar, I hear laughter and chatter, music and the clinking of half-full glasses. Sure sounds of a hoppin’ party — because elation is what you get when you organize a gathering of vegans and provide them Screamer’s Pizza (especially of the buffalo cauliflower and fancy kale varieties) and Toast Ale.

Toast Ale makes craft beer with surplus loaves from bakeries.

It’s a rare occasion this community gets to gush over food, drink and lifestyle without risking a single eye roll or maybe-not-so-well-intentioned question. So gush they did, thanks to Vegan Drinks BK, whose monthly events reduce the rarity of these gatherings. The plant-based soirees are organized by Sarah Gross and Nira Paliwoda, the same lovely ladies behind this weekend’s Vegetarian Food Festival (May 20–21), at which Change Food’s Doc in Residence Robert Graham will speak.

A few things attendees of these events can always agree on are the myriad moral and health incentives for veganism, and especially in recent years, the environmental incentive pulls as one of the strongest. Toast Ale, there at Reclamation Bar to give samples of their American Pale Ale, taps into this desire in the most fun way.

Change Food Meets Toast Ale

I close the door and immediately see a familiar face light up; Madi Holtzman shoots up from behind a small candlelit table to welcome me with a hug and a sample of the famous beer. She introduces me to Devin Hardy, whom I already recognize from photos of the duo (elbows deep in bread, beers bottoms up, etc).

Devin Hardy (back to camera) and Madi Holtzman digging in.

Madi and I met in November, when both of us attended the Change Food Fest and signed up for the same organized adventure afterward: a beer and cheese tasting with fest panelist Kurt Dammeier at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese. Between sips of Brooklyn Brewery‘s best, paired with cheeses creamy to sharp, I remember hearing about Toast Ale as a seedling. Now I’m eager to learn how Madi and Devin introduced it to the United States from its U.K. origins.

The 4 Rs: Just one of the ways Madi and Devin identify with Abbi and Ilana.

But before the domestic birth of Toast Ale, I’m interested to know how Madi and Devin teamed up in the first place. Laughing, they liken themselves to Abbi and Ilana from Comedy Central series Broad City, so I’m immediately intrigued and also (perhaps prematurely) in love.

Team Toast Ale USA: Formation of the “Hidden Food Waste Warriors”

“We used to call ourselves Bread City because our life is so ludicrous,” says Devin. “At the beginning, we were riding subway trains at 2AM, covered in [recovered] bags of spinach, falling asleep. We’re bootstrapping it.” She looks at Madi, who smiles and nods in can’t deny that! agreement.

The shenanigans began one night in Williamsburg, when Madi burst out of their mutual friend’s apartment, a heap of plants in her arms. From then on, the two traipsed around the city, intent on finding solutions to the problem of food waste.

Toast Ale’s Devin Hardy and Madi Holtzman combat food waste with… BEER!

Their commute most often led them to one of the Northeast’s largest importers and distributors of food: Baldor Specialty Foods. “We’d drive up to Baldor in my old Jeep Cherokee and leave with it filled,” Devin recalls. “Then, we’d have a grown up lemonade stand.”

Madi gives Baldor due credit for their commitment to reducing food waste. Whereas other companies often attempt to conceal the issue of waste, in all industries, Baldor acknowledged its existence — and then completely eliminated it. “A lot of it is just human error,” Devin explains. “Someone orders 33 boxes when they meant to type 3, and 30 boxes have to go back.”

“[Baldor] has been so intentional about how they handle their food waste, so they were always very accommodating,” Madi adds.

Tracking Down the Toast Ale Team in NYC!

After a little more experiential research, Madi and Devin discovered what they now know so well: bread waste is among the most horrendous of all. Their original idea? Bread Pudding. A heavenly way to salvage stale bread, Madi and Devin were on the right track when Madi met Tristram Stuart at his event “Feeding the 5000,” and suddenly they had the opportunity to change course, from pudding to pints.

Slow Food and Toast Ale present SLOW TOAST on May 21st from 12–3pm.

While Toast Ale USA is still the new baby sister of the successful UK operation (and therefore always accepting some IndieGoGo love!), of which Tristram Stuart is the founder, it’s evident in the dynamic between Madi and Devin that immense growth is inevitable. “We’re different,” Devin says endearingly, “Madi’s expounding on food waste problems and I’m at punk shows like — it’s BEER!”

“I never thought I’d be in a business. But food is a problem that’s not just personal: ‘I want to eat this, so I get to eat this.’ No. Food makes a difference in every sphere.”

I have to agree, which is why I also have to insist that you witness the work ethic and warmth of these two “Hidden Food Waste Warriors.” Catch Madi on the panel at Jimmy’s №43 for SLOW TOAST, May 21st from 12–3pm. The food waste cook-off, in partnership with Slow Food NYC, challenges chefs, bakers and generally talented food makers to source their own food waste from which they’ll create a dish to be tasted and judged by… you!

Bread is broken up to be used in the brewing process at Chelsea Craft Brewing Co. in New York (Gregg Vigliotti/The New York Times)

At Change Food, we’ll keep you updated on Madi and Devin’s whereabouts… You might just see them at our fundraising dinner in July; it features our friends at RISE, who convert unspent barley from breweries into extra-nutritious, delicious flour.

Between RISE and Toast Ale, this really is Bread City. And we at Change Food are feeling the buzz.

Carly Brand is studying Sustainable Urban Nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She looks to Change Food for future generations and loves to hear your perspectives at