Once a niche market reserved for aficionados and curious consumers, the U.S. craft beer industry is experiencing notable growth — not just in sales, but also in sustainable brewing and distribution practices.
Co-Owner of Ardent Craft Ales, Kevin O’Leary, takes a sample of Persimmon beer at the facility in Richmond, VA., Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014.
BOSTON — With a history dating back thousands of years, beer is one of the few products that has withstood the test of time. Yet, like so many human inventions, the beer industry isn’t easy on the environment. From coast-to-coast distribution and global exportation, to generating the electricity needed to power multiple boiling and cooling periods inherent to the modern brewing process, beer carries a major environmental footprint.
Recognizing the need for sustainable, conscientious brewing, as well as the economic opportunities created by sustainable practices, over 40 breweries have signed onto the Brewery Climate Declaration, a new industry-specific offshoot of Ceres’ popular Climate Declaration.
“Leading breweries are finding innovative ways to integrate sustainability into their business practices and finding economic opportunity through investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste recapture, and sustainable sourcing,” according to a statement from Ceres. “To highlight the steps they are taking and issue a call to action to others, brewers are signing the Climate Declaration.”
Neither declaration is binding, nor do they require any substantive, proven action on the part of signers. Instead, they’re intended to be used as policy tools that allow companies to engage with policymakers at both the state and national levels to demonstrate support for tackling climate change.
“Beer companies have a big economic footprint in this country and are already facing climate change impacts,” said Anne Kelly, director of Policy and BICEP at Ceres, about why the nonprofit sustainability advocacy organization launched the Brewery Climate Declaration. (Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, or BICEP, is a coalition of businesses coordinated by Ceres push for broad, non-partisan energy and climate legislation.)
According to information provided to MintPress News by Ceres, “The beer brewing industry is a major economic driver in America, with over 2,800 breweries producing $246.5 billion in economic output in 2012. Directly and indirectly, the beer industry creates over 2 million American jobs. Every brewery job creates 45 direct jobs in agriculture, transportation, distributing, business, packaging, machinery, and retail.”
“But perhaps equally important, beer is near and dear to many people’s hearts, and that makes it a great touchpoint for talking about climate change,” Kelly added.
Indeed, the declarations are proving valuable to breweries looking to showcase their efforts toward sustainability. For example, craft breweries are tackling their distribution footprint by reducing packaging and opting for cans instead of bottles. Some, including Guinness, are also partnering with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Smartways program, which aims to reduce carbon emissions by implementing better logistics plans. Still others are choosing to only distribute their products in a limited local region, largely eliminating their transportation footprints while boosting community ties.
Six breweries — Allagash Brewery, Brewery Vivant, Deschutes Brewery, Odell Brewing, Redhook and Widmer Brothers — boast that they use 100-percent renewable energy to meet their electricity needs. Sierra Nevada generates at least 50 percent of its energy with more than 10,000 on-site solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells. In fact, the array owned by the Chico, California-based brewery is one of the country’s largest privately-owned photovoltaic systems.
Aside from electricity, the brewing process depends on clean water. It takes four liters of water to produce just one liter of beer, plus there’s a significant amount of wastewater containing solid wastes, including spent grains, yeast and spent hops, weighing up to 50 pounds per barrel of beer. While there’s really no way around using water to produce the libation, some breweries have identified ways to reduce their water use and to purify used water before sending it back to the municipal system. Colorado’s Aspen Brewing Company, for example, is cutting its water use by using a system that recycles water to cool hot wort (beer before fermentation) and stores the warm water in an insulated tank so that it can be used in the next brewing cycle.
Even the spent grain can be sold to or traded with farmers, who can use it for animal feed. Adolphus Busch, founder of Anheuser-Busch, figured this out in the 1800s, when he started selling spent grain to be used as cattle feed. This practice continues even today among a number of breweries, including Aslan Brewing Co. in Bellingham, Washington.
“A future we all want to be a part of”
According to the Brewers Association, overall beer sales were down slightly in 2013. Yet there was an 8-percent rise in craft beer sales — the only segment of the American beer market that saw any rise. The country’s major brewers — i.e. Anheuser-Busch Companies, Inc., and MillerCoors — haven’t signed on to the Climate Declaration or the Brewery Climate Declaration. Many of the signatories fall into the craft beer category, whether they’re distributed far and wide or just regionally.
These relatively smaller operations are staking their reputations and brands on not just putting out quality products, but also taking a stand against climate change and working toward sustainability in their operations. These practices have become an integral part of their brands and missions, driving what was once a niche market for aficionados and curious consumers into the forefront of mainstream American drinking culture.
The New Belgium Brewing Company was a major force propelling the creation of the Brewery Climate Declaration. It’s long been in the business of studying the various environmental footprints of its operations and products, as well as seeking ways to work toward greater sustainability. In 2006, for example, the Fort Collins, Colorado-based company conducted a greenhouse gas assessment over the entire life-cycle of a six-pack of its popular Fat Tire Amber Ale. It’s also been working with BICEP for several years and is part of the National Resource Defense Council’s Brewers for Clean Water initiative.
Stressing the need for “clear, forward-thinking policies that help businesses innovate for a future we all want to be a part of,” Katie Wallace, assistant director of sustainability at New Belgium, told MintPress: “We know we’re here to brew good beer, but we’re also here to build a community. And we need good water and ingredients.”
Noting that many beer ingredients — particularly barley and hops — require a steady, stable climate, as well as clean water, Wallace noted, “We know if we did everything we possibly could, it would still be a drop in the bucket.”
While the declaration has received more attention than the folks at New Belgium had anticipated, Wallace says she’s “not totally surprised” that companies are signing on and people are paying attention. Indeed, grabbing people’s attention is part of the point.
“We hope to create more widespread awareness among people who enjoy drinking beer, not just the people brewing it,” she said.
“Financial success can be put on hold”
Consumers can find New Belgium products in coolers and on shelves throughout the country, but they’ll probably be harder pressed to find something from Aslan Brewing Co. The microbrewery only distributes in the western part of Washington state and has no plans to distribute its USDA-certified organic craft beers beyond the Pacific Northwest.
This focus on keeping things local is central to Its mission to produce ales, lagers and sodas “using local resources, sustainable and low-impact practices, and responsible sales techniques in order to promote a healthier, happier, and more environmentally conscious community.”
“Every decision made at Aslan Brew is done so with sustainability in mind. It controls our path,” Jack Lamb, CEO and owner of Aslan Brewing, told MintPress via email.
To illustrate this point, he used the example of the company’s research into 16 oz. cans. “Even though we wanted to can in 16 oz. cans, we found out that 12 oz. cans were produced in Olympia, WA, while 16 oz. cans come from somewhere east of the Mississippi,” he explained. “So … looks like we’re canning 12 oz. cans!”
Sticking to such strict practices might seem unworkable for most businesses, particularly when it comes to profitability. While Lamb acknowledges that it can be difficult to achieve innovation and sustainability at the same time, the company approaches the limitations posed by its mission as an opportunity to “get creative” with brewing and fermentation techniques.
“We have access to about 20 percent of the ingredients that conventional breweries do, strictly because not every strain of hops or variety of malted barley are available as certified organic,” Lamb explained. “This being said, we will never use an ingredient that is not 100 percent certified organic.”
And this doesn’t stop at the beers, either. Lamb says the company is currently struggling to find suitable organic hats to add the Aslan logo to and sell along with the company’s other branded merchandise, like T-shirts, hoodies and growlers.
Ultimately, Lamb concludes, “When in doubt, financial success can be put on hold for the good of maintaining sustainable practices.”