Brewing as we know it is not a sustainable practice. According to the University of Vermont, It takes between three to seven barrels of water to make one single barrel of beer.
Then factor the energy used in the fermentation process, the gas burned to ship ingredients across the country and the refuse byproducts of canning. When the brewing is done, what’s left behind is waste: undrinkable water and spent grains and hops.
New Belgium’s Fat Tire made headlines last year when it became the first major brewery to achieve carbon-neutral certification. In the process, the brewery created an open-source blueprint for others to follow in their path in the process. But while the brewery, the fourth-largest craft brewer in the country, has funneled significant investments into meeting global sustainability standards through renewable energy and heat recovery initiatives, not every brewery has access to that kind of capital.
So craft brewers are getting creative, implementing unique ways to decrease their use of natural resources. Methods include upcycling used water, taking land stewardship initiatives and recovering carbon dioxide from the fermentation cycle. The planet reaps the benefits, but increasingly, the consumer does as well: A 2018 study found a majority of U.S. beer drinkers would pay more for sustainably-produced beer. On average, they would pay around $1.30 more per six-pack.
For Colorado’s Mountain Tap Brewery, sustainability means buying product from local small-scale malt and hops growers. “Supporting small local growers increases the viability of Colorado’s agricultural industry,” says brewmaster Rich Tucciarone. “It also lessens our carbon footprint since the ingredients have far fewer miles to travel to reach us.”
He finds building that local connection benefits the entire community. “Like many brewers, we provide our spent grain to a local rancher who feeds his pigs with it,” Tucciarone says. “This keeps the grain out of the landfill and gives it a ‘second life’ as feed. A few times each year, we purchase pork from the rancher and feature it on our menu as Full Circle Pork: we brew the beer, we give the spent grain to the rancher, he feeds his pigs, we purchase the pork, and finally we serve it to our guests. We provide the grain to the rancher to offset his feed requirements. He does us a service by picking up the grain. We further support the local rancher by purchasing his pork. Then by featuring it in our restaurant, we encourage our guests to eat locally raised meats and educate them on the good things that can come from recycling what some might consider waste.”
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Sustainability has been top of mind for Mountain Tap since the brewery launched. “When planning the buildout of the brewpub, Mountain Tap had to start from scratch on all of our mechanical equipment. As such, we were able to take advantage of high-efficiency equipment including an energy recovery ventilation unit and a Rinnai tankless water heater that provides makeup water for brewing,” says Tucciarone.
At Alice Springs Brewing Co in Australia, sustainable thinking is essential. The brewery is located in the heart of the outback, surrounded by miles of orange-red sand. Water is a precious commodity here, so reducing water consumption is crucial. “We employ several tactics to recapture wastewater from our brewing processes and are continually looking for methods to reduce our usage,” describes instigator Kyle Pearson. “We currently reclaim all of our wastewater from our filtering process and use it to water our lawns and gardens.” Wastewater from brew day processes is used to clean down equipment. “We also hold and store all of our wastewater from our brewery sinks and floor drains into holding tanks, where we undertake settling and chemical analysis to ensure we are minimizing the amount of solids and chemicals into our local wastewater system.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Argentina’s Antares is located on the banks of the South Atlantic. Water here is abundant. But saltwater is tough to brew with. Driven by the planet’s water crisis, the brewery recently launched a new beer Atlántica—the first beer in Argentina to be made using seawater. Crazy Dingo Brewing in Florida uses groundwater from an aquifer below the brewery’s farm; the water is purified via carbon filters made from coconut husks.
Water waste remains one of the largest hurdles for brewers to cross. Waste water treatments range from the small—the solar-powered Cooper Island Beach Club uses wastewater for garden irrigation—to the massive: Village Brewery in Calgary (in partnership with University of Calgary researchers) creates beer from municipal wastewater.
Partially-treated municipal wastewater runs through a purification system, including ultra-filtration, advanced oxidation, ultraviolet light, nano-filtration and reverse osmosis. Eventually, the city’s liquid discards become crisp Golden Ales. Alberta Health Services check the reused water to ensure it hits drinking standards, but there are still mental hurdles. Head brewer Jeremy McLaughlin cited ‘mental hurdles to climb of how inherently gross this is.’ in an interview with the CBC.
Alternative water treatments and sourcing antidotes like these act as a glimmer of hope, as the planet’s supplies of fresh waters continue to deplete.
Alice Springs Brewing Co’s Pearson notes that initiatives like these are crucial when considering how our practices will impact future generations. “We have recently installed a 50kw solar panel system which will meet around 80% of our power needs and supply nearly all of the power we use to produce beer. All of our waste product from grain, yeast and hops is taken by local farmers and agriculturalists and used for stock feed or composting. Sometimes we even use spent grain in our kitchen to make food products for our restaurant—Stout Brownie anyone?!”
Shifting a brewery to sustainability may seem like a daunting (and pricey) feat, but there are small steps distilleries can take to lessen their environmental impact. Sustainable ingredients, either sourced locally or grown without pesticides; solar panels—Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) provides grants for small businesses looking to convert to renewable energy; and getting political, asking local and federal governments to offer more incentives for sustainable efforts.
BeerBurg in Texas Hill country uses the philosophy of land stewardship to drive the brewery. Their brewer Trevor underwent a nine-month herbalism program to help him understand plant identification, proper ethical harvesting and how to use native plants in the brewing partnership while fostering a positive relationship with the land the distillery is on. Also on site is an apiary surrounded by a rainwater collection tank and wildlife water station. The bees pollinate wildflower fields and permaculture gardens.
Avling Brewery in Toronto grows botanicals in their 4,000 square foot rooftop garden atop the brewery and uses their beers to shine a light on lesser-known local Canadian ingredients. Crops are chosen based on local ecological biodiversity with a focus on attractive native pollinators. They also host farmers market and hands on gardening workshops. 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg, Florida, asks all vendors they work with to meet the brewery’s sustainability guidelines to ensure vendors measure and minimize the footprint of their operations & products by looking at transportation, packaging, waste, energy, toxicity, water, and GHG emissions. Alaskan Brewing Company has been using a CO2 recovery program to clean CO2 used in production for over 20 years.
Large measures or small, “The most important thing for us is that we undertake sustainability efforts and continue to strive to improve as we grow bigger and better in the future,” says Pearson. “As brewers, business owners and also parents, it is important to us to ensure the ongoing viability of our planet for future generations.”