It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green: The Greening of America’s Breweries
What does it mean to be green? Does it mean adding food coloring to your beer to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Does it mean, perhaps, being too young? Or too hoppy? If you’ve been conscious the last few years, you already know the answer to all of those is an emphatic “no.” Being and thinking “green” is an emerging way to approach your place in the world so that you leave the planet as you found it, doing as little damage as possible along the way. There’s an organic movement afoot, but is it enough to wear Birkenstocks in order to walk the walk?
For many brewers, it’s much more than that. It also means figuring out ways to make beers that reduce the brewing process’s carbon footprint as much as they can. For others, it means all that, plus making organic beer, using ingredients that themselves do as little harm as possible to the ground they grow in, using methods that reduce waste, encourage diversity or eschew potentially harmful chemicals. One thing you can say about almost all brewers, they really care about the impact they’re having on the environment and do more voluntarily than perhaps any other industry. In many cases, it’s also good for their bottom line, but by and large they do it because it’s the right thing to do, often regardless of the cost. The Birkenstocks just make their feet feel better.
For centuries, all farming was organic. That’s not because landowners consciously made that choice, it was simply because pesticides and the intensive modern agricultural methods used today had not yet been invented. There’s a certain irony to our present-day farming system being called “conventional” while the ancient farming methods that fed civilization for millennia are known today as “organic.” No one would argue that modern farming hasn’t increased the amount of food we produce, but the use of pesticides and the industrial agronomy that made that prosperity possible has come at a high cost that many people are only beginning to realize.
Probably the first public assault on conventional farming was Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, which strongly questioned the safety of synthetic pesticides. She’s often credited with launching the global environmental movement that led to DDT being banned in 1972. That was also the same year the phrase “think globally, act locally” was coined at a UN Conference on the Human Environment and also when the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement was founded
Over the next few decades, interest in environmental stewardship increased, with farming and consumer groups pressuring governments to regulate production at every level of the food chain. This, in turn, spread to virtually every sector of business and society thanks to a broader awareness of environmental issues such as climate change, dependence on oil, biodiversity and the importance of recycling. People today are far more aware of these issues than our parents’ generation and they are increasingly demanding food that’s safe and free from chemicals. It’s no surprise, then, that sales of organic products in the United States grew from $1 billion in 1994 to $17 billion in 2006. In 1998, the percentage of organic food sold was less than 1 percent; today it’s a little over 2½ percent.
What does all of this have to do with beer, you may be asking yourself? Aside from water and yeast, which are effectively neutral with respect to being organic, beer is made from two or three agricultural products: barley, wheat and hops. Without organically-made ingredients, there can be no organic beer. So the future of organic farming is intimately tied to organic beer.
Green beer in this context, of course, means organic beer. What makes a beer organic seems like it should be simple enough, but it’s more complicated than you might imagine. Since most people buy organic beer with the best of intentions, to support the environment and sustainable businesses that do likewise, it’s worth taking a look at what makes a beer organic. The obvious answer is that it’s one made with organic ingredients. But how the USDA defines that is a bit more complicated.
There are four levels of organic labeling: “100 percent organic,” “organic,” “made with organic materials,” and “some organic ingredients.” The differences in these four are listed [below]:
100 percent Organic
Must contain 100 percent organically produced ingredients.*
Must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients.* Must not contain added sulfites. May contain up to 5 percent of:
1. nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients which are not commercially available in organic form; and/or
2. other substances, including yeast, as allowed by law
Made with Organic Ingredients
Must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.* Must not contain added sulfites; except that, wine may contain added sulfur dioxide in accordance with law. May contain up to 30 percent of:
1. nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients which are not commercially available in organic form; and/or
2. other substances, including yeast, as allowed by law
Some Organic Ingredients
May contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients.* May contain over 30 percent of:
1. nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients; and/or
2. other substances, without being limited to those allowed by law.
* not counting added water and salt.
The problem with the USDA’s definition is that every beer is roughly 5 percent alcohol and 95 percent water, plus a fractional amount of flavor compounds (including vitamins, minerals and trace elements), dietary fiber, carbohydrates, hop oils and resins and proteins. When brewing beer, for every 10 pounds of malt, only a few ounces of hops are used, almost regardless of style. This means that a beer could use organic barley and no organic hops and still technically fit the USDA’s “organic” definition, as long as the USDA has been satisfied that the particular type of hops used in the beer is “not commercially available in organic form.”
Until very recently, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ingredients that organic companies were claiming weren’t available organically and, therefore, a non-organic substitute could be used. But there’s a difference between allowable and acceptable, and consumers supporting organic products precisely because they were better for the environment began complaining that the distinction was being blurred.
Allowing goods to be called “organic” that contained non-organic ingredients was creating confusion as to exactly what was being offered for sale. This consumer backlash forced the USDA to change their policy and limit the number of items that could be substituted and still be called organic. After a public debate, the number of ingredients that could be substituted was fixed at 38, with hops still on the list.
So when it comes to organic beer, hops have become the crux of the debate. There was a time when the only available organic malts were pale and crystal malts, but today almost any common malt is available organically. Organic hops, on the other hand, remain more elusive. Hops are a fragile crop, susceptible to many pests, fungi and mildew problems.
Today virtually all hops are grown in just three states: Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Pesticides and fertilizers have greatly enhanced yields, and hop growers have developed varieties with better yields that are disease resistant. Many of these varieties have become an integral part of beer’s wide array of styles. Certain hop varieties have become associated with specific styles, making it all but impossible to use a substitute and get the desired results. You may be able to make a pilsner without Saaz hops or an American pale ale without Cascades, but they won’t taste quite right.
Of the roughly fifty common hop varieties, only about one-fifth have shown the potential to be viable organic crops. Stephen Carpenter, great-great-grandson of the Yakima Valley’s first hop grower, tried unsuccessfully to grow the very popular Cascade hops organically. For many years, organic hops were available primarily from New Zealand, with as much as 80 percent of all organic hops grown by a single farmer, the Oldham family, on 25 acres.
The Hops Bottleneck
Last year, Anheuser-Busch entered the organic market with two brands, Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill Pale Ale. During the public debate on labeling, they were strongly criticized for not using 100 percent organic hops by misguided consumer groups who believed that if you are big enough and have enough money, then it should be easy enough for you to get whatever you want, including organic hops. But the hops business doesn’t work like that. Hop growers are just beginning to come out of a decade-long down cycle that has seen many leave the business just as demand for hops is on the rise. By every account, there is a worldwide hop shortage that has no easy solutions. Unfortunately, A-B bowed to public pressure and announced their organic beers would be made with 100 percent organic hops. Even they’re unsure where a steady supply of hops is likely to come from.
Thanks to A-B’s having been forced into this decision, small craft brewers who make organic beer may very well have a much tougher time finding organic hops and even staying in business because what hops may be available will be at least twice as expensive as conventionally grown varieties. According to Morgan Wolaver, founder of Wolaver’s Organic Ales, this is perhaps organic beer’s biggest challenge. “We need to find an answer to these crop issues, because the controversy will not simply go away. If a beer is made with 100 percent of the more expensive organic hops, will consumers be willing to spend another dollar per six-pack?”
The early organic beers all had a somewhat similar taste, in no small part because of the limited number of available organic ingredients. Regardless of style, they had a certain quality that easily distinguished them as an organic beer. This is not to suggest they were of poor quality, just that many of the early organic brewers were using roughly the same small number of ingredients, resulting in a similarity of taste. Happily this problem has evaporated and enough of a selection can be found so that today’s organic beers are every bit as flavorful as their non-organic counterparts.
At last year’s Great American Beer Festival, five organic brewers were awarded a gold medal for an organic beer in regular categories competing against non-organic beers. As Morgan Wolaver, explains it. We take the approach that we’re “not brewing an organic beer, we’re brewing a great craft beer that’s made with organic ingredients.” And if enough hops can be found, the future of organic beer seems as bright as a clear golden pilsner—organic or otherwise.
While organic beer is an important part of what it means to be a green brewery, it’s not the only thing breweries are doing to be green. Behind the scenes, running a brewery has become perhaps an even bigger piece of the ecological puzzle. Countless breweries that don’t make organic beer are taking steps to minimize their impact on the planet. They do this not just because it’s the right thing to do—though for many that’s enough—but also because it makes sense from a business point of view as well, saving untold dollars annually and contributing to their economic health.
Brewers tend to be amateur engineers—they have to be in order to get the most out of their equipment. In craft brewing’s early days, breweries were built from discarded dairy tanks and whatever else could be found. So it’s hardly a surprise that brewers are early adopters of efficient technologies and out of necessity often come up with their own.
Whether big, small or somewhere in between, every brewery does a lot of little things that can add up to quite a lot. Greg Koch, co-owner of Stone Brewing, believes “every incremental step you can take is an important one. It’s like a puzzle, you take a lot of little pieces and try to fit them all into place.” He stresses that we should all focus on the positive steps being taken and celebrate those rather than criticize what someone isn’t doing.
Not all green innovations are new, of course; some are good old-fashioned common sense. Since at least the 1880s, Anheuser-Busch has been donating their spent grain to local ranchers to use as cattle feed. Few breweries today don’t do likewise or use the grain to make compost. Though perhaps the most creative use of spent grain is how Great Lakes Brewery in Cleveland, OH uses it, which is to grow organic mushrooms, serving them in their restaurant. Destihl Brew Works, opening this fall in Normal, IL, will be giving their spent grain to the same local dairy farm where they’ll purchase cheese for the brewpub.
In 1998, Alaskan Brewing became the first craft brewery to install a CO2 recovery system. It doesn’t let the CO2 escape, instead re-using it to carbonate the beer at the end of the brewing process. Most of the big breweries have been doing this for years, but it’s expensive for small breweries, though many of the larger ones like Boston Beer Co. and Sierra Nevada have also installed CO2 capture systems. Many others work with local power companies to buy credits to offset greenhouse gases. Butte Creek Organic Brewery actually plants enough new trees to sequester the amount of carbon they use each year. Last year, several acres of trees were planted to offset the 185 tons they used in 2006.
Brewing off the Grid
Almost a decade ago, the employees of Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing voted to forgo their bonuses in order to take themselves off the grid, as they became the first brewery to embrace windpower to meet all of their energy needs. In nearby Durango, all four breweries—Carver, Durango, Ska and Steamworks—recently announced that 100 percent of their energy is coming from a green, renewable source—also primarily wind power.
Larger breweries usually do their own water treatment, which removes demand on city sewer systems. In many cases, methane produced as a part of this process is recaptured and used to supplement energy needs. Sierra Nevada uses the methane generated by their wastewater treatment plant to power fuel cells that in turn power the brewery, creating more wastewater for the treatment plant.
And like Anderson Valley and others, both Stone Brewing and Sierra Nevada are installing solar arrays on their roofs to generate additional power off the grid. Ted Vivatson, of Eel River Brewery, is completely off the grid with the world’s first 100 percent bio-mass fueled brewery, powered entirely by energy created as a byproduct of a hog plant down the road from his brewery.
Despite the immense power needed to run a brewery, it’s transportation that uses up the most fossil fuel. To reduce this, many breweries are creating biodiesel fuel to run their own trucks, in some cases from the vegetable oil and grease from their restaurants. Anheuser-Busch’s Jacksonville and Fort Collins plants have converted to biodiesel fuel for their entire fleets and have even started growing energy crops on nearby acreage in a pilot program to see if they can grow their own fuel.
Anheuser-Busch and Miller have a distinct advantage over almost every other U.S. brewer with regard to transportation: both have multiple breweries strategically located throughout the country, thereby reducing the distance trucks must travel to deliver beer. Others encourage alternative work commutes, such as bikes, public transit, carpooling, or fuel-efficient vehicles, and New Belgium even gives each employee a bicycle on their one-year anniversary with the company.
For every gallon of beer, as much as ten gallons of water is used during brewing and cleaning. Examining smart ways to conserve water, several breweries have reduced that ratio to four or five-to-one: Uinta Brewery from Utah has gotten it down to three-to-one.
All breweries try to recapture as much water as they can to reuse in other parts of the brewing process. Rube Goldberg would be proud as hoses and pipes snake around the brewery, taking water drained from the mash tun and using it to heat the secondary liquor tank before using it to push out the water from the heat exchanger. Both Abita Brewing in Louisiana and New Belgium use a Merlin external wort boiling system, which circulates wort between two tanks, reducing evaporation by half and saving up to 75 percent in fuel consumption.
Recycling everything has been taken to new heights, with many breweries managing to keep 95-99 percent of what would otherwise be filling garbage dumps. Because so much of a brewery’s trash is made up of cardboard, cans, glass and paper, there’s very little that can’t be recycled. In 1959, Coors began recycling their new aluminum cans and almost thirty years ago, Anheuser-Busch created the A-B Recycling Corporation to collect cans for recycling, up to 27 billion each year.
Several dozen small brewers and all of the big ones are doing their part by using aluminum cans instead of bottles. Canned beer is lighter and can be packed more densely on trucks, reducing fuel costs. More can be recycled, with 51 percent of the can reusable, as opposed to only 22 percent of bottles; plus, less energy is used to recycle them. Most aluminum cans use 70 percent recycled material when they’re made. There is also less packaging to throw away, since there are no cardboard six-pack carriers. As Oskar Blues’ frontman Marty Jones explains it, “One recycled can saves the energy equivalent of 6 ounces of gas, or the electricity to power a guitar amp for a couple hours.”
But perhaps the ultimate recycling is Anchor’s Small Beer, which is made from the run-off of Old Foghorn, their barleywine-style ale. And with zero packaging waste and zero transportation cost, the average brewpub is pretty green, too. But as for innovation, you have to admire the living green brewery roof built on top of the new 70,000-square foot expansion to Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewery. Natural stone was used to create a beer garden and the rest of the roof was planted with two kinds of sedum, a succulent plant that will grow to cover the entire roof, absorbing heat and water in the process. This will also extend the life of the roof itself, since it’s the plants that will be exposed to the elements, not building materials.
The steps breweries, large and small, take to be green make the beer industry a leader in environmental stewardship and community involvement are all the more impressive for being completely voluntary. Being green is just part of a brewery’s personality. The next time you visit your local brewery, ask them what they’re doing to be green. It’s a safe bet it’s something amazing. Think Globally, Drink Locally.
Dedicated to the memory of Steve Harrison, 1951-2007. In almost thirty years with Sierra Nevada Brewing, Steve Harrison was a tireless champion of sustainable business practices. In his honor, friends and family have set up the Steve Harrison Fund, which will be used to promote environmental sustainability and alternative energy projects.
Jay R. Brooks
Jay R. Brooks has been writing about beer for over 15 years. He was formerly a beer buyer for Beverages and More and the general manager of the Celebrator Beer News. He also writes online at the idiosyncratic Brookston Beer Bulletin from his home in Marin County, CA.