As climate change threatens beer, breweries turn to sustainable practices.

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 36, Issue 1
March 1, 2015 By Andy Crouch
Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River
Severe drought forced Stone Brewing Co. and brewmaster Mitch Steele to rely heavily on water from the Colorado River.

The stories sound almost biblical in nature. Fires sweeping through grasslands just outside brewery walls, leaving smoke and destruction in their wake. Rushing sea waters advancing on cellars, short-circuiting bubbling fermenters, intricate electrical operations and dreams. Statewide droughts crippling scarce water resources and drying out brewery supplies. This is the reality of climate change in the American brewing industry.

Cheri Chastain of Sierra Nevada Brewing
Cheri Chastain, sustainability manager for Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

It is generally understood and accepted that changes to our environment, due to human activities and influence, have contributed to adverse and historic weather events. “I don’t think anybody can deny that the climate is changing,” says Cheri Chastain, sustainability manager for the Chico, CA-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. “The droughts, the wildfires that we’re having on the West Coast, and then on the East Coast we have rainfall, floods, blizzards and extraordinarily cold storms.”

Breweries from California to Vermont have felt the impact of these adverse events. In San Diego, Stone Brewing Co. has had to cope with severe water restrictions and drought conditions in Northern California, which once provided much of the water used in the company’s production process. California is in the third year of a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with nearly 60 percent of the state experiencing D4, or exceptional, drought conditions, the highest level possible. Governmental and private forecasters expect drought to continue and possibly worsen next year in the West.

Richard Norgrove, president and CEO of Bear Republic Brewing Co., recently flew to Boston to deliver some bad news to his longtime distributor at Atlantic Importing. Due to the severity of the drought in his Northern California town of Healdsburg, Norgrove had made the difficult decision to pull his beers out of the successful Massachusetts market. Despite funding two wells in the city, his brewery had not yet received any additional water from the city. It has pulled out of nearly 20 markets in the past 18 months due to the shortage despite great demand for his brand. “Though painful for everyone involved, the option to withdraw from Massachusetts provides Bear Republic breathing room to stabilize our 2015 production and address the long-term impact of California’s dwindling water supply,” he said in a press release. “The decision did not come easy and was made with a clear understanding of the impact it would have on the market. Our hope is that the water supply issues will be resolved at the earliest opportunity, and with the market’s patience and support, we will return to Massachusetts.”

The severity of the drought has required Stone to more heavily rely on water secured from a secondary source, namely the Colorado River. This switch is not without consequence or cost. “The drought has overtaxed our capabilities, and that impacts our abilities to brew beer,” says Stone Brewmaster Mitch Steele. “What happens with the drought situation is that Northern California water is not coming, Southern California has lost water, and the reservoir levels are getting lower. So what’s happening is the mineral content of the water is skyrocketing.” The hard water from the Colorado contains two or three times the amount of dissolved minerals as the brewery is accustomed to handling. Stone’s brewers now have to run the water through a carbon filter and a reverse osmosis system several times to balance out the mineral content, largely calcium and magnesium. For a company that uses an estimated 2.5 million gallons of water per month, the extra work comes with significant additional costs.

In addition to water concerns, Stone’s employees have also had to deal with a series of wildfires, stemming from the area’s dry conditions. “It’s actually happened three times in Stone’s history where the brewery has been shut down because of wildfires in close proximity,” says Steele. In Southern California, Santa Ana winds reverse the usual air flow, drawing hot air westward from the desert instead of blowing in cool air from the ocean, resulting in raised temperatures and dry conditions. “That’s when we start seeing the wildfire dangers and we start to see things burn,” says Steele.

The Santa Ana winds usually blow in the autumn and winter. This year, they started in May. During that month, the brewery had to halt production and evacuate its employees due to a wildfire that passed close to the brewery. “When it first started, we evacuated, and then we came back the next morning, and it looked like it was under control,” says Steele. “Then the wind shifted and the fire started coming right at us, and so we had to clear out at the very last minute.” As employees evacuated, a time-lapse camera on the brewery’s roof captured the rapid spread of the fire in a video that eventually went viral, garnering nearly 150,000 views on YouTube. The brewery lost several batches due to ash filling tanks from roof stacks. “We had to shut down the brewery basically for about two and a half days, which at our busiest time of the year, we really couldn’t afford to do,” says Steele.

In contrast to the dry West, brewers across the East Coast have dealt with a series of flooding incidents. In Vermont, Hurricane Irene in 2011 caused the Winooski River to swell and overflow its banks, eventually filling the basement of the Alchemist Pub in Waterbury. The cellars of the restaurant and bar, run by John and Jen Kimmich, contained its brewing operation and equipment. While the stainless steel tanks were salvageable, the flooding destroyed raw ingredients, food, beer and other equipment. The couple had fortunately recently opened a cannery nearby, which became their focus after deciding not to reopen the pub after the damage.

Similarly, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 battered New York City and its breweries. In Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, Sixpoint Craft Ales lost power and sustained minor damage from the storm. In Oceanside, Long Island, the Barrier Brewing Co. was not as fortunate. With the encroachment of more than 4 feet of seawater inside the brewery, the small outfit experienced losses of nearly $100,000, including several vehicles, brew-house equipment and ingredients.

In the wake of the storm, eight Long Island breweries banded together to create a special-release beer, humorously titled “Surge Protector, Sandy Relief IPA.” Profits from the beer’s sale were provided to help Barrier Brewing reopen and to benefit Long Island Cares, a local food bank and charity service.

Steps to Sustainability 

The word “sustainability” has been tossed around long enough to have lost its meaning for anyone not tasked with addressing it directly. Critics note that evidence of our lack of sustainable efforts surrounds us, resulting in human-influenced climate change. “For a long time it was global warming,” says Chastain of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. “But what global warming does is it causes these shifts in climate so you’re going to extremes and have the high temperatures and the low temperatures, not just this warming effect. It’s changing our atmosphere.”

Critics and commentators have long branded sustainability efforts as New Agey and amorphous, which tended to undermine the growing necessity and urgent call to action from scientists and business leaders. The battle for sustainability has often found itself caught between two seemingly repellent poles: the pro-environment radical types and anti-environment business fat cats.

“For a long time, sustainability was synonymous with tree-hugging hippies, and there was kind of this environmental stigma attached to it,” says Chastain. John Stier, formerly director of corporate environmental affairs for Anheuser-Busch, agrees and says that many in the brewing industry have been slow to embrace sustainable practices. “With the growth of the craft brewery sector, there are a lot of people out there that didn’t understand it and didn’t see the opportunity.”

While skeptics suggest that business efforts related to sustainability often appear packaged as part of a public relations scheme—so called “greenwashing”—sustainability advocates point out that many environmentally friendly practices are just good for the bottom line. “As I meet with some of these craft brewers, I’ve taken away a little bit of that cynicism that sustainability is all about green marketing,” says Stier, now a senior consultant with the Antea Group, environmental management consultants. “I have a pretty good success rate in quickly convincing them that it’s much more than that. It’s about sustaining their business long-term and becoming more efficient. That puts a very different spin on it for them, and it’s been very helpful.”

Chris Lohring, founder of Notch Brewing Co. in Massachusetts, agrees that the business message is a strong one for brewers. “Much of the public relations surrounding environmental and sustainable practices are simply good business practices from a cost perspective and sometimes a quality perspective,” he says. “We don’t give spent grain to farmers because we feel good about it, but because we don’t want to pay for its removal. We don’t reuse water because we want to be ‘green,’ but because we save money. There are dozens of these types of examples in every brewery. Wrapping these stories in a feel-good PR message is fine, as it is good practice, but it’s not the primary motivator for doing so.”

Moreover, Chastain believes that more brewers will begin to see the importance of addressing how they run their breweries in light of recent drought and storms. “I think people are starting to realize that it’s a much bigger issue,” she says. “As brewers, we have an inherent responsibility to make sure that our environment is healthy. We rely on hops, barley and clean water to make our products, and as the climate shifts, as severe weather and droughts on the West Coast and floods on the East Coast start to happen, it directly impacts our access to the raw ingredients that we need.”

Chastain suggests that combining the environmental and business messages makes a powerful pitch to get brewers to adopt more sustainable practices. “For those people that don’t have that connection with their physical environment, a good way to get them to understand the motivations behind what we’re doing is to talk about the financial aspects,” she says. “If you can present these things in a way that gets people to realize that there is a bottom-dollar impact on the decisions that they’re making, you can bring people on a little easier. But there are a lot of brewers that are having kids or grandkids and realizing, ‘Wow, I can’t leave this environment for our future generations. We have to do something.’ There is a mix. There is a little of both.”

The Farm Problem

With the number of breweries in the United States booming, coupled with existing ones growing at double-digit rates, the quaint notion of small, handcrafted operations having little environmental impact is as dated as the flip phone. But despite their growing numbers, the smaller brewers create only a fraction of the environmental impact of large brewing companies and nothing compared with the energy and water costs necessary to produce the raw ingredients used in brewing. More than 90 percent of the environmental footprint of brewing occurs in the agricultural supply chain, according to Kim Marotta, director of sustainability for MillerCoors, with barley farming consuming the vast majority of the resources. “Farming is what has the biggest impact over the whole product,” agrees Chastain.

As the overwhelming bulk of the brewing industry’s environmental impact stems from farming the barley, hops and other raw ingredients necessary for brewing, Stier suggests that brewers of all sizes eventually have to look beyond their own breweries to really effect sustainable change. “Breweries are so focused on barrel-for-barrel water usage within their four walls, but in reality, if you look at the amount of water that it takes to irrigate barley for malt production, it’s quite a bit larger than what they’re focusing on in their breweries.”

According to research from the Water Footprint Network, an international group promoting sustainable, equitable and efficient water use, the water footprint of the malted barley required to produce beer is nearly 300 liters of water per liter of beer. By contrast, the water footprint of the entire production brewing process is six to eight liters of water per liter of beer. At the largest breweries, including MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, that number is closer to three to one.

Big Brewers Go Green

While most brewers continue to contemplate the adoption of widespread sustainability practices, the world’s biggest breweries have long understood the importance of these measures, and not just because they made for good public relations. With volumes many times greater than even the largest craft brewer, the world’s biggest breweries have a direct financial incentive to run efficient, environmentally sustainable operations. “If you look at the bigger breweries, they get it,” says Stier. “You can’t go to Anheuser-Busch, Carlsberg, and Heineken and preach to them why this is important. They get it and they have great, robust programs. They’re really setting a pretty high bar, I think, for others to follow.”

Smaller brewers may want to have a greater impact on their environmental footprint, but the true power for change remains in the hands of the world’s biggest breweries. With increased volume comes greater responsibility and also power, such that the smaller breweries cannot match. “The unfortunate thing and the difficult thing especially for craft brewers to work on is that they’re not purchasing the volumes that, say, an Anheuser-Busch or Miller or Coors are purchasing,” says Chastain. “We’re purchasing in much, much smaller quantities, and we don’t have as much of a direct impact on our raw material sources. Large brewers can just start having conversations with their suppliers, just start talking to hop farmers or start talking to their barley farmers about sustainable practices.”

The large breweries recognize their responsibility and power and have long worked to support more sustainable farming practices, which in turn increases efficiencies and reduces costs. “I think the bigger impact is happening from the bigger brewers because every larger brewer that I know of has a very robust program to work with their suppliers and their growers,” says Stier. “I know that Anheuser-Busch isn’t the only one doing this, but I can speak for them direct. We sponsored a lot of grower days where we would partner with local universities and ag-extensions to be able to go out and show some malt growers more water-efficient ways to grow barley. I know that any big brewer is doing the exact same thing right now.”

Marotta of MillerCoors cites the long-term relationship with suppliers and the volume of ingredients purchased as major reasons for the success of big brewers in effecting change. “Where we have a really great advantage is that we have been working directly with our barley farmers and our hop farmers for decades,” she says. “Oftentimes we’ll have barley days in the middle of the summer, and we will recognize someone who has been a partner of ours for 50 years, and a family might go 100 years back in farming. So we have really great relationships, one on one, with our farmers, which gives us the opportunity to also work with them on issues that are important to them and issues that are important to us.”

For example, MillerCoors was an early adopter in the brewing industry of the practice of water footprinting, which involves studying the watersheds of its eight major breweries and hundreds of agricultural suppliers. Using indicators from the World Resources Institute, MillerCoors looked to determine whether these regions were water-scarce or water-stressed and then understand the stability and quality of the sources of the water. The company also looked to determine the impact of climate change, population growth, agricultural demands, industry growth and other factors to create a watershed strategy for each location.

MillerCoors Farm
Small changes — including retrofitting inefficient water guns with new models — helped a MillerCoors farm reduce water and energy use.

Following their study, MillerCoors worked with their agricultural suppliers to reduce water and energy use, sometimes in very small but impactful ways. These included simple fixes such as retrofitting inefficient and ill-performing nozzles on farm water guns, lowering them to the ground to avoid evaporation, using global positioning system technology to track irrigation and stopping water usage on hard-to-reach corner crops that did not even meet the company’s brewing standards.

After implementing these efforts at its Showcase Barley Farm in Idaho, MillerCoors saved more than 440 million gallons of water in a three-year period. “If you put that in perspective, that’s about what we might use in one of our breweries in about a five-month period,” says Marotta. As a result of pumping less water, the farm’s energy usage also dropped by 50 percent. “More importantly, we saw better yield,” she says. After the program’s success, MillerCoors now shares these practices with other growers and farmers in its supply chain.

What Can Be Done

In light of the comparatively substantial environmental footprint of both farmers and big brewers, the inevitable question arises whether smaller brewers’ sustainability efforts can be meaningful. With the wave of new brewers producing more than quadruple the amount of beer they did 10 years ago, the corresponding increase in the consumption of natural resources, including water, is cause for consideration. While they lack the volume and buying power of the big breweries, many regional and national brands have long promoted sustainability practices. As with MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch, and other big breweries, others, including Sierra Nevada, are also working directly with their agricultural partners to move toward more sustainable farming. “We have our own organic hop and barley fields at our brewery in Chico, and there are a lot of challenges with it, so we fully understand what some of the growers are facing when they’re trying to change their farming practices,” says Chastain.

For those breweries interested in starting a sustainability program, brewers and consultants agree they should start small and reach out to other breweries. “I think information sharing is the biggest piece and does two things,” says Stier. “One, it helps to motivate other people to get involved and get engaged, but two, you’re not re-creating the wheel all the time and by learning from what other brewers are working to accomplish. It excites some motivation to do better and to keep pushing.”

In discussing sustainability in the U.S. brewing sector, two names clearly dominate the conversation: Sierra Nevada and New Belgium. Both breweries have been long-time advocates for embracing sustainable business practices, both from a philosophical point of view—what Sierra Nevada’s Chastain calls “doing the right thing”—and a financial perspective. “I look at people who set good examples and use them as role models, and Sierra Nevada and also New Belgium stand out to me,” says Steele. “They haven’t been shy about sharing what they do and how they do it, and then there are a lot of good takeaways from listening to those discussions. We’re really getting some good ideas from them.”

The two breweries have invested heavily in renewable energy sources, including solar and wind, as well as pioneering the adoption of sustainable production technologies, including anaerobic digesters, advanced waste-water treatment protocols and energy-efficient brew-house systems. Both breweries have also established and maintained strong and direct relationships with their agricultural suppliers.

Sierra Nevada Solar Power
Sierra Nevada (picture) and New Belgium have invested heavily in solar power.

Sierra Nevada’s Chastain agrees that collaboration and cooperation are key ingredients for establishing a more sustainable brewing industry. “If we come together as an industry with a voice in numbers, we can make some statements and some suggestions and demands, including that we want organic products or we want non-GMO barley,” she says. “I think that’s where the strength is going to come from, especially for craft, just because we’re not as big as the huge brewers.”

Stier agrees and suggests that collaborative efforts with bigger brewers are also possible. “I don’t know if it’s something about the beer industry or what the heck is going on, but I just don’t see it in any other sector, that openness to share,” he says.

Everyone involved in brewery sustainability efforts agrees that the time to act is now. “If we’re going to take action, it has to be quick,” says Chastain. “We’re going to have to deal with it, and how we deal with it will probably set the stage for future impact. I think all of us need to pay a little more attention to our climate, and I don’t know if we have time to reverse what we’ve done.”

Andy Crouch
Andy Crouch writes the monthly “Unfiltered” column for BeerAdvocate Magazine and is the author of Great American Craft Beer and The Good Beer Guide To New England.