Carolyn Smagalski's picture

Brewing "Green" Beer

Green Hop Flower

This is the season of giving, and there is nothing better than giving back to the Earth.  Lately it seems that brewers who create wholesome products from the planet’s resources are particularly committed to programs that ensure sustainability.

In late September, a group of craft brewers, journalists and allied trade members gathered for the first Brewer’s Sustainability Guild UnConference at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.  The summit – organized by Dan Del Grande, the co-owner of Bison Brewing in Berkeley, Calif., and Dave Rochlin, the CEO of ClimatePath, a global conservation and carbon-reducing consultancy – brought this contingency together in a collaborative effort toward sustainability.  “Virtually every brewer attending had at least one initiative in progress,” Del Grande noted afterward.

The group focused on four key issues at this inaugural party:  water conservation, energy efficiency, waste management and stakeholder engagement. Heavyweights such as New Belgium Brewing Company, Full Sail, Alaskan Brewing, Bear Republic and Anderson Valley Brewing compared notes on complex initiatives, including the United States Green Building Council’s LEED principles, solar electricity, heat recovery and co-generation power units, while representatives of some smaller breweries talked of enacting economically feasible initiation programs like municipal recycling, spent grain reuse by local farmers and the reduction of diatomaceous earth in filtering.    

Many of the breweries boasted strong credentials as models of sustainability.  For instance, Full Sail Brewing Company received the 2009 Governor’s Sustainability Award for small business in Oregon, which has been called the greenest state in the country.  In 2004, New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins, Colo., earned the Environmental Protection Agency’s Regional Administrator’s Environmental Excellence Award, touted as the “Stanley Cup of environmental awards.”  A year earlier it had received a Green Power Leadership Award from the Department of Energy and the E.P.A.  And since 2000, Anderson Valley Brewing Company has been honored six times by the California Integrated Waste Management Board’s Waste Reduction Awards Program (WRAP).  

“One can’t do it alone,” Rochlin commented. “We are on a journey, but we’re not there yet.”     It helps to have a role model, and both Sierra Nevada Brewing Company of Chico, Calif., and New Belgium Brewing are exemplary models when it comes to sustainability.

New Belgium, founded by Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan in 1991, committed to environmental stewardship from the beginning.  Not only does it brew world-class beer, New Belgium also employs cutting-edge technology, operating an effective “think tank” with an eye toward evaluating the long-term benefits of its work.

Indeed, there are many cutting-edge programs at “the Mothership,” as employees affectionately call the brewery.  Now the fifth-largest craft brewer in the country, New Belgium is the first fully wind-powered brewery in the United States.  Like Abita near New Orleans, it uses a Steinecker Merlin brew kettle that conserves energy by circulating wort over a heated cone in a very thin film while capturing steam for reuse in an energy-storage tank.   Green design glows throughout its facility through sun tubes, UV-blocking windows, evaporative coolers and materials that restore life to depleted materials.  

At Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Cheri Chastain serves as the brewery’s Sustainability Coordinator. “Sustainability,” Chastain said, “has been a core operating principle for the company since day one.” She noted that efforts like recycling and resource management have been part of the culture at Sierra Nevada since it opened in 1980.  

Now the second largest craft brewery in the country, Sierra Nevada has earned its own impressive list of environmental awards, the most recent being Food Engineering magazine’s Sustainable Plant of the Year Award for 2009 and the “Friend of Glass” designation from the Glass Packaging Institute.  It has won the WRAP award yearly since 2001, and in 2005 it received the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.  

Chastain asserted that the company’s biggest accomplishment, however, has been in making sustainability efforts a plant-wide program that involves every department, from offices to the restaurant to production and transportation.  “At Sierra Nevada,” she added, “we have invested most heavily in reaching 100 percent energy self generation through conservation, efficiency, fuel cell technology and solar panels.  This is one of the most comprehensive programs because it reached every facet of our operation.  Year to date for 2009, we have reached our goal of self generating 85 percent of our own power needs on-site through clean technology.” 

In trying to lead others to the promised land, Chastain offers words of encouragement to small breweries. “Do not get overwhelmed,” she said.  “Too often people see the large installations that Sierra Nevada has undertaken – solar panels, fuel cells, etc. – and are overwhelmed with the fact that they won’t be able to afford the same things.  Those same people also forget that we first invested in smaller scale efficiency and conservation projects.  I would suggest to smaller brewers, or any company for that matter, to think holistically about their environmental impacts.

“Remember that small efforts add up and they all make a difference".