- Brewing beer requires a significant amount of resources, including water, and creates waste.
- The Brewers Association offers sustainability tools to breweries to improve the process all around.
- Breweries that use the tools reduced their carbon emissions and water consumption and saved money.
- This article is part of a series called “Partners for a Sustainable Future,” profiling innovative alliances that are driving real progress in sustainability.
Protecting the environment is a high priority for many independent beer brewers – yet it’s no secret that beer brewing uses significant resources and creates waste.
It can take as many as seven barrels of water to make one barrel of beer. Beer also requires a significant amount of heat during the brewing process and refrigeration soon after it’s made, contributing to energy waste – not to mention, the beer-making process produces plenty of wastewater and leftover grain.
Over the last six years, however, brewers have been leveraging sustainability tools created by the Brewers Association, which represents around 5,400 small and independent member brewers – about half of the approximately 8,764 craft breweries in the United States.
Brewers that used the tool for four or five years consistently reduced their carbon emissions and water consumption and also saved money, Chuck Skypeck, the BA’s technical brewing projects manager, told Insider. Breweries that submitted five years of consecutive data showed a steady natural-resource efficiency improvement of 1% to 2% per year, he said.Horse & Dragon Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado, is one of the breweries working with the BA to become more sustainable by using a benchmarking tool the BA developed to help breweries measure their energy and water use, carbon emissions, and costs for disposing of wastewater and used grains.
“We’re trying to chip away at this in small ways,” Carol Cochran, co-owner of Horse & Dragon and a member of the BA Sustainability Subcommittee, told Insider. Just the mere act of measuring usage is helping breweries to use less energy and resources, she said.
Knowing your water usage per barrel of beer compared to a similarly sized brewery gives owners a starting point for change. “If you’re way above, you can dig in and find out why or consult with other breweries in your size and area,” she said.
A sustainability challenge for smaller breweries
For smaller breweries like Horse & Dragon, which will produce less than 3,000 barrels of beer this year, it can be difficult to reach the level of sustainability that larger, more efficient breweries can achieve.
For example, not every brewery can install large solar panels to offset energy use, Skypeck said. Smaller breweries like Horse & Dragon, rather, typically focus on LED use or installing a more efficient compressor to reduce energy consumption.
“About 7,500 of the BA members are brewing tiny amounts of beer on a shoestring,” Cochran said. “We don’t have the bandwidth to do the type of research the BA funds.”
BA membership also gives brewers like Cochran access to lessons learned by larger brewers such as New Belgium Brewing, also in Fort Collins, which brews more than 800,000 barrels of beer each year. New Belgium is an industry leader in sustainability, claiming its Fat Tire beer is the only certified carbon-neutral brew.
Larger brewers can capture emissions and reuse them to carbonate beer or during the canning or bottling process, but there aren’t any systems designed yet for small-scale capture, and the technology that’s available would require small brewers to use too much energy, Skypeck said.
“We’ve learned that every brewery has individual challenges, and that if every brewer can start to measure what they’re doing, they can identify where to make incremental changes,” Skypeck said.
He admitted that some of the BA’s recommendations are simple, such as putting the brewery’s lights on a timer to avoid using energy when no one’s there or finding a local farm to take the brewery’s used gain to use for composting and feeding livestock. But for brewers like Horse & Dragon, those small incremental changes add up over time.
Embracing water conservation
With the BA’s assistance, Horse & Dragon has reduced its water usage by 36.46%, Cochran said.
“Water is our primary focus right now, despite it being our least expensive one, simply because of the shortages we see and hear about in the West,” Cochran said. “We’re constantly looking for affordable ways to conserve, reuse, and bolster the health of our watershed.”
The US west is in a historic drought, and in August, the US government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River, impacting water supplies in Nevada and Arizona. The city of Fort Collins is even under a water-shortage watch.
Water is the main ingredient in beer, accounting for up to 95% of its content. In addition, water is used throughout the brewing process for cleaning, cooling, and packaging.
Rather than just send water down the drain, the BA is teaching breweries to collect clean water and find other uses for it.
When Cochran and her husband Tim were building the brewery, they consulted a larger BA member and were advised to buy an oversized hot liquor tank to capture and reuse all of the water used in the cooling process. That water travels through a heat exchanger to the hot liquor tank and is ready to be used when brewing the next batch or cleaning the tanks, she said. The brewery also collects clean water from a steam drip line on the hot liquor tank and uses it to water trees on the property.
Skypeck also wants brewers to consider the quality of the water they use. The Fort Collins watershed has had two major forest fires, and when runoff hits the burn areas, it can affect the water quality, he said.
Horse & Dragon is a member of BreWater, 15 Fort Collins breweries focused on local water issues, including teaching the local community how to protect the local watershed.
Reducing energy use beyond LED lights
In addition to installing LED lights, Horse & Dragon has been offsetting 100% of its energy usage since 2016 by purchasing wind power from Arcadia Power. The brewery also reduced its energy footprint by committing to use locally sourced malt and barley, eliminating the need to truck supplies from other areas.
Yet, despite these efforts, as the brewery’s production has increased, so has its energy consumption. “Our average monthly energy usage has increased by 10%, and we’re looking at additional ways to curb it for both the environmental bottom line and the financial one – it’s the most expensive of our utilities,” Cochran said.
The goal is for all its beers to be made with 100% local ingredients, but Cochran admitted that it’s a difficult financial calculation. While some sustainability efforts, such as using less water or generating less waste, save the brewery money, other efforts – like buying malt and barley from a local producer – cost 50% to 60% more than bulk grain from big suppliers.
“Unless every brewer is required to do the same, it is a hard financial decision to make,” Cochran said. “We’re still selling our product for a similar price as other breweries that aren’t doing these things.”
Most brewers are reluctant to promote their sustainability efforts to consumers. “I think you run a risk of opening yourself up to legitimate criticism if you brag about the types of incremental changes you made,” Cochran said.
Make no mistake, Skypeck said, those small incremental changes are important. “The most sustainable way to consume a beer is in a glass that you’re going to use and wash and use again,” he said. In fact, he said, more than 65% of BA members don’t package their beer; they just sell beer onsite at their taproom.