Brewery sustainability

There are many actions breweries can take to reduce their environmental footprint, prevent pollution, conserve natural resources, and be a model of sustainability. These actions are what’s needed for brewery sustainability.

These actions are needed as the brewing process is energy-intensive, uses large amounts of water, and generates high volumes of wastewater and organic waste. For instance, a single pint of beer can have a carbon footprint as high as 900g CO2e (for bottled beer that’s been extensively transported). This is ~14% of the daily average carbon footprint from meals per US citizen – having 2 to 3 pints ramps that percentage up to 42%.

Freshwater shortages, climate change, and the degradation of natural ecosystems are not just problems the brewery industry contributes to, but they are also issues that threaten business.

For this reason, we’re seeing a sustainable transition, with top chains such as the Carlsberg Group, Molson Coors, and The Heineken Company producing sustainability reports and outlining long-term green goals.

In this Green Business Bureau article, we want to support this green transition to more sustainable breweries. We want to help you create an eco friendly brewery, and so present you with 5 top tips on how to do just that. Within each tip, we give real-world examples of breweries doing better on the sustainability agenda.

The brewery sustainability challenge: The environmental impact of beer

The New Belgium Co brewery created a new type of ale, one produced by dandelion, hop extracts, and smoke-tainted water – instead of the traditional purified ingredients – to make their Torched Earth Ale. The ale was made to not taste too good to symbolize the future of beer. That is, under a climate-ravaged future depleting agricultural systems, the beer industry may be limited in what ingredients are available.

The challenges faced by brewery businesses are also the result of unsustainable practices in this industry. We’ve summarized the main environmental issues associated with breweries below:

  • Challenge 1: The brewing process uses an immense amount of freshwater.
  • Challenge 2: Beer products are often transported across large distances, which has a high carbon footprint.
  • Challenge 3: The brewing process relies on intensive agricultural practices, to grow barley grains and hops.
  • Challenge 4: The carbon footprint of the brewery industry is significant and needs to be reduced.
  • Challenge 5: The brewing process is wasteful. Closed-loop systems need to be introduced to address this waste.

Brewery sustainability guide

To overcome the five main brewery sustainability challenges, we’ve detailed 5 tips breweries can follow to create a more sustainable industry. These tips will not only protect the environment, minimize your carbon footprint and conserve water, they may also help your top and bottom line. Benefits of becoming a sustainable brewery include reducing waste, lowering production costs, elevating your brand, improving your reputation, attracting employee talent and new customers.

Sustainable brewing tip #1: Reduce the amount of water used during the brewing process

Beer making uses a significant amount of water. According to the University of Vermont, it takes 3-7 barrels of water to create just one barrel of beer. Beer is 95% water, yet this absorbed water is a fraction of the total used at every step in the brewing process. In the less efficient breweries, the water-to-beer ratio can be as high as 10:1. Water is used for cleaning, cooling, and packaging the beer. What we want to know is how can we minimize the water used during the production process?

To answer this question we look at the cleaning operations used in breweries. Cleaning during the brewing process is a thirsty affair, consuming 3 to 8 gallons of water per gallon of beer (~⅓ of a beer barrel). Hence, this is a good place to start to reduce water use. With this in mind, one company, named Small Beer, is making waves having saved more than 6.5 million liters of water to date. One pint of Small Beer uses 1.5 pints of water (1/10th of the average). Such tremendous cuts are made possible by the brand’s revolutionary approach to cleaning.

Small Beer introduced its new dry floor policy to cut water consumption. In the traditional brewing environment, waste products are drained from the brewery floor using a hose to wash down facilities. Small Beer has revolutionized the beer production process by introducing a new policy that refrains from spillage. Hence, there’s no need to guzzle water to clean down brewery floors. This has saved the brewery thousands of liters of water and offers a safe and more hygienic environment.

Other companies are using recycled water to feed the production process. For example, the Village Brewery in Calgary creates beer using municipal wastewater. The treated municipal wastewater runs through an advanced purification system, and the water is checked to ensure it hits drinking standards.

These two examples show how water can be reduced in the brewing process. Consider implementing a dry-floor policy or using recycled water to reduce demand.

Sustainable brewing tip #2: Boost the efficiency of product transportation

The environmental cost of product transportation is significant in the brewing industry. Many types of alcohol are made in one or a few places, which demands long-distance transport to reach the customer. Although we couldn’t find an exact figure for the brewing industry, the wider food and beverage market is estimated to contribute ~30% of emission-driven climate change worldwide. And alcohol is stated to make up ~16% of the U.S. beverage industry by volume.

Within the brewery industry itself, the global transportation or products accounts for ~20% of a pint’s carbon footprint.

One company working to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from logistics is BrewVo. BrewVo creates a highly concentrated beer that’s 1/6th of the weight and volume of traditional beer. BrewVo has invented additional steps in the brewing process to give a dehydrated product. That is, the water is separated from the alcohol. Everything else remains the same, the flavor, the hops, and the grain. This means the product can be shipped in bags instead of cans, bottles, or kegs. At its destination, the product is mixed at a ratio of one part bulk beer to six parts water, and then carbonated to give a beer that we all can recognize.

Moving a lighter and more compact product reduces the carbon footprint from transport. With an open mind to progression and acceptance of positive change, BrewVo may have devised a new way to produce beer that will slash the GHG emissions of this industry.

Sustainable brewing tip #3: Move away from unsustainable agriculture

As you may know, the beer-making process uses both hops and grains. Hops are flowers or cones – from a plant called Humulus lupulus – that keep beer fresh and give it the recognizable hoppy flavor. Barley is the foundation grain used to make the beer. Brewing barley releases grain sugars, which are then fermented by the added yeast.

Barley and Humulus lupulus are two water-intensive plant species, meaning agriculture associated with beer production demands a lot from our planet. For instance, growing one pound of hop gauges 300-450 gallons of water (depending on the local conditions).To tackle this issue, a 2018 research study looked at developing a production process that removed the need for Humulus lupulus (e.g. hops).

In this study, scientists recognized that the compound responsible for the “hop effect” is terpene. Using genetic modification, scientists were able to develop a strain of yeast that can produce terpene themselves, removing the need for hop cultivation altogether. In a blind study, the resulting beer was said to taste even hoppier than traditional beers. Today, this genetically engineered yeast is distributed to hundreds of breweries, providing a more sustainable and cost-effective alternative.

Yet, cultivating barley and Humulus lupulus is not just a water-intensive process, there are other environmental effects to consider, just as there are with any agricultural procedure. If you’re serious about sustainability, then your brewery must work with farmers (preferably local ones) to help them develop more sustainable agricultural practices. If suppliers aren’t willing to meet your sustainability standards, then it’s time to switch. One important switch is to move away from intensive farming practices to organic produce (products made without toxic pesticides and herbicides).

Sustainable brewing tip #4: Reduce your carbon footprint

You might remember the Budweiser Wind Never Felt Better commercial. This was a major step for the Budweiser business. The organization pledged to make all of their products going forward in wind-powered breweries. Part of Budweiser’s goal is to utilize only renewable energy by 2025.

The production of beer demands an immense amount of energy. According to a recent study by the Brewer’s Association, it takes 50-60 Kwh of energy to produce a single bear barrel. Hence to be sustainable, breweries need to address their significant carbon footprint.

Anheuser-Busch InBev also announced they’d be transitioning to 100% renewable energy, with the aim of cutting their carbon footprint by 30% (which is equivalent to removing ~500,000 cars from roadways).

Other breweries are complementing cuts in their fossil fuel demand by choosing to offset emissions through carbon offset programs. For instance, BrewDogs, a craft brewery and pub chain based in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, is planting millions of native trees in the Scottish Highlands (specifically in the Cairngorm National Park).

Woodland creation of this scale is at the forefront of the fight to sequester atmospheric carbon in the U.K. and the BrewDog Forest will be one of the largest native woodlands created in the U.K. for many years” – Scottish Woodlands’ director David Robertson, BrewDog Is Officially The First Carbon Negative Beer Business

As such, BrewDog has been carbon neutral since 2020, removing double of their total corporate emissions.

Reducing emissions from operations and investing in carbon offset programs, are two key steps to becoming a more sustainable brewery.

For help measuring, reporting and calculating your carbon footprint read: How To Calculate Your Carbon Footprint. You can also access our complementary carbon footprint calculator software here.

Sustainable brewing tip #5: Close the loop by using a circular business model

A circular economy business model keeps products and materials in use for as long as possible, to extract maximum value from them. Adopting this mindset during beer production will create more sustainable organizations. And we see brewery chains across the globe doing just that.

For instance, one big contributor of waste in breweries is leftover barley grains. Many companies donate these grains to local farmers to feed livestock, such as the Anderson Valley Brewing Company and Ninkasi Brewery which has upcycled 40 million pounds of grain since 2009. Yet, for some businesses, recycling spent grains doesn’t stop at the farms.

At Mountain Tap Brewery they’ve found a way to benefit the entire community with their circular business model, as owner and brewmaster Richard Tucciarone explains:

Like many brewers, we provide our spent grain to local ranchers who feed their pigs with it. This keeps the grain out of the landfill and gives it a second life as feed. A few times a year the pork is then purchased to serve to guests. 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.” – Richard Tucciarone, owner of Mountain Tap Brewery

There are countless opportunities breweries can seize to adopt a circular business model. To exemplify, let’s take a look at another brewery, the Alaskan Brewing Company. This business found that within their area of operation, there were limited carbon dioxide suppliers to meet their needs. Plus, disposing spent grains was also an issue, with limited options.

First, the business implemented a C02 reclamation system, meaning they could capture C02 from the brewing process, to then use that C02 to bottle the beer.

Secondly, the business introduced a Beer Powered System whereby brewers burn spent grains, using one batch of grains as fuel to heat and burn the next batch of spent grain. Together, these innovations have drastically reduced the organization’s carbon footprint, and have removed spent grains from the system with a closed-loop model.

This latter example not only shows how effective a circular-economy is, but it also shows what can be achieved with innovative minds.

Join forces with the Green Business Bureau

If you’re a brewery owner, executive or operator, consider joining a green business association for guidance and recognition.

Here at Green Business Bureau, we offer our member all the online tools and content they need to understand, prioritize, implement and certify green initiatives and sustainable business practices. As a trusted 3rd party, we provide businesses with an official seal to validate and promote their green commitment and accomplishments. Here are some of the top reasons small businesses join.

Track your sustainability progress using the Green Business Bureau scorecard

Whatever green initiative you’ve introduced, you need a way of measuring and tracking your progress. You need initiatives that work to reduce water consumption, boost the efficiency of product transportation, use sustainable agricultural practices, reduce your carbon footprint and adopt a circular business model. Hence, any sustainability program requires a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach.

With so many players, you need an effective management system in place, which is where the Green Business Bureau EcoScorecard can help.

The Green Business Bureau offers a sustainability scorecard to help our users track progress. Users can progressively institute green initiatives, to expand their sustainability agenda throughout an organization. These green initiatives are found in the Green Business Bureau’s EcoAssessment and EcoPlanner.

Promote your brewery sustainability with green business certification

Once you’ve become a sustainable brewery, consider becoming a certified green business to promote your accomplishments without greenwashing. A 3rd party like Green Business Bureau can verify your results. A GBB member can then share their certification level and score using the Green Business Bureau’s green seal. GBB also hosts each member’s EcoProfile for a public way to communicate your sustainability mission, commitments and accomplishments.

Join Green Business Bureau for guidance and recognition

Click here to learn more about the Green Business Bureau Certification if you’re already a green and sustainable business. Use our online certification as a guide, plus it’s easy to complete.

Sign up for the Green Business Bureau here if you’re ready to start your green journey. Our EcoPlanner, EcoLibrary, guides, tips and member success team can help you create a better, greener business.

Cheers! 🍻

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