Grim, increasingly urgent news of climate change seems all but inescapable these days. Last October, a report released by the United Nations predicted that we could start facing food shortages, wildfires, mass-bleaching of coral reefs, and other catastrophic consequences as early as 2040 if we continue on our current trajectory. Since then, Sir David Attenborough has warned of the possible impending collapse of human civilization and we’ve learned that more than 1 million species are teetering on the brink of extinction. Headlines like “Time to Panic” have become the new normal and last weekend, Bill Nye, our childhood PBS Science Guy, briefly returned to television and blowtorched a globe to hammer home the point that “The planet is on fucking fire.”
That less-than-subtle messaging seems to have finally resulted in more people giving a shit. All this has forced consumers in a variety of industries to start thinking more about the impact their choices have on a steadily warming planet. That means reevaluating everything from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to, yes, the beer we drink. While the alcohol industry is by no means the worst offender when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, it’s hardly insignificant. What you decide to order at the bar may not save the planet, but all those daily micro-choices add up.
So where does beer stand in all of this? The good news is that it uses significantly less energy per ounce to produce than distilled spirits and since cans are more efficient to ship than wine bottles, it’s arguably one of the most eco-friendly forms of booze out there. The not-so-great news is that, like many industries, there isn’t a lot of oversight right now in terms of carbon emissions.
If you look at our industry, there are a lot of amateur operators, who are essentially homebrewers turned professionals who may not realize how much emissions they are creating.”
“In terms of enforcement, there’s nobody here saying you have to cap carbon emissions, but there are fines in terms of issues like wastewater,” says Alex Postelnek, the president of Brewpro Consulting, who advises brewers on how to make their practices more sustainable.
Unfortunately, additional oversight isn’t likely to come to the United States under the current Environmental Protection Agency. President Donald Trump announced his intention to drop out of the Paris Climate Accord on June 1, 2017 and the ambitious proposals of the Green New Deal were halted in March. Without financial incentives to reduce emissions, most U.S. microbreweries are unlikely to make drastic changes to improve efficiency any time soon.
“Craft brewers don’t have a lot of financial resources to invest in these kinds of things,” Postelnek says. “The capital required to mitigate CO2 pollution from these small breweries would probably cost more than their whole brewing system.”
While hundreds of thousands of dollars of new equipment may be well beyond the budgets of most brewers, Postelnek says there are more affordable measures that can limit carbon emissions during the brewing process. At his consulting firm, he developed what he calls the Paris Method, a series of small modifications to the brewing process, like using pump pressure in lieu of carbon-dioxide to move beer from the fermenter to the bright tank.
“By refining the way you operate your brewery, you can refine your processes so you’re not wasting so much CO2,” Postelnek says. “If you look at our industry, there are a lot of amateur operators, who are essentially homebrewers turned professionals who may not realize how much emissions they are creating.”
Consumers are getting smarter about the products they choose to buy and want to vote with their dollars. I think that we have a lot of folks who buy our beer because of what we do on the environmental side.”
Postelnek is part of a small, but significant movement of brewers taking matters into their own hands rather than waiting for lawmakers to catch up. For instance, last April, Four Saints Brewing Company launched Founding Fathers Hemp Ale, a carbon-neutral beer made possible by funding renewable energy sources. Although it was a one-off project, others around the globe have been taking similar initiatives, from Darling Brew, which released a carbon-neutral beer in South Africa, to Everyman’s Right Brewery, a startup in Finland that hopes to become a fully carbon-neutral brewery.
“Making beer is an energy-intensive process and we want to be as responsible as we can. It really goes back to us establishing environmental stewardship as a core value and belief of the company,” says Sarah Frasier, the sustainability specialist at New Belgium Brewing Company, which has facilities in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Asheville, North Carolina. The brewery has undertaken ecological initiatives ranging from installing rooftop solar panels to offering employees free bicycles. All of the buildings at its Asheville location are LEED-certified and the brewery in Fort Collins has its own water treatment plant.
“We were the first brewery that actually commissioned a lifecycle analysis for a beer,” Frasier says. This detailed breakdown of the carbon emissions generated by a Fat Tire Amber Ale helped the brewery identify which parts of the production process they could most effectively target. “It was eye-opening for us because we realized that the production of glass and the cultivation of barley are major contributors. What goes on within the confines of the four walls of the brewery is actually a smaller factor.”
To tackle the factors outside of those four walls, New Belgium founded the Glass Recycling Coalition, to improve bottle recycling around the country. It has also pledged to reduce brewery emissions by 40 percent by 2050.
Partly due to the fact that they have larger wads of cash to play with, macrobreweries have been taking serious strides as well. In 2015, The Heineken Company announced that 100 percent of the energy used at their Göss Brewery came from renewable sources. In 2017, the Carlsberg Group issued a detailed sustainability report, declared their green energy-powered facility in Falkenberg, Sweden to be carbon neutral, and set ambitious emissions-reduction targets for the coming decades.
The same year, AB InBev signed a contract with Enel Green Power, which would provide hundreds of millions of dollars worth of power from a wind farm in Oklahoma over the next 15 years. Earlier this year, the company promoted the initiative with a Super Bowl commercial featuring the Budweiser Clydesdales set against a backdrop of windmills. Flashy marketing certainly isn’t going to fix the problem, but by pouring investment into renewable energy companies, breweries can help bolster these growing firms much in the way that government subsidies could.
“Most small brewers think that they’re so small that the amount they produce is negligible in the overall scheme of things, but you have to multiply that by the thousands of breweries we have in North America,” Postelnek says. “I think if everybody did a little bit, it would make a difference.”
So what difference can you, as a beer-drinker, make? Stick to aluminum cans rather than glass bottles wherever possible and recycle them. Support your neighborhood brewery and drink local so your beer doesn’t have to travel too far. And if an issue is important to you, speak up or direct your purchasing power toward companies making good choices—they’ll start to listen.
“Consumers are getting smarter about the products they choose to buy and want to vote with their dollars. I think that we have a lot of folks who buy our beer because of what we do on the environmental side,” says Mike Craft, New Belgium’s ambassador. “It really comes down to being a business and a force for good.”