At first glance, Michigan’s Brewery Vivant appears to nod to tradition. The Grand Rapids taproom is situated in an old funeral chapel, which dates to the early 1900s. Stepping inside the dimly lit room feels a little like setting foot in a European abbey. Wooden booths and benches provide comfortable yet rustic seating. Above the bar, a stained glass window glistens. The beer menu is scattered with choices which pay homage to the Belgian styles. The label of the brewery’s flagship ale, Farm Hand, seems a quaint throwback to simpler times.
The brewery itself, immeasurably more contemporary, is immediately adjacent to the taproom, situated in an airy former car showroom, with plenty of natural light. It's an inventive and imaginative use of space, every part as perfect a setup as those of the breweries that take up multiple buildings on industrial estates. And yet, Vivant occupies space in the heart of a residential area on the edge of downtown.
This position in the middle of a busy neighborhood is not just a happy coincidence—it's a critical aspect of Vivant's dedication to sustainability.
“We wanted to start from the local community,” brewery director Brooks Twist tells me.
He shares that more than half of the Vivant team lives within five miles of the brewery, making it easy for them to take public transport, bike, or walk to work, cutting down on their own CO2 emissions. Plus, the Vivant team clocked up 447 volunteer hours between them in 2018, many of which were used to help out on local farms.
Local-focused sustainability doesn't always come easily, nor without significant financial and logistical costs. As one example, Vivant helped a small local label manufacturer to grow its business and capabilities in order to be able to use it as the brewery’s primary label supplier, creating five new jobs in the process. Brooks makes clear that “buying local” is not as simple as just looking around and seeing if there's a ready-made candidate in the immediate vicinity. In order to buy local, you have to be prepared to nurture and cultivate opportunities, too. In this regard, Vivant’s commitment to actively helping to sustain their local area forms the basis for their business practices and decision making.
Buying and selling locally can play a substantial role in creating a greener world. According to a 2017 overview published by the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for the largest portion of greenhouse gas emissions by sector. This means that breweries that focus primarily on supplying local bottle shops and bars, and that source supplies from as few miles away as possible, are already doing something right.
Vivant also relies on solar panels for some of its energy. I'm initially surprised; the city of Grand Rapids is not exactly known for being blessed with many rays of sunshine. Brooks says that this is not a money-saving tactic at this time; the electricity produced by the panels amounts to 11.5% of the brewery’s overall electricity use, but it’s nevertheless a boon to its sustainable mission.
In addition to that, the brewery now employs a carbon reclamation system developed by a local startup called CASEQTech. Vivant captures the CO2 naturally produced during fermentation, purifies it, compresses it, and recycles it for use in carbonating beers. Processes such as these are already in play in many macro-breweries but haven't been accessible to most craft operations until recently.
The compression and purification of CO2 is an expensive process, but CASEQTech founder Stanley Samuel says that the system, which the company leases to breweries on a five-year contract, can offer breweries up to a 30 percent reduction in C02 costs.
Stanley is currently talking to breweries across the Midwest, and is keen to work with between five and ten more breweries producing between 10,000 and 150,000 barrels per year. And while it is easier for this system to slot into breweries which already have a relatively high level of automation, Stanley and his team are constantly working on ways to make the system friendlier for the brewers themselves, in particular where there is a manual element.
“Our focus from the beginning has been to have the system disappear into the background,” he explains.
I was keen to find out the industry standard for CO2 emissions. “Ah, if only there was one!” Vivant co-Owner Kris Spaulding tells me, adding that Vivant is one of only two breweries that she knows of that are actively measuring their carbon emissions.
A 2018 article from the journal Sustainability estimated that the alcoholic beverage industry is responsible for 0.7 percent of the total global GHG emissions, but most companies within the industry would struggle to provide an accurate estimate of their own carbon footprint. Vivant put its Farm Hand ale CO2 emissions at 418.97g CO2 per 16-ounce can. An insightful report published on Vivant’s website details the factors that contribute to this calculation. It highlights the fact that the carbon footprint of the beer is cut by approximately 20 percent by serving it on draft in the taproom rather than in cans, since factors such as aluminium production, transportation, and warehouse refrigeration are eliminated. For this reason, environmentally conscious drinkers may want to consider supporting their local taprooms more often than drinking beer at home.
Colorado-based New Belgium is another brewery that has measured the carbon footprint of its beer in detail. It found that the carbon footprint of a single six-pack of Fat Tire Amber Ale is 3,188.8g—slightly higher than Farm Hand per bottle—which is 53 times the amount that a single adult tree might be expected to absorb per day.
While most breweries are not currently estimating and reporting on the carbon footprint of their total operations, this limited data from Vivant and New Belgium suggests that the industry has immediate options to help to fight climate change. Sustainability starts with mindfulness and careful consideration of how every single step of the process of making beer might be affecting the environment in a negative way. In this regard, Vivant and New Belgium could both serve as inspirational starting points to breweries looking to begin measuring their carbon emissions or implementing more sustainable practices.
With companies such as CASEQTech making carbon reclamation profitable as well as responsible, making climate-friendly brewery improvements seems like a no brainer. Considering these benefits, it may seem surprising that there are not already more breweries taking these same steps. But for small businesses who are already spread thin, making any kind of change to their processes can heighten logistical demands. Just starting and running a brewery can be demanding enough.
Looking to breweries that are already measuring carbon emissions, however, is the first step in creating a more sustainable industry. As Vivant’s Spaulding tells me, “Basically, the fact that we do is the remarkable part.”