Water reclamation, anaerobic digesters, and glowing green algae aquariums: not things you usually think about when cracking open a can of dry-hopped Belgian wheat. But maybe you should. Whiner Beer Company certainly did when they were making that beer, dubbed Miaou, in the South Side Chicago brewery.
Whiner is special for a lot of reasons. It’s special because it is the cumulative dream of longtime beer lovers Ria Neri and Brian Taylor. It’s special because it makes damn delicious barrel-aged and wild fermented French and Belgian-inspired beers.
It’s special because it was the missing piece of The Plant, a former meatpacking facility-turned closed-loop edible ecosystem of sorts in which various agricultural and culinary businesses fuel each other. The net-zero facility, founded in 2012, is on its way to being completely self-sufficient, running on the waste of one of the food and beverage industry’s biggest wasters: Breweries.
An anaerobic digester will soon power The Plant – a 93,500-square-foot facility that houses an aquaponic farm, bakery, kombucha maker, and coffee roaster – and all of the business inside. Biodegradable materials are fed to the digester, where they are broken down and processed into natural gas. The amount of waste needed to power this process is immense, more than all of these businesses in The Plant combined.
That’s where the brewery comes in. It’s the biggest waste producer, with 8,000-pounds of wet malt leftover after an average 30-barrel brew day.
Initially, Ale Syndicate was supposed to be that brewery. However, in 2013, the since-shuttered brewery opted for a location in Logan Square’s Green Exchange building and Whiner was granted the brewery space in the ground floor of The Plant.
Neri and Taylor had been the hunt for a location since 2011 and the city was proving to be a difficult home for their dream. “It was so expensive in the city,” Taylor says. “One of our reasons for looking elsewhere was just the dollars per square foot is just unreal. Knowing what we wanted to do, we weren’t into the brewpub scene, on-premise stuff. We were really looking to be a packaging brewery that can expand and get our beer on the shelves of liquor of grocery stores.”
Taylor and Neri also knew they wanted Whiner to focus on alternative fermentation. The sustainability component came as a welcomed addition when they moved into The Plant. Taylor had nearly a decade of sustainable brewing practices under his belt from time spent at Goose Island.
There, he worked with Ian Hughes, who pioneered The Green Goose Project, an initiative dedicated to minimizing the brewery’s environmental footprint. At first, the idea of recycling bottles, repurposing water, and capturing spent yeast to be sent to a lab in Minnesota where it could be converted into fuel was nothing more than an extra step in Taylor’s already busy days at Goose. But, eventually, he warmed up to the cause, realizing that the initial time and money invested in sustainability would reap both environmental and financial rewards.
We inherit this habit of treating this waste as something that’s not waste, that’s valuable, and you have people around you helping figure out how to use it.”
“The whole idea was appealing to us,” Taylor says about the opportunity to open his own sustainable brewery. “Brewing is very wasteful. There are all kinds of water that goes into it, spent yeast and spent grains. So, the sustainability part was super cool. Moving forward, I think it’s going to be way more important than it is right now. Now, it’s this cool little niche that we can tell people about, but I really think, in ten years, it’s going to be ugly for people, when water becomes expensive and dumping waste becomes really expensive.”
Until the digester is installed, Whiner takes smaller steps to be a zero-waste brewery. Their beers are packed in cans instead of bottles, because cans are easier to recycle. Spent yeast and grains are used to make bread and other baked goods at Pleasant House Bakery. The remaining grains are composted into soil for the urban farm. Water from brewing is reused for cleaning. Even steam from the kettle stack is capture and used to heat a greenhouse above the brewery. CO2 emissions from the brewing process are fed to algae and converted back to oxygen. They also use waste products from other businesses in The Plant, like ARIZE Kombucha. Whiner included their used bacterial culture, also known as a scoby or mother, to brew a kombucha beer.
“What’s great about being in a building like this is, day one, we inherit this habit of treating this waste as something that’s not waste, that’s valuable, and you have people around you helping figure out how to use it,” Neri says.
Those people include members of Plant Chicago, a non-profit that exists within The Plant and helps promote its circular economy. Together, they help maximize Whiner and other business’ energy and waste efficiency, from little things like minimizing the power needed to keep beer cold, to unheard of endeavors along the lines of experimenting with a combustible fuel source made from spent grains that can be used in wood-fired ovens.
Every Saturday, the fruits of all this labor can be enjoyed in Whiner’s taproom, where a weekly farmers market brings together all of The Plant’s producers. Here, under the green glow from the algae tanks that hang in the windows, visitors peruse produce grown on the farm outside, sample breads baked with spent grains and, of course, sip on glasses of freshly tapped Et La Tete apple kolsch.
There’s an undeniable sense of community, not only because everything, from carrots to kombucha, was produced under and around the same roof, but also because they were produced responsibly. Doesn’t beer taste a little better when it’s not slowly killing the planet?