On Aug. 7, New Belgium Brewing took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, announcing that its flagship Fat Tire Ale had become the first beer in America to be certified carbon neutral. That detail may have escaped many readers of the Friday edition of The Times who focused instead on the attention-grabbing headline: “$100 for a six-pack? Get used to it.”
Besides reporting its carbon-neutral credentials, which it did in small copy in the ad’s fourth paragraph, the Colorado brewery used the placement to highlight an impending crisis: A future in which beer will become dramatically more expensive, “as global agriculture is disrupted by climate change,” New Belgium wrote.
Though the brewery didn’t mention it explicitly, the entire beer industry has a part to play if we are to avoid that dystopian eventuality. Among the numerous environmental challenges of brewing are its high energy and water consumption, its waste and by-products, and its significant carbon emissions.
New Belgium invested large sums in renewable energy and carbon dioxide and heat recovery systems to achieve carbon-neutral certification for Fat Tire. The brewery also purchases carbon offsets to cancel out further emissions from producing, packaging, and distributing its beer. New Belgium is by no means alone in taking such steps. Sierra Nevada employs many similar systems at its North Carolina brewery, which became the first production brewery in the U.S. to be certified LEED Platinum in 2016.
These breweries offer a blueprint for a more sustainable future, but such investments are no doubt beyond the means of most of the 8,000-plus breweries operating in the U.S. There is some middle ground, however, and all breweries can play their part in tackling climate change, regardless of their size.
When contacted for this article, the Brewers Association, ingredient suppliers, brewers, and others suggested that sustainability is not just a goal but a journey. While becoming 100 percent carbon neutral is a major destination in this metaphor, it’s one at which many may never arrive. But all breweries can — and should — take steps on the path to getting there, they say, because nothing less than the future of beer is at stake.
Taking Stock and Taking Action
Before any brewer can begin a sustainability journey, it must analyze where it stands now. “The first step anyone can take is benchmarking — finding out what their deficiencies are, and how they can improve,” says Chuck Skypeck, technical brewing projects manager at the Brewers Association (BA).
There are several resources available to do so for the 5,400 U.S. brewery members of the trade group. The BA’s sustainability benchmarking tool helps members track and ultimately decrease their use of natural resources. The BA also takes submitted information and creates annual “Sustainability Benchmarking Reports.” These let members see where they stand against other breweries of similar size.
Once a brewery gauges its operations’ sustainability, the business can turn to multiple BA manuals for ideas on how to improve. The BA has individual manuals on water, energy, solid waste, and wastewater management. Each offers best practices and a range of low-cost, moderate-cost, and major-cost solutions. In other words, there’s actionable information all can make use of.
“Everyone’s at a different point on their journey,” Skypeck says. “It’s about continuing to move forward.”
Sustainability in the Local and Global Community
Beyond advice from industry trade groups, brewers can turn to examples set by fellow American businesses.
Anne Marisic, marketing and events manager at Maine Beer Co., offers a handful of low-cost, easy-to-implement sustainable initiatives. Maine Beer Co. has a dedicated staff sustainability team, called the “Blue Crew,” composed of employees from every department. The team’s responsibilities range from small tasks, like ensuring everything that can be recycled onsite is recycled, to building partnerships and starting recycling projects with local eco-friendly non-profits. Rather than just benefiting the brewery, these efforts positively impact the greater local community.
The brewery’s commitment to the community extends beyond local efforts. Since its founding in 2009, Maine Beer Co. has been a member of “One Percent for the Planet,” an international organization whose members contribute at least 1 percent of their gross annual sales to environmental causes. The impact of all of America’s breweries signing on to such a program would surely be substantial.
Maine Beer Co. also now generates 51 percent of its energy via solar energy panels installed at its Freeport, Maine, facility. While this may seem like a solution that’s far down the road for many businesses, Marisic says financial assistance is often out there for those who seek it.
“If you’re a small brewery, the idea of outfitting your place with solar is daunting,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take.” The brewery received a large grant for the project from the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). The program helps small businesses in rural areas (those with less than a population of 50,000) convert to renewable energy via grants and loans. Marisic says many breweries would likely be eligible for the program; the problem is most companies aren’t aware of it.
Using Sustainable Ingredients
Another relatively small financial contribution American brewers can make toward improving the environment is buying sustainable ingredients. The obvious solutions are organic hops and grains, as these ingredients are not grown using pesticides and inorganic fertilizers. But organic is not the only way to go.
Ron Silberstein, co-founder of California’s Admiral Maltings, describes organic farming as being “more gentle on the environment,” but points to no-till farming as a technique that is equal, if not better, for the environment.
Tilling, a practice that is similar to plowing, releases carbon stored in the organic matter within the soil. Once that carbon is released, it combines with oxygen to form harmful carbon dioxide, Silberstein explains. By not tilling or plowing soil, farmers retain (or sequester) its carbon content. The farming technique also allows grains to grow with around 10 percent less rainfall per year. In a state like California, where Admiral is based and sources all of its barley, this is a win-win scenario.
Admiral supplies around 300 breweries and 30 distilleries within California, and Silberstein stresses the importance of working only with local partners. “When you’re making a product for local consumption, the carbon footprint is going to be much less,” he says.
One final resource every brewery can use is its voice. More than ever, climate change has become a contentious political issue. But with more than 8,000 breweries around the country, the beer industry can use its strength in numbers to demand elected officials enact climate solutions.
Rather than setting limits on emissions, the proposal advocates for carbon fee and dividend legislation, which would tax fossil fuels at source. The model uses the same principles that have caused major declines in smoking because of the heavy taxes on tobacco. The funds raised would be distributed to individuals around the country in the form of annual checks, boosting the economy.
The proposed tax would gradually increase over the next 10 years, and in all likelihood, those costs would be passed along supply chains, says Randy Salim, BCL’s director of volunteer outreach. The impact on brewers would amount to a 22-cents-per-6-pack production cost increase, according to BCL’s financial models. But those marginal increases could then be passed on to consumers.
On the flip side, BCL’s research predicts that over the 10-year period, total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. would decrease 40 percent.
“What any individual company can do — what even an industry can do — it’s small relative to what a policy can do,” Salim says.
New Belgium is one of the many breweries that supports carbon pricing at the federal level. Beyond large-scale proposals, Katie Wallace, the brewery’s director of social and environmental impact, also urges breweries to work with their local governments. It’s an avenue New Belgium has already found success with, she says.
“We sit on the city of Fort Collins’ climate action committee, and work with them to make sure that we’re incentivizing renewable energy here,” she says. “We were able to play a big part in convincing our city council to vote in favor of 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.”
Wallace agrees with the overall narrative that sustainability is a journey, but says simply beginning that journey is not enough.
“We can’t just start this and make it a 40-, 50-year journey,” she says. “Everything is happening at a pace that is not going to be patient with us.”