For the brewing industry, the tightening in the CO2 market isn’t a new or sudden thing. It’s been an issue for at least two years—one supply-chain problem among many—as suppliers in different parts of the country sometimes come up short.
However, the situation has more recently become “critical in several areas,” in the words of the Brewers Association. It cites a handful of coincident causes:
- maintenance shutdowns at several ammonia plants that are major CO2 suppliers
- contamination at Mississippi’s Jackson Dome, an important natural source of CO2
- shortages of truck drivers
- peak summer demand
Even if demand wanes as the weather cools, additional plant closings and maintenance will constrain CO2 supply in the next couple of months, according to the industry publication Gasworld. The Compressed Gas Association, meanwhile, says that it doesn’t expect any relief until October or later.
Because of the situation at Jackson Dome, many of the disruptions appear to be in the Southeast. However, breweries have reported issues with allocations and CO2 quality in various places around the country. “Worry varies by region, contract status, and use,” the BA says in an email response to the Brewing Industry Guide. “We suspect that we will continue to see tightness as several facilities around the country will cycle down for planned maintenance in the fall.”
In late July, Boston’s Night Shift Brewing made headlines when it blamed a lack of CO2 for the shutdown of its Everett brewery—affecting 12 employees—as it moved additional production to contract breweries. However, Night Shift’s ownership also cited the costs of keeping the brewery open because “production in Everett has remained more inefficient than our business can sustain.”
Meanwhile, across town at Dorchester Brewing, director of operations James Haugh says they’ve seen the CO2 shortage affecting the market and have taken steps to moderate its impact.
While prices are jumping for some breweries, Haugh says, Dorchester has a contract with its supplier that locks in price, for now—though allocations have been limited at times. “We’ve also been reaching out to other local breweries and gas suppliers to secure backup cylinders to maintain adequate levels for all of our day-to-day operations, especially in the taproom.” So far, however, they haven’t needed more bulk CO2 than what they get from their supplier.
“[Because of] the limited supply, we’ve also had to be creative with our ops scheduling,” Haugh says.
Notably, the brewery has been introducing nitrogen to their processes where they can, “to sip CO2 as slowly as possible to maintain supply.”
Nitrogen as a Viable Alternative
Dorchester is primarily focused on contract brewing; about 85 to 90 percent of its production is for its partner brewers, according to Holly Irgens, cofounder and marketing director. However, it’s not an especially large brewery, producing 7,800 barrels in 2021 and expecting a similar number this year. Even a smaller brewery can try working some nitrogen into their cellar processes to stretch out their CO2 supply and improve margins—and not just in the short term.
The CO2 shortage won’t last forever, but price is a big reason why Dorchester is looking at working in nitrogen as a longer-term investment. “Moving forward, this is where transitioning to nitrogen can be really helpful in maintaining margins on our production,” Haugh says, “because it has not spiked in price in the same way that CO2 has. Ultimately, we feel confident that we’re going to come out the other side of this shortage—whether that’s next month or next year—more efficient and cost-effective because of the way that this has made us think about our CO2 and gas usage.”
Haugh says there are several parts of their operations—moving beer, purging tanks, and canning and seaming—where they’ve been able to use nitrogen. “Some of the most impactful is for purging tanks and for blanketing gas during the canning and seamer processes,” he says. “So far, these have been the biggest delta for us, since those processes require such a high volume of CO2.”
The brewery has installed additional ports in their equipment to allow a quicker transition between gas types, but the infrastructure investments need not be large. “In a lot of cases, the swap to nitrogen in some of the processes mentioned are a 1:1 swap,” Haugh says. On the other hand, it does require greater investment in quality control, he says, “to measure your dissolved oxygen levels in your brite tank and the finished can.”
As with CO2, purity of nitrogen is a concern in the brewery. The goal is to eliminate oxygen to the extent possible, to avoid any risk of oxidation. “We’re currently sourcing pure liquid nitrogen to be absolutely certain that it’s not going to risk impacting the beer with oxygen pick-up,” Haugh says. “And that’s the kind of seemingly small consideration [that] breweries need to really keep a close eye on, but might not know to ask about, as they move to nitrogen for brewing ops.”
He says that’s why Dorchester is offering some free quality assurance to any area breweries who are making the switch to using nitrogen.
“One other thing that we’re looking into is sourcing and pricing an in-house nitrogen generator—again, with a focus on the purity of the nitrogen that it generates to limit oxygen pick-up,” Haugh says. “We’re looking at this as a potential investment moving forward, so that the only wholly CO2-dependent processes in the brewery would be carbonating beer and taproom-service operations.”
Nitrogen generators—they essentially purify the air, which already is about 78 percent nitrogen—can provide a ready source without relying on outside supply. Nitrogen also releases fewer greenhouse gases, reducing a brewery’s carbon footprint.
However, again, purity is key: Any such generator must produce nitrogen “that’s pure out to the second or third decimal—i.e., 99.99 percent pure—to limit oxygen pick-up and risk oxidation,” Haugh says.
Even in the taproom, Dorchester has considered increasing the nitrogen-CO2 ratio in its mixed beer gas. “We’re not talking about moving more carbonation to nitrogen so far—though we do always have a highly crowd-pleasing nitro beer in the taproom anyway!”
“One thing that we’re cognizant of, however, is that we want to be absolutely sure that any adjustment will not negatively impact the beer that we’re producing, packaging, or serving,” Haugh says. “While we’re trying to be economical and creative, there is a hard line that we absolutely won’t cross—so wherever we’re transitioning, mixing, etcetera, there’s a lot of research and planning that goes into making sure we’re doing it effectively.”
There are at least two BA resources that may be useful to breweries amid the shortage, one on using CO2 more efficiently, and another—because CO2 quality affects beer and because it is less reliable during a shortage—on ensuring CO2 supply quality.