Working in an industry that has a lot of raw materials, uses a lot of natural resources, and regularly relies on recyclable materials, brewers have been a group to embrace sustainability practices and regularly find new ways to incorporate conservation into all aspects of daily business.
There are large craft breweries that have led by example, as has Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. at their breweries in both California and North Carolina. With things such as renewable energy–sourced brewing and an industrial-sized composter, the brewery in Mills River, North Carolina, was certified Platinum by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)—the first production brewery in the country to receive that designation.
“We’ve tried to be good stewards of the environment since our earliest days as brewers, and building a second brewery gave us the chance to start with sustainability in mind,” Sierra Nevada Brewing Founder Ken Grossman said at the time. “Every day, we look at all that we do, and we try to find something to improve—no matter how small. Little by little, the things add up to something that we can be very proud of.”
The beer industry has been built on small ideas, and for the smallest of breweries in the country, sometimes the idea of starting a sustainability program can seem big and daunting. In reality, there are simple steps to take that can help a brewery do right by the world, impress customers, and save some dollars in the process.
Anyone who has ever had a look at a brewery’s books will know that the facility uses a lot of both water and electricity. Water, a necessary ingredient in beer, is also important in the cleaning process. Electricity powers everything from the brewhouse to the taproom and all things in between. In some places, it doesn’t make sense to skimp, but with a few smart small adjustments, you’ll be able to save coin and resources.
“I think it’s important to look at whatever gaps might exist and try to fill them in,” says Rachel Beck, the sustainability coordinator at SingleSpeed Brewing (Waterloo, Iowa). “Most people have a good idea of what can be done. It just needs to be implemented.”
“The fewer resources you use, the less money you’re going to spend. One easy way is to look at how the brewery is using water and consider processes that can save you,” Beck says. “A lot of water usage goes unnoticed, but if you can find a way to save even twenty gallons a day, you’re going to save money. It adds up quickly.” This can mean using low-flow faucets in strategic brewhouse locations or automated faucets in the restrooms.
SingleSpeed uses a Clean-In-Place (CIP) system in the brewery that reduces the amount of hot water that is needed during the cleaning process. It also has standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place that essentially regulate the amount of water to be used for each stage in the cleaning process. Some phases of the CIP process can repurpose rinse or sanitizer water in the cellar.
The brewery has also installed water submeters for data-tracking purposes. Also on the water front, a number of breweries across the country are experimenting with capturing rain water and turning it into beer or using it in other areas of the brewery.
Another way SingleSpeed, which has made sustainability initiatives a core part of its growing business, saves is by equipping almost all the motors in the facility with variable frequency drives (VFDs). (Briefly, VFDs are capable of varying the output speed of a motor, thus consuming only the power that’s needed when it’s needed.) SingleSpeed Founder Dave Morgan says they’ve equipped with VFDs the glycol pumps, the grain-handling equipment, and the portable pumps used to move the beer among different tanks in the brewhouse and cellar.
There is also, of course, the ability to install solar panels and batteries that help a brewery decrease its use of, or completely get off, the electric grid. Bio-diesel generators that run off of cooking grease and other materials that otherwise would go to a trash heap are becoming increasingly popular with breweries, especially those in remote areas that are prone to power outages due to weather or where there is an abundance of the resource that still smells faintly of french fries.
No matter the size of the brewery, there are steps it can take to reduce the cost of lighting the facility.
- Replace existing high-energy bulbs with efficient (and in many cases, brighter) LEDs.
- Install a skylight or two. Strategically placed skylights will let in natural light and on sunny days will keep the lights off while also supplying employees with some vitamin D. The same is true with installing windows (or more windows) in taproom spaces.
- Break down the lighting in your facility by space, illuminating only what you need when you need it. An additional step is installing motion sensors to control the lights, eliminating the chance that someone will forget to flip the switch off before leaving an area.
As craft brewers have fully embraced cans as the preferred packaging, they’ve also moved away from the flimsy plastic 6-pack rings in favor of can carriers (e.g., PakTech). Can carriers are recyclable, and most brewers encourage their customers to sort them accordingly with their household recyclables.
However, there are some regions where the recycling plants can’t handle the kind of plastic or are just unwilling to process it. In those cases, breweries have put out specific recycling bins built just for the can carriers. The breweries can’t reuse them, but collecting the used ones will ensure that they will find the right recycling center.
There are even some breweries that offer a few bucks off a pint or a free sample if a customer returns a certain number of holders.
The process of making beer is one that can heavily tax resources, and no matter how close you pay attention to gauges and flow meters, there’s no substitute for the right equipment to help you achieve all your goals. SingleSpeed’s Morgan explains what the brewery has done with its brewing system to help keep costs in check.
Brew kettle: A steam-jacketed kettle is used instead of a direct-fired system. Coupled with the high-efficiency boiler, this is a much more efficient way to reach a boil than direct fire.
Hot liquor tank: Hot water is maintained in this tank for use in the brewing process and is also used in cleaning/sanitation. The tank is heated by a steam-fired heat exchanger. In addition, the tank receives recycled heat from the wort-cooling process.
Cold liquor tank: Cold water is maintained in this tank for the wort-cooling process. This water picks up the heat from the wort and then is piped over to the hot liquor tank. Morgan notes the use of a cold liquor tank is not common for breweries of his size. Instead they often use municipal water.
Central control panel: A centralized control panel manages the temperature at all of the equipment, rather than each tank having individual controls. The system includes alerts to notify brewers when it is time to adjust temperatures or move beer out of the tanks.
Refrigerated storage cooler: The cooler was installed with above-standard insulation levels; its insulated walls are more typical of what a freezer would have. Also, a thermal break was placed in the ground before the cooler was installed.
And, of course, there are countless other steps that brewers can take, from heat and cooling and CO2 recapturing, that can help reuse resources that would otherwise be wasted. Finding the right equipment for your brewery might take some research or extra time on a brewery convention–expo floor, but the eventual savings, depending on your location, might be well worth the expense. Think of breweries such as Alaskan Brewing Company and Maui Brewing Co., which have installed heat recapturing and refrigeration recycling, respectively, to help them cope with the climate.
Grain Reuse and Composting
Most breweries are already working with local farms to supply feed for animals from spent grain. Others have gone a step further, working with farmers with aquaponic systems in which the grain is used to feed fish, which in turn fertilize hydroponically grown plants. The fish and vegetables are then served at local restaurants or brewpubs. Spent grain can also be profitable side businesses for breweries that use the product to make fresh bread and baked dog treats.
Breweries with regular food service can also do well by starting a commercial composting pile and then using the finished material for an on-site garden (hops or otherwise) or donating to a local community garden.
A Better Tomorrow
It doesn’t take much to get started on a better tomorrow with sustainability methods. Obviously, breweries that are under construction can plan ahead and install any and all methods that they want—and can afford—as build-out continues. But, even for existing breweries that have no plans for breaking ground on a new facility any time soon, there are steps that can be taken to retrofit existing equipment or make small changes that can have a big impact.
New sustainability ideas are constantly shared on brewers’ forums or even by employees and customers. All brewery owners have to do is listen and act.
“Overall I think most brewers are already doing an awesome job even if they aren’t thinking a lot about it,” SingleSpeed’s Beck says. “They are creative people and don’t want to be wasting money if they don’t have to.”
She adds, “The consumers have a lot of say. I know that on our social-media pages when we highlight our sustainability efforts, people get excited about it. That makes an impact and leads to new things and good connections.”