Brewing great beer, clean and green

 By Jim McClelland

Jim McClelland looks at the cutting-edge innovation being employed by breweries, comparing the approaches of three well-known leading beer producers: Adnams who have long produced the UK’s first carbon neutral beer (in bottle and on draught); Heineken, owners of the world’s first carbon-neutral brewery, opened this year in Göss, Austria; Sierra Nevada, the US pioneers of sustainable craft ales…

What color do you like your beer? Rather than plain brown, do you prefer it blonde or amber, chestnut or ruby, perhaps even black? But, what about green… ?

The world loves beer. With the oldest recorded recipe dating back some 3,900 years, beer is said to be the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage on the planet. A total of 1.93 billion hectoliters gets drunk a year — more than 45 imperial pints for every man, woman and child alive. At such volumes and with beer production a highly resource-intensive process, cutting-edge innovation is being employed by advanced breweries worldwide to minimize environmental impacts and reputational risk, while maximizing efficiency and resilience.

One of the most well-known US champions of a clean and green approach to the business of brewing is Sierra Nevada, pioneers of sustainable craft ales. The company not only applies what it calls a ‘hardscrabble ethos’ of frugal resource use to water and waste, but also energy. Its Chico brewery, located in California, houses one of the largest privately-owned solar arrays in the country. The 10,751 panels cover enough roofspace to span 3.5 football fields and supply 20 percent of brewery electricity, equivalent to powering 265 average American households for a year. At Mills River, North Carolina, Sierra Nevada employs a further 2,200 panels including freestanding ‘solar trees’ in the parking lot. Additionally, Capstone microturbine technology converts methane biogas from onsite wastewater treatment plant into electricity.

Over in Europe, the summer of 2016 saw global beer brand Heineken officially become owner of the world’s first carbon-neutral brewery, at its 150-year old site in Göss, Austria. The energy supply there is now 100 percent renewable. The technology mix combines electricity from hydropower, biomass district heating and solar PV, but the clincher for carbon neutral status is the biogas provided by a newly built spent-grain fermentation plant.

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Overall, reuse and recovery are key to the set-up at Göss, with almost 40 percent of the brewery’s heat requirements met from waste heat discharged from the neighboring sawmill. In turn, 90 percent of the waste heat generated by the brewing process itself is then used to heat water. Taken together with improvements in efficiency, the various solutions enable carbon-neutral production of 1.4 million bottles of the popular Gösser lager every day.

Across in the UK, Adnams brewery has long produced the country’s first carbon neutral beer, both in bottle and on draught. However, eco practices and company priorities have changed since it originally looked at accreditation for just one of its products back in 2007. Through lifecycle assessment, Adnams had previously wanted to understand the carbon footprint of a bottle of beer to try to reduce it, then offset any remainder. The work done since on carbon footprinting is much more concerned with supply-chain impacts.

With investment in innovation including the UK’s first gas-to-grid anaerobic digestion plant, and offsetting no longer considered the right route for carbon management, the sustainable agenda now sees Adnams pursuing a deeper, more integrated approach to clean energy and emissions reduction, tackling complexities of embodied carbon head-on. Calculating impacts is not easy, though, admits Environmental Sustainability Manager at Adnams, Ben Orchard: “Understanding each product’s full lifecycle environmental impact is a complicated and intricate piece of work: it’s not as simple as just measuring energy usage; everything was considered, from pesticide, through to glass manufacture and label production.”

The greening of beer might be a challenge, but cutting the impact of 340 billion pints consumed per year worldwide is one responsible drinking game where everybody wins. Cheers!

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about the author
Jim McClelland
Editor + journalist for supplements to The Times + Sunday Times, also quoted in Guardian, Sunday Telegraph. I blog for such as GE + Gap. Active on social media. Specialisms include Sustainability.