Celebrating Sustainable Suds on National American Beer Day

hops and grain
hops and grain

Some of the most successful breweries in the hugely competitive beer industry have pursued extremely aggressive programs for environmental conservation – and they’ve proven that it pays to be green.

The Hops & Grain brewery in Austin, Texas, uses wind power, ships its product in recyclable aluminum cans, and turns its spent grain into dog biscuits. The brewery also donates one percent of its annual revenue to local environmental nonprofit organizations. (photo: Hops & Grain)

You may not have realized it, but today, in cities across the country, people are celebrating National American Beer Day. I like beer, and I’ve also dabbled in homebrewing as a hobby for several years. But as a sustainability professional, I find the brewing industry to be particularly fascinating.

As it has rapidly grown, the brewing industry has become one of the toughest, most crowded and competitive markets in the U.S. and many other parts of the world. At the same time, some of the most successful breweries have also pursued extremely aggressive programs for environmental conservation – and they’ve proven that it pays to be green.

By now, most beer drinkers are familiar with the reputation carried by New Belgium Brewery as one of the most sustainable breweries in America. In its operations, the company measures its performance in water use, waste diversion, and emissions. The brewery admits that seemingly high diversion rates of 97 to 98 percent are easy due to the value of spent grain, but in spite of meeting its own internal recycling goals it has also gone the extra mile to consider how to reduce overall waste regardless of whether it’s trashed or recycled. When it was time to expand their distribution footprint, the brewery specifically sought out a brownfield site in a walkable location, ending up in Asheville, North Carolina, to reduce transportation costs and emissions associated with east coast distribution. The company also supports bike commuting by hosting annual ‘Tour de Fat’ celebrations in communities throughout the country in recognition of “humankind’s greatest invention.”

Another microbrewery leading in the industry’s sustainability initiatives is Schlafly Brewing Company. The company recently began labeling all of its packaging to indicate that it attained 100 percent renewable energy in operations through an on-site 23 kW solar array as well as purchased offsets. The effort was so significant that it helped the Maplewood, Missouri, community earn designation as an EPA Green Power Community. Additionally, the brewery maintains a half-acre garden to grow more than four tons of produce for local restaurants.

Brooklyn Brewery was the first company in New York City to use 100 percent wind-generated electricity. They recycle all of their paper, plastic and bottles, and they send spent grain to local farms where it’s used to feed animals. Full Sail Brewing also sends surplus grains to local farms rather than tossing them in the trash, and it managed to reduce its water consumption to 2.5 gallons for every gallon of beer produced (most breweries consume six to eight gallons to produce the same amount of beer). Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was the first LEED-certified microbrewery in the U.S, and Colorado Springs’ Trinity Brewing (which stores its brews in upcycled wine barrels) is housed in a 100 percent recycled building.

Raising the bar even further is brewing giant Heineken, which claims to have recently opened the world’s first large scale carbon-neutral brewery in Austria. A variety of energy sources, including solar, hydro, biogas and biomass, provide power to the facility. Its location also allows all of the hops and barley to be sourced from within a 100 km (60 mile) radius, and the water for the beer itself is brought in from independent wells that are separate from the larger water grid. The project is part of the company’s larger efforts to reduce emissions 40 percent by 2020.

Beer brewing will always be a resource-intensive industry, but many of its leading brands are clearly taking sustainability and stewardship seriously. We can only hope this will provide an example to cities and businesses everywhere that you can do well while doing good.

And by the way, if there’s one thing I know about the craft brewing fans out there, it’s that this article probably snubbed your own favorite sustainable brewery – so let me know who else I’ve missed, and what they’re doing, in the comments! Cheers.

About the author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Director, Sustainability & Solutions