Sustainable Brew Practices: How the Industry is Raising the Bar

Terms like local, sustainable and organic­– are not just buzz words to appeal to today’s eco-friendly consumer. These are all part of green initiatives by the food and beverage industry as a whole.

With the growing popularity of both the craft beer and sustainable movement, brewers across the nation are doing their part to raise the bar with more eco-friendly practices.

We sat down with Cheri Chastain, the sustainability manager at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and the co-chair of the sustainability committee of the Brewers Association to pick her brain about the latest eco-friendly brewing practices and how the industry is doing its best to lessen that carbon footprint on the environment. 

Foodable: What were some of the initial challenges for the breweries that started to adopt more sustainable practices? 

Chastain: Time, where to get started and funding are some of the biggest hurdles we hear of from breweries just getting started on their sustainability journey. The majority of craft brewers are focused on making great beer and getting it out the door while operating on shoestring budgets and limited staff, so sustainability often falls to the bottom of the list.  However, once a brewery realizes that if a little time is invested, utilities savings are pretty abundant which end up paying for the time invested pretty quickly.

Foodable: List three ways that breweries are incorporating more sustainable practices when brewing beer today.

Chastain: This is a doozie because there’s so much going on in the industry! I supposed I would have to list three bucket areas that are applicable to all breweries: energy, water/wastewater and solid waste. Within each of those buckets are some pretty amazing projects. There is also work happening in the transportation sector, in the supply chain (both agricultural supply chain and packaging supply chain), and community involvement. So I have a hard time narrowing this down!

Foodable: What is fueling these practices? Is it today's eco-friendly consumers? 

Chastain: There are a lot of things fueling these practices and I think each brewery has its own motivations… a more educated and aware consumer is certainly a driver. Consumers in general are starting to ask more questions about all of the products they consume: how they were made and what is in them and beer is no exception to this. Cost savings is another driver for a lot of breweries – by being more efficient with resources, brewers are able to reduce operating expenses and reinvest those funds back into the business. The realization that we need to engage in these practices if we are to continue as an industry is also a driver for some. If we don’t start protecting our environment, we won’t have access to quality hops, barley and water in order to make our products. 

Foodable: Are craft breweries ahead of the eco-friendly game versus the big guys? 

Chastain: This is kind of a tricky question. There are a lot of differences in how craft brewers and large brewers operate, from corporate structure down to brewing techniques, so it’s not really an apples-to-apples comparison. Economies of scale is an important concept to remember: the larger an operation, the more efficiently resources like energy and water can be used. In this regard, the larger brewers almost always use less energy and water per barrel of beer produced than craft brewers. However, one area that craft brewers seem to excel when it comes to sustainability is engaging their local communities. Beer has a way of bringing people together and craft brewers seem to have a more personal connection with their communities. 

Foodable: What are some of the eco-friendly brewing trends you are seeing in the industry? 

Billboard in Cali

Billboard in Cali

Chastain: Again, there’s so much going on in the industry that it’s hard to narrow this down!  I think I would again defer to the three buckets I mentioned earlier: energy, water/wastewater, and solid waste.  On the energy side, there are a lot of efficiency upgrades happening (lighting improvements, heat recovery, more efficient brewing equipment, etc.); renewable energy from a variety of technology types are going in all the time; there are a lot of risks around water throughout the country. 

In the west, water availability is of a concern while in areas like the Great Lakes region, water quality is being threatened. This is driving a lot of efficiency improvements in the industry through cleaning automation, chemistry adjustments, nozzles on hoses, meters on high use areas, etc. Along with water use comes wastewater generation which is an increasing problem as craft brewers grow and place a larger burden on their municipal systems. Brewers are now putting more time and effort into treating wastewater onsite before discharging to the municipal system while working on generating less wastewater to begin with.

When it comes to solid waste, there is a lot of focus on reducing waste before it occurs through better purchasing habits and using more durable goods vs. disposable. Brewers are also forming great partnerships within their communities to find other uses for a lot of their discards and are recycling and composting the remainder of their solid waste. 

Foodable: Do you think that the sustainable movement helped fuel the popularity of the craft beer movement? 

Chastain: Hmmm… good question! I really have no idea! I would like to say yes, but I feel like consumers are looking for more variety and excitement in their beers which is what craft brewers excel at.    

Foodable: What trends in general are you seeing impact the brewing industry? 

Chastain: With specific attention to sustainability, climate change stands to impact brewers of all sizes in a big way.  As the climate shifts, it is going to impact how and where hops and barley are grown.  If we can’t keep up with the shifting environment, prices are going to be driven up and smaller brewers might not be able to afford the raw materials they need to make their beer. Climate change also impacts water quality and availability which is not only a threat to brewers but everyone.