Do the right thing

Richard Croasdale catches up with Sierra Nevada’s Cheri Chastain, to learn more about how the California icon is showing the industry a more sustainable future


It can be a dirty business, brewing. Not morally (though that too occasionally) but in terms of the amount and nature of the waste it produces. Heating all that wort and then cooling it during fermentation takes energy, the nutrient-laden water and other organic waste has to go somewhere, and individually-packaged drinks are not the most environmentally friendly things on earth. It’s little surprise then that the issue of sustainability has become a big deal for craft breweries of all sizes across the world.

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Sierra Nevada in the US has been a trailblazer in this respect since its earliest days, mostly due to the strong values of its founder Ken Grossman. His belief in sustainability in its broadest sense has helped create a company culture that embraces efficient processes and new technologies, as well as working collaboratively with partners and communities, even where there isn’t an obvious commercial rationale.

When Ferment travelled to Sierra Nevada’s original Chico brewery in 2017, we were struck by the vast array of solar panels which, generating 2 megawatts, is the largest of any US brewery. Combined with a microturbine system, fed by waste gas, Chico’s renewable sources provide 95% of the brewery’s electricity requirements. This setup is mirrored – albeit on a slightly smaller scale – at its newer North Carolina brewery, which boasts a little over 1 megawatt of renewable power.

At the other end of the brewing process, Sierra Nevada is scrupulous about its waste water treatment. Water is a precious resource, particularly in Northern California, and local authorities levy significant charges against businesses pumping hard-to-treat effluent back into the system as many breweries do. Sierra Nevada’s sophisticated treatment plant is unusual for a brewery of its relatively small size, and is an example of where doing the right thing environmentally meshes with its bottom line interests.

But there are many less visible (and less obviously financially advantageous) measures being taken all over the business. For example, all of Sierra Nevada’s Chico food scrap waste goes into a huge state-of-the art dry composter, which rapidly produces a clean, nutrient-rich powder for use in the surrounding farmland.

Sierra Nevada’s sustainability manager, Cheri Chastain, says: “It bothered us for a long time, all that food waste going to landfill. We tried for about four years to get the local government to invest, then decided to just do it ourselves. That’s a great example of a project that makes very little financial sense; that machine is going to take 16-17 years to pay for itself. But it was the right thing to do, to keep those organics out of landfill.”

On waste, both Chico and North Carolina are certified as Platinum zero waste facilities. They’ve also achieved platinum LEED, a certification which looks at the impact buildings have in their totality, from site selection to energy and water use, how materials are handled and what materials you chose for construction. This was a phenomenal achievement, and the North Carolina brewery was the first in the world to attain both certifications.

Sierra Nevada’s sustainability work looks outward too, at its supply chain, local communities and the industry as a whole.

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“A big part of my job is to engage in community partnerships and industry relations,” continues Cheri. |I work on a sustainability taskforce for the city of Chico, which exists solely to implement the climate action plan. My co-worker Mandy sits on the board of Chico Velo, which is a local cycling advocacy group. And we sponsor groups doing cool things in the community, from environmental issues to social issues.

“On the industry front, we’re overall a small player in the wider beer market, so we have to work with the industry to drive more substantial change, coming together with other companies and other people in our value chains. The Glass Recycling Coalition is a good example of that. Glass recycling is incredibly challenging in the US and it’s getting even more so every day. We’re putting a lot of glass into the marketplace, so we have a sense of responsibility to make sure that glass gets recycled, and that our consumers have a way to recycle the products they’re purchasing. The Glass Recycling Coalition was founded in 2016 to help communities improve and continue to collect glass for recycling, and Sierra Nevada was a founding member.”

Sierra Nevada is also active on the policy front, adding its voice to conversations with legislators and NGOs in areas including climate change, alternative energy and alternative transportation. While acknowledging again that Sierra Nevada is a small player, Cheri says it uses the weight it does have tactically.

“Businesses tend to be heard a little bit better within the legislature than non-profits tend to be, unfortunately. It’s interesting though, because the political climate and the lack of action on the legislative front has really spurred industry to step up its game. A lot of businesses and corporate entities – not just in the US – are stepping up to fill that gap that our elected officials are unwilling to fill,” says Cheri.

Its work with the Brewer’s Association (BA), effectively the US equivalent of SIBA in the UK, is one of Sierra Nevada’s main avenues for larger industry change, particularly in areas such as improving sustainability in the supply chain, where individual craft breweries would be too small to exert much influence.

“I co-chair the sustainability sub-committee within the BA, and Ken chairs the supply chain subcommittee, and those two subcommittees are collectively doing quite a lot with the hop-growing industry and the barley-growing industry to build tools, benchmarks, resources to move in a more sustainable farming direction, for example.

“There’s always going to be more to do. For me personally and for Sierra Nevada, sustainability is a journey, without an end game or and end goal, that when you reach it you can just stop. It’s a continual work in progress, with new technologies and new and better ways of doing things.”

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