Earth, wind, fire, water & heart

Matthew Curtis, on how small breweries are doing their bit for the environment

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Did you know that every pint of beer actually takes around five pints of water to produce? That means to make a 5000 pint batch of beer a brewer is effectively using 25000 pints of water. This isn’t just composed of brewing ‘liquor’ (the term used for the water that goes into the actual making of beer) either. The majority of this will be used for cleaning, the activity that takes up the bulk of a typical brewer’s shift. 

It’s just one of the many resources needed to bring tasty beer to your glass. There’s also raw materials such as malted barley and processed hops, be they whole cone or pelletised. The yeast needs to be grown up and shipped from a lab, and the stainless steel tanks that hold the beer have to be manufactured and welded together. Empty bottles, cans, casks and kegs need to be moved around so that they can be filled.

Brewers also need highly dangerous chemicals such as peracetic acid, and sodium hydroxide (more commonly referred to by brewers as caustic) for the all-important cleaning process. The latter step is crucial to maintain proper brewery hygiene (beer is a food product, after all, and should be treated as such) and ensure that no wild yeasts or bacteria unintentionally contaminate that beer you’re drinking right now.

Then all of this has to be transported, either in vans or on planes, before the beer itself is packaged and moved again to a bottle shop, supermarket, or pub, before you finally get to appreciate all of that hard work over a few carefree sips.

All of which begs the question, what impact does it have on the environment?

All of which begs the question, what impact does it have on the environment? And what should both brewers and we as consumers be doing to ensure that the process of making and drinking beer has as minimal an impact on our planet as possible. With approximately 2500 small, independent brewers making beer in the UK at present, it should be something that’s at the forefront of every brewer’s and drinker's thinking.

THIRSTY WORK

If you’ve ever taken part in a brew day, then you’ll know that as well as water it takes an awful lot of grain to make beer. Digging spent grain out of the mash tun is laborious work; steaming and steeped in hot water, it fills up old malt sacks or whatever other handy container might be lying around. And if you hang around long enough, you might be lucky enough to meet a local farmer, collecting the grain (which will still have a small amount of residual sugar in it) to use as animal feed.

It’s perhaps the most common example of sustainable activity employed by breweries. The animals who eat that spent grain will go on to create manure, which in turn could be used as fertiliser, restoring nutrients to fields used to grow barley. 

As you scale up the size of your brewing operation, however, so too do you increase the amount of waste product and pollutants you create, along with the amount of energy you use. How then, can breweries turn this into something more positive?

How then, can breweries turn this into something more positive?

Established in 1991, in the town of Fort Collins, around an hour north of Denver, New Belgium Brewing has since grown to become the fourth largest craft brewery in the United States by volume. Now owned by Lion Little World Beverages (a subsidiary of Japan’s Kirin) the brewery produces around 978,000 American brewer’s barrels of beer each year. That’s almost 198 million British pints; imagine the water and waste products that are created when you hit that kind of volume.

“We’re New Belgium and we pollute,” it states on the Colorado brewery’s website. An important marker of self-awareness, before it goes on to detail its comprehensive, industry-leading approach to sustainability. 

If you ever get the chance to visit the Fort Collins facility, one of the more unusual sights you may see at the end of the tour are two large, white domes. These are part of the brewery’s on-site water treatment facility, in which microbes are used to clean the nutrient-rich wastewater produced during brewing. The resulting methane – or ‘biogas’ – produced during this process is then captured and used as an energy source to provide electricity for the brewery.

This process, combined with the array of 1235 solar panels that sit atop its packaging hall, means that New Belgium is able to produce about 12% of its own electricity in-house. That’s no mean feat for such a large brewery. When you also consider that the brewery effectively taxes itself on the energy it produces, and uses that fund to reinvest in other sustainable practices, you have an excellent working example of what a larger brewery can do to offset its carbon footprint, and do better for the environment.

The difference here, however, is that most small breweries (the majority of which in the UK produce less than 5000hl, or about 880,000 pints, per year) don’t have anything close to the same resources at their disposal in comparison to larger breweries like New Belgium. What then, can a more typical-sized British brewery do in order to be more environmentally sustainable?


SMALL CHANGE

On first approach, Upper Spernall Farm in Alcester, just outside of Birmingham, looks like a typical English farm. The network of tin-shed farmhouse buildings at its core and grazing longhorn cattle provide a semblance of civilisation to the surrounding verdant, undulating countryside, pockmarked by old oak trees and the odd village, here and there. 

You’ll soon be distracted from these serene surroundings by the smell, however. This quite rancid aroma is created by the bacteria within the reed bed system at the farm, used to cleanse the wastewater produced by Purity Brewing Company, which calls this place home. Perhaps best known for its cask ales such as Mad Goose and Pure UBU, Purity has been brewing at Upper Spernall Farm since it was established by Paul Halsey and James Minkin in 2005. 

“Our reed bed is a series of nine gravity-fed ponds that all the brewery effluent water goes through, instead of down the drains,” Halsey tells me. “This is hugely beneficial, as it allows us to put ‘pure water’ back into the water table that otherwise would have to be dumped at significant cost.”

As well as being widely known for its award-winning beers, Purity has also received multiple plaudits for its environmentally forward-thinking practices. Most recently, the brewery was awarded Green Business of the year at the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) annual awards, held in Liverpool in March 2020. 

The reed bed system is just one example of the sustainability effort being made by Purity. The farm is part of its ecosystem, and in the past year it’s not only provided over 60 hectolitres of spent yeast as feed for pigs, but also provided over 1000kg of used hops as fertiliser for other local farms. Those longhorn cattle (from which Purity took the name for its lauded IPA) won’t go hungry either, as they get to gorge themselves on the brewery’s spent grain. In addition to these measures, the brewery also captures the steam created during brewing and reuses it as an energy source.

“Being based on a working farm, we want to protect our rural location as much as possible,” Halsey says. “We’ve started working closer with our farm landlord to look at regenerative agriculture farming methods, as well as allowing our wetland system to become an area of ‘re-wild’ vegetation and providing a natural corridor for organisms and other animals between the surrounding Heart of England Forest.”



Having strong eco-credentials was important to Purity’s founders from the off, and after 15 years in business, they seem proud to be industry-leaders in this field. However, they’re all too aware that being able to implement sustainability schemes like their own has taken considerable time and money, and that not all breweries have these resources at their disposal. Halsey tells me that the brewery is often contacted by other breweries looking to improve their own environmental practices, and that they’re happy to help when they do.

Purity is also aware that there’s more that can still be done, too. Despite the use of high volumes of water, chemicals and creating wastewater during the brewing process, the use of electricity generated by fossil fuels is still the brewing industry’s largest contribution to its carbon footprint. To make proper inroads towards true sustainability, breweries will need to look to take advantage of alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar power. 

“As we try to move away from fossil fuels, we need guidance from energy companies on how we can best do this, whether that is by generating our own or utilising new systems,” Cosgrove says. “Funding and grants are all ideas that we think should be looked at, especially as a country we all need to move away from fossil fuels and protect the natural resources we have.”

A GREENER FUTURE

What will the future of brewing look like in terms of sustainability? Perhaps breweries will eventually be able to invest in their own arrays of solar panels like New Belgium, delivery vans might switch from petrol to electric engines, and perhaps wind farms will start putting enough power into the national grid that the nation as a whole begins to offset its sizable carbon footprint.

Without the Government pledging a significant amount of funds to help businesses such as breweries invest in more sustainable practices it won’t become the norm for some time. Although perhaps if breweries like New Belgium and Purity are investing in sustainability, and passing on the knowledge they take from successfully integrating these environmentally sound business practices, then this will gradually begin to trickle down and become closer to the norm for many breweries.

We have a responsibility as consumers too of course. Remembering to recycle the bottles and cans that we fill our fridges at home with is a good start, and ensuring that we buy local as often as possible, rather than being excessive with rare imported beers. Although through all this we also have to be careful we don’t limit our own experience; consume, but be mindful about every sip. 

All of us need to take responsibility for the impact we have on the environment. Perhaps we can start by encouraging the businesses we buy our products from to be more sustainable, in order to preserve a future for both the planet, and the beer that we love.


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