The Green Brewhaha: Sustainability at Alaskan Brewing Co.

What’s your name and the name of your brewery?
Curtis Holmes, Plant Manager, Alaskan Brewing Co.

How long have you been in the business?
19 years

Where are you located?
We are located in Juneau, Alaska.

What volume of beer do you produce and where do you distribute?

Around 126,000 bbls and we are currently in 10 western states – AK, AZ, CA, CO, ID, MT, NV, OR, WA & WY

What are your plans for growth, if any?
We always work to grow within our existing markets as much as possible due to our high shipping costs from Juneau. So we’re one of the few breweries that has a good volume of sales while still only being in a very limited number of states. We are looking closely at moving in to a couple of new markets in 2011 however.

What makes your brewery sustainable?
Rural Alaska isn’t exactly where you’d expect to find a test market for new technology, but brewing in Alaska’s remote location creates new challenges which can make sustainable practices become more cost effective, compared to living somewhere else. When you consider that all of our raw materials (except for water) have to be shipped over 900 miles by barge from Seattle, it can seem like a crazy idea to operate a packaging brewery in Juneau, Alaska. But we’ve found some innovative ways to mitigate our operating costs, reduce waste and decrease our local and global footprint.

For example, in 1998, Alaskan became the first craft brewery in the US to recycle our own CO2. The large national breweries have been doing this but smaller breweries avoided it due to the high cost of the equipment. But because we had to ship our CO2 from Seattle by barge, we realized that the payback would be very fast. Because of this upgrade, over the last 12 years, we’ve only had to buy 5 tankers of CO2, where previously we were averaging a tanker a month for our operations. Of course, the real benefit is to the environment, since this CO2 collection system has helped prevent more than 900,000 lbs of fermentation CO2 byproduct from being released into the atmosphere this year alone.

We have a recycling committee that works to reduce our operational waste. Their ideas have helped us come up with ways to recycle cardboard, stretchwrap, glass, and paper that would have otherwise ended up in our landfill.
Over the years we have also implemented a number of other sustainable processes, like electrical power conditioning and putting in high efficiency fluorescent bulbs to save on our electrical usage, heat recovery from various brewing processes, converting to bulk glass packaging so we can ship more supplies in fewer shipping containers, and installing a mash press in our brewhouse. The mash press alone has helped us to save over a million gallons of water a year, and reduced our carbon footprint by using 3% less grain overall than the traditional lauter based brewery would have used. Our next big leap in sustainability will be with our current project involving the installation of a Biomass steam boiler, we hope to have this online in April 2011.

We take all of these efforts a step further by having founded a nonprofit ocean health organization called the Coastal CODE – One percent of all of our Alaskan IPA beer sales go to this fund, to help support beach cleanups and other activities to promote a healthier ocean and Pacific coast.

What’s your biggest sustainability challenge?
Shipping is easily our top challenge. Our remote location in Alaska is probably the most rewarding and the most difficult part of our business. Juneau has no roads to access it, so all supplies have to come by sea or air. Luckily we get sea barges from Seattle, but it does add to our costs. The limitation of being in a remote community surrounded by rugged peaks, water, and glaciers means we don’t have an easy way to get rid of our spent grain and yeast, since there are no farms or ranches. It also limits our city’s ability to process recycling. Due to shipping costs out of Juneau, often times the city won’t take everything we could recycle, so we ship it to Seattle ourselves but this represents an increased cost.

Any new sustainability projects in the pipeline that have you excited?
We are in the midst of the installation of a Biomass steam boiler. While the design is slightly similar to wood waste steam boilers that have been around for over 100 years, ours will be the first of its kind to be fueled entirely by the waste grain from the brewing process. Out of necessity, we have been drying our spent grain for years so that we could ship it out of Juneau – we did this to remove the water and reduce the shipping costs, but to also make the grain stable during shipping. In the former process, we burned a portion of the grain to make heat for the grain dryer, but we always had to supplement the dryer’s heat needs with oil. This new Biomass boiler will not use any oil but will still supply enough heat from burning the spent grains to supply our entire grain drying process while also having enough waste steam left over to replace nearly 70% of our oil fuel use in the brewhouse to make our beer. With moderate growth assumptions, we estimate this new process alone will translate to 1.5 million gallons in fuel savings over 10 years, not to mention the lower carbon footprint of not having to ship our spent grain back down to Seattle.

Forget finances- what’s your brewery pipe dream?
A Star Trek transporter, so we can get our beer to Seattle in shorter time and at less cost. But in reality, I would love to see our beer in every state in the country so everyone can enjoy our product. Due to our location and limitations, we have to take it in small baby steps for now.

What is the one thing you want Triple Pundit readers to know about your brewery?
That we still make a truly hand crafted quality beer – and every drop is brewed and packaged in Juneau, Alaska. Even for our size of brewery, we go to great effort to keep our employees involved in making the beer without being too automated and computerized, except when needed. We think it shows in the quality of our end product.

What’s your favorite brew?
Alaskan White Ale and Alaskan Summer Ale.

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

3 responses

  1. Around the country they are trying to shut these biomass scam deals down, and here in Alaska we’re calling it sustainable energy? These treeburning deals are worse than coal plants. Sealaska and the Forest Service are sure pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes.

    Alaska Brewing just lost this customer.

      I work for Alaskan Brewing. To clarify, the system we are installing has been modified to specifically burn our spent grain – NOT WOOD or any wood product – unlike the other projects you mentioned.
      Spent grain is the husk of the malt we use to brew beer. It is a necessary waste stream of our brewery that, until now, we have had to dry and ship 900 miles to farms in Seattle. With our spent grain boiler, we will replace our fossil fuel usage by over 60% AND repurpose one of our larger waste streams – spent grain. We have done several test burns on a pilot system to ensure that that the process meets DEC air quality standards. If you have any questions about our brewery or our spent grain steam project, or would like to share your thoughts, feel free to get in touch at

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