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The Green Brewhaha: Why Craft Beer Makers Go Green

By Kyle Cassidy

This piece originally appeared in Wend Magazine and is excerpted here with permission.

As human ethnology has evolved over time, so has our beer. Now, in the era of green, a culture of specialized brewers has emerged who contend that the recipe for a better brew is incomplete without a dash of environmental ethos.

Over the past two decades America has experienced a sudsy explosion of consumer demand for specialized, or craft, beer. What is craft beer? According to Seattle-based writer Vince Cottone — who coined the term in his 1986 book, Good Beer Guide: Breweries and Pubs of the Pacific Northwest — a craft beer is one that has been made by “a small brewery using traditional methods and ingredients to produce a handcrafted, uncompromised beer that is marketed locally.”

Since the 1990s, the number of breweries in the country has risen from 44 to nearly 2,000, almost 70 percent of which are made up of small operations like microbreweries and brewpubs specializing in brewing craft beers. In 2008, the craft brewing industry produced nearly 8.6 million barrels of beer in the U.S., making it one of the fastest-growing segments in the beer industry.

But while Big Beer’s mega-corporations continue to dominate the world market with slick advertising campaigns and inexpensive products, brewers of handcrafted beer stick to a more localized, or bioregional, business model that prizes quality and diversity over mass production. The brewers of America’s New Beer are independent by nature, and for many, the tendency to eschew the old industry model is a decision rooted in ideology as much as economics.

In his book, Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World, author and beer activist Chris O’Brien claims that American craft brewers are the country’s unlikely revolutionaries, and that their adoption of sustainable business practices helps fight globalization and break the market control of major beer companies. And whether the brewers believe it or not, he’s right.

Smaller breweries are able to subvert Big Beer by operating on a local level; they support their communities by buying fresh local ingredients; and they have the ability to develop and respond to the needs of local markets directly while building a loyal following and sponsoring small community events, something the beer giants can’t do without spreading themselves too thin.

Although most craft brewers don’t view themselves as leaders of a global political movement, all of them are adamant about one thing: for brewers and beer-drinkers alike, craft beer is a lifestyle. And in today’s world of green, that means sustainable.

From craft beer giants like New Belgium, which shipped 140,000 barrels of beer in 2008, to small brewpubs like the Fort George Brewery and Public House in Astoria, Oregon, an overwhelming number of craft brewers choose to embrace green technology to run their businesses.

“I think part of it is that you’re bringing people with a discerning palette into an industry that is very particular, which brings a mindset to production,” says Jamie Emmerson, Brewmaster of Full Sail, which in June of 2009 was named one of the “100 Best Green Companies to Work for in Oregon“ by Oregon Business magazine. “People who are focused on good quality are also focused on good quality of life.”

Making beer is a naturally organic process, and before highways made it possible to order from across the country or even overseas, brewers had no choice but to seek out the freshest local ingredients. But maintaining a sustainable modern-day brewery involves more than just buying local. Eco-friendly brewers are aware of everything from the type of energy used to power their operation, to the materials used to build the brewery, to how they dispose of waste.

According to Emmerson, Full Sail, which was a founding member of the Hood River Chamber of Commerce’s Green Smart program and buys 140 blocks of renewable energy per month, follows one rule when it comes to environmentally sustainable business practices: doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. “Putting out a big print run to tell everybody how sustainable you are is antithetical,” says Emmerson. “It’s more about walking the walk.”

In Vermont, which tops the Brewers Association’s list of U.S. state breweries per capita, there is a craft brewery for every 32,698 people. As many craft beer junkies know, Vermont is home to Wolaver’s, one of the first certified organic breweries in the nation.

“People drink craft beers because of the connection they feel with the brewery —it’s a connection huge companies can’t have,” says Max Oswald, Director of Sales and Marketing at Wolaver’s. And part of developing that connection is through implementing local, sustainable business practices.

The Wolaver’s logo depicts three farmers threshing barley in unison, with a farmhouse brewery in the background. And that, they say in their mission statement, is the vision: “local, organic, collective, green, and handcrafted. At every stage of the beer-making process, we work toward a deeper expression of these values in the modern landscape.”

Like Full Sail, Wolaver’s has an on-site wastewater treatment facility, and it recycles depleted brewhouse ingredients such as spent grain, hops petals, and yeast to be used by local dairy farmers as cattle feed. The company is also working in cooperation with Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund to construct an on-site biomass generator that would burn waste and produce enough steam and electricity to supplant all outside diesel and electricity use.

Wolaver’s opened its organic doors in Middlebury, Vermont in 1997 in response to a trend that almost all craft beer makers have been able to capitalize on: a growing consumer culture that is increasingly concerned about health, environment, social ethics, beer character and finding alternatives to mainstream business.

It’s not surprising to find eco-friendly brewers in places like Vermont and Oregon, where farms abound, who source their ingredients locally in an attempt to reduce their carbon footprints. But some craft breweries, like the Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau, Alaska, have to face more unique challenges when attempting to maintain sustainability and relations with the community.

For Curtis Holmes, Plant Manager at Alaskan, maintaining sustainable business practices in the Great Frozen North comes down to one big problem-solving question: How can Alaskan grow as a business in such a remote location without impacting the small community of Juneau and the surrounding environment?

“When we first started we were buying our CO2 from Seattle but the shipping was dangerous, we were losing nearly half a load of C02 on the one-week trip to Juneau, and it was impossible to maintain the cold storage temperatures needed for the travel time on the barge between Seattle and Juneau,” says Holmes.

It wasn’t long before the company began researching options. At the time (1998) there were no other craft breweries in the country reclaiming or recycling their CO2, but with the challenges of the location, the development of a CO2 reclamation system was the best solution. According to Holmes, “We were the first craft brewery in the country to start recycling the CO2 naturally-created during the fermentation process.”

From label design to ingredients, craft beers reflect their local environment. “At Alaskan we try to tie in our location and environment into everything we brew,” says Ashley Johnston, Communications Manager at the Alaskan Brewing Company. “And if you, as a consumer, enjoy the beverages from a local brewery that is mindful of the environment and helping your local community become sustainable, you’re supporting a business that is consciously making a difference and, in a way, you feel that you are helping too.”

For craft brewers such as Alaskan, going local is about more than helping the environment; it’s about creating a community of stakeholders, including everyone from employees, vendors, and customers to neighbors.

From the ice fields of Alaska to the Rocky Mountains, it’s impossible to discuss sustainability in any industry without mentioning the New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. New Belgium has established itself as an eco all-star that consistently proves profitability and environmental stewardship don’t have to be odd bedfellows.

One of New Belgium’s biggest claims to fame is that its entire operation runs on a combination of wind energy, solar power, and methane gas reclaimed from the brewing process. Although it isn’t the only brewery to power its plant with renewable energy (in California, Sierra Nevada uses co-generation fuel cell power to run its plant, and New York’s Brooklyn Brewery became the first New York City company to generate 100 percent of its electricity from wind turbines) it was the first.

Although they are craft beer makers, Full Sail, Wolaver’s, New Belgium and Alaskan Amber are big enough to afford the costs associated with running a business along ideological lines. But what of small microbreweries that, besides in their own communities, are relatively unknown? Does the ethos that seems to permeate the craft beer industry resonate there too?

“We are small and we don’t have the resources for a solar hot water system (yet) or wind turbines on the silo (yet), but we did choose water-saving toilets and grass-fed beef,” says Jack Harris, brewer and proprietor of the Fort George Brewery and Public House in Astoria, Oregon. “Sustainability practices are an important part of a larger goal that strives to do things right. All these things might be more expensive upfront, but we’re in this for the long run.”

The Fort George Brewery and Public House, which specializes in brewing organic beers, has an interesting history. Founded as a trading post in 1811, it was the original settlement site of Astoria — the first American colony west of the Rocky Mountains. Astoria Park holds a re-creation of the original fort. A plaque there proclaims that in 1814 the fort was home to Jane Barnes, the first white woman west of the Rockies. She was, ironically, an English barmaid.

Brewers, like farmers, have a close relationship to the environment. And, just as many brewhouses have deep historical roots, their proprietors are also looking to build a sustainable business future, and the business of beer hinges on maintaining a healthy environment. Brewers at the Fort George, for example, depend on a reliable source of slow sand-filtered coast range water for their beer. The water, they say, experiences small, but nuanced changes in the fall because of alder leaves falling into the open holding tank, which gives it character. And, like all breweries, the caliber of Fort George’s beer depends in large part on the quality of the available hops and grain, which vary year-to-year, region-to-region depending on weather and pests. Brewers there are worried that climate change will affect the quality of all these things.

“Every day we are given the opportunity to make decisions that can cumulatively have a real influence on the long term viability of our environment,” says Harris. “The means is the end.”

Small brewpubs across the country are paving the way for environmentally sustainable business in America. From the Salt Lake Brewing Company in Utah, which was awarded the 2006 Environmental Company of The Year award by the Recycling Coalition of Utah, to the Kona Brewing Company in Hawaii, which employs a full-time sustainability coordinator. But quite possibly the ultimate sustainable brewpub in the country (although the brewpub can’t quite qualify as small since it produces 3,000 barrels of beer a year) is the Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, Oregon.

Portland is renowned for two things: beers and bicycles. And Hopworks, Portland’s only eco-brewery, does its best to combine both. Opened in March by former award-winning Laurelwood brewmaster Christian Ettinger, Hopworks takes sustainability to the next level. From its brew kettle and the brewery truck which both run on biodiesel made from the deep-fryers’ used oil, to the pizza ovens that warm the brewing water, Hopworks has the feeling of a self-sustaining ecosystem.

The Hopworks brewery is cleaned with runoff rainwater caught from the roof, and the entire building is built from reclaimed or recycled materials, even down to the staircases, which are built from traffic-sign standards and industrial materials. Every salvageable piece of material from the building Hopworks now occupies was conserved, including some of the plumbing, which now works as a foot rail at the bar.

Over forty hanging bicycle frames lend Hopworks’ interior the ambiance of activity; there is a bicycle-repair stand by the front door; and customers even have the option of buying tubes for their bike tires at the bar if they suffer a flat while pedaling in for a beer.

Local, sustainable beer is dousing the American beer market. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic craft beer sales increased 40 percent in 2005, tying it with organic coffee as the fastest-growing organic beverage in the country. And now, in an attempt to stay afloat, the big boys have tossed their hats into the eco ring. In April 2007, Anheuser-Busch released two Organic Beers to the market: Wild Hop lager and Stone Mill pale ale. In 2008 the Molson Coors Brewing Company set the rolling global target to reduce water-use efficiency by four percent. And, according to a 2008 promotional video, Miller claims to now be recycling 99.9% of all packaging waste.

Due in part to environmental initiatives, all of the major beer companies are seeing big reductions in energy and water use. But the tendency to believe their environmental push is more rooted in energy savings and good PR than an actual desire to create environmental change is not entirely unfounded. Upon entering the organic beer market in 2007, Anheuser-Busch proceeded to successfully lobby the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to include hops, one of the primary ingredients in beer, on the list of ingredients in organic beer that doesn’t have to actually be organic. According to the USDA, for a product to be considered organic, it must be made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients. The company now claims to be using 100% organic hops in its organic beer.

The United States is the 13th biggest beer consumer in the world. Last year alone Americans drank 5.89 Billion gallons of the stuff – enough to fill the Houston Astrodome over 12 times, or top off 330 oil tankers, whichever analogy you prefer. And, like the outdoor sportsman whose love of nature leads to environmental stewardship, so does working in the craft beer industry, which thrives on community support, lead to sustainable environmental business practices.

But at the end of the day, it’s consumers who make the decision.

“The ticket to the dance is making great beer, then people have a choice,” says Max Oswald of Wolaver’s. “Then it’s all about what type of company they want to support. We could be the most eco-friendly company in the world but if we didn’t make great beer we wouldn’t make it.”

3p Contributor

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