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Tina Casey headshot

A High Tech Twist To AB InBev's Sustainable Beer Tale

By Tina Casey

The origins of beer go back at least as far as 7,000 years ago, ranking it as one of the oldest beverages produced in civilization. It may also prove to be among the most adaptable. Today's brewers are coming up against existential challenges related to global warming, land use  and water resources. In the latest development, global beer giant AB InBev provides a demonstration of how modern technology can shepherd the art of brewing into a more sustainable model.

Greener Bubbles, Greener Beer

The Guardian recently took a long look at AB InBev's latest innovation. Do read the piece for full details, but for those of you on the go, it relates to an early stage of the brewing process called wort.

In conventional brewing, gas bubbles are created while the wort is boiled, and those bubbles help carry off unwanted flavors.

If you've ever made beer at home, you'll instantly recognize that the process involves copious amounts of time, fuel and water.

AB InBev found a lower-impact workaround after a good four years of testing:

The new method involves heating the brew to below boiling point and then blowing nitrogen or CO2 into the tank to create bubbles without changing the taste. The company claims that because the beer is brewed at a lower temperature in the early phase, it can also stay fresh for longer.

The result is an 80% savings in energy for the wort stage, and a cut in water loss from 5% down to 1%.

According to Guardian reporter Daniel Boffey, AB InBev plans to roll out the process globally, a process that could take about 10 years.

Once fully implemented, the company anticipates that it will cut its global carbon emissions overall by a good 5%.

But, that's not what makes this innovation especially interesting.

What's behind Ab InBev's green gift to small brewers?

Boffey also notes in passing that AB InBev is already offering its patented technology to other brewers -- but not all brewers. The company will charge its larger rivals for access to the new process, but will provide it free of charge to smaller brewers.

In that regard, AB InBev is reflecting a sustainability trend in which companies are investing in clean tech R&D, acquiring patents, and then sharing their innovations.

In the auto industry, for example, Honda and GM announced a plan for sharing fuel cell technology patents. Elon Musk's Tesla has essentially open-sourced its patented technology for battery electric vehicles, and Toyota has made a similar move with its hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

The motive for sharing clean tech is especially clear in the food and beverage industries. If beer making is to be around for another 7,000 years, then the industry as a whole will need to cut its carbon footprint and conserve water resources.

Indirect bottom line considerations also come into play. Last year The Guardian noted that the tension between craft brewers and global giants has been growing. By taking on R&D expenses and sharing innovations, AB InBev creates a goodwill gesture that could help deflect criticism coming from smaller breweries and their supporters (do follow the link for more detail).

By helping to sustain smaller breweries, AB InBev is also keeping an eye out for promising new trends to adopt, and new brands to acquire.

AB InBev is already competing with other top beer makers to snap up craft labels, and they could gain an important inside edge by sharing new processes with smaller breweries.

Innovation beyond the factory doors

The new wort process could be the beginning of a new wave of innovation across the beer industry, and AB InBev aims to be at the forefront.

The company has already established a firm background in new technology that conserves resources and lowers carbon emissions, and it just stepped up its efforts with the launch of a new open-source initiative called the 100+ Innovation Accelerator.

The details are still being hammered out, but it appears that the company is aiming for global impact. Here's the mission:

The 100+ Sustainability Accelerator will aim to solve 100+ challenges by 2025. Through the accelerator, we will support promising ideas and technologies that are in line with our sustainability goals, reflecting our vision of building a company to last for the next 100 years and beyond. Challenges will be open to everyone - scientists, technologists and budding entrepreneurs around the world – and solutions will be open for everyone.

AB AnBev plans to run annual "boot camp" style challenges. It will select participants from that pool to refine and scale up their projects.

The company plans to announce the first challenge in June, so get ready.

Photo (cropped): via Wicked Weed.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey