The Ecological Creed of Craft Beer

A time-honored artisanal endeavor is quietly articulating a 21st century version of industrial production

By James McWilliams

From the outside, the New Belgium Brewery, located on 50 acres near downtown Fort Collins, Colorado, appears to be an environmentalist’s dreamscape. Company-issued bicycles surround the facility. A parking lot next to the brew house has an electric car charging station. Solar panels layer the roof of the bottling plant. A well-worn biking path snakes across the property.

This tableau of eco-correctness is impressive. So impressive, in fact, that I found myself feeling skeptical as I watched the brewery come to life on a cold January morning. After all, there’s a lot of what Robert Engelman of Worldwatch Institute calls “sustainababble” out there. Brewing is a quintessential artifact of rust-belt industrialism, so it is hardly the first place I’d think to look for environmental inspiration.

It’s no secret that the brewing industry as a whole has traditionally had a dismal ecological track record. For decades big brewers, like big industries everywhere, followed the seemingly inexorable path of brute-force production. Natural resources were seen to be boundless and expendable, scale economies the Holy Grail, and pollution hardly an afterthought. Coors, for example, has a long rap sheet of environmental violations. It illegally dumped industrial solvents into Clear Creek from 1976 to 1989. The Sierra Club accused it of violating the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts 240 times between 1986 and 1991. In 1991 the company, under pressure from the EPA, paid a $700,000 fine for violating hazardous waste laws. Coors was hardly alone among large-scale breweries in treating the ecosystem like a dumping ground—all the while keeping the suds flowing and the bottom line firm.

Then something curious and hopeful happened. In the 1990s, small craft breweries began to proliferate, and they began to do so in a more progressive atmosphere. In 1980, when the only noteworthy craft brewer at work was Sierra Nevada Brewing, located in Chico, California, there were only 89 craft breweries in the U.S. Today there are more than 2,400. This rapid proliferation took place on the cusp of a fresh environmental moment. It was a time when the children of an intellectual ecosystem framed by Rachel Carson were reaching the drinking age and exercising consumer choice. And it was a time when buzz phrases such as “the ecology of commerce” and “green capitalism” were beginning to infiltrate the corporate playbook.

brewery graph The Ecological Creed of Craft Beer

If this transformation has an epicenter, it could justifiably be back in Fort Collins, amidst the toasty aromas of the New Belgium brewery. Their eco-chic exterior turns out to be an accurate reflection of what’s happening indoors. And what’s happening indoors suggests that this time-honored artisanal endeavor—craft brewing—is quietly articulating a twenty-first century version of industrial production. The familiar grammar of progressive environmentalism—reduce, reuse, recycle—becomes a creed worth not only repeating but actually living by.

I learned about the finer details of New Belgium’s ecological philosophy from Bryan Simpson, the company’s media relations director. When we met, Simpson wore light cargo pants, a bright flannel shirt, and skateboarding shoes with red laces, looking more like a graduate student than a seasoned corporate executive. Before we dove into the bowels of the brewery, he said that New Belgium was focused on determining “how to do this work differently than what the industrial revolution laid down for us.”

It shows. Solar light boxes illuminate a room of large, silver brew tanks; window sills are fabricated from “beetle-kill pine,” wood taken from local ponderosas destroyed by Asiatic beetles; a special “Merlin” brew kettle heats wort (the sugary liquid extracted from brewing mash) across a flat metallic plate, increasing surface area to save about 50 percent of the energy otherwise required to cook wort in a vat; a labyrinthine recovery apparatus captures steam and returns the heat back to the brewing process. As with most green initiatives, these innovations are more common sense than rocket science.

The rocket science is left for what’s happening out back. It involves a brewery’s most precious resource: water. Most brewers are veritably obsessed with reducing water-to-beer ratios, especially in the West, where droughts are intensifying and water wars endemic. Despite constant monitoring, even the best efforts leave behind a considerable amount of industrial wastewater, most of it having been used for cleaning purposes. Forty years ago, few breweries would have cared much about this problem. But within the emerging culture of craft brewing, it has become a central corporate concern, one that craft breweries clamor to manage.

Rather than dump untreated wastewater on the city’s doorstep, New Belgium pumps it into an on-site anaerobic digester that it built in 2002. Brandon Weaver, a prodigiously bearded and long-haired employee who showed up on a bicycle to give me a tour of the digester, joked that we were getting ready to witness “some dark magic.” For sure, alchemy went down. He explained how introduced microbes consumed residual brewing biomass to produce methane, which collects in two moon-like balls rising a couple of stories into the sky. This methane is subsequently channeled into engines that convert the gas to electricity that’s used to brew beer.

NBB Methane Bubble The Ecological Creed of Craft Beer

Photo ©New Belgium Brewing Company

During peak hours of energy demand, New Belgium draws on this renewable energy source to offset 40 to 50 percent of its overall peak electrical need. According to Weaver, the captured methane reduces the brewery’s entire fossil fuel consumption by 14 to 15 percent. The leftover water is pumped into an outdoor tank the size of a swimming pool for aerobic digestion, a process that leaves behind water so clean that New Belgium could, if it wished, legally discharge it into the local Poudre River; it sends it to the city instead.

Interest in dark magic notwithstanding, why does a relatively small brewery decide to undertake this kind of mission? Peer pressure, for one thing. New Belgium is the third-largest craft brewery in the country. But if it has an elder mentor, someone to look up to, that would be Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, the nation’s second-largest craft brewer. “We’re constantly pushing each other to do better,” Simpson said. Setting an admirable standard of ecological efficiency, Sierra Nevada has consistently combined sustained growth—about 7 to 8 percent a year—with a widely recognized emphasis on resource maximization.

Founded in 1980 by the legendary home brewing enthusiast Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada has forged a hotbed of sustainable activity, one that touches every aspect of its business. The company ships 70 percent of its beer by rail, which is 50 percent more efficient than by truck. Its grain likewise arrives from its privately owned trunk line. Sierra Nevada keeps its own cattle to consume its spent grain. In 2012, only a decimal dust’s worth of the brewery’s solid waste (0.2 percent) entered a landfill.

But Sierra Nevada’s signature innovation deals with energy. Not only does the brewery have a New Belgium–style biogas recovery system, but it also runs its operation primarily on 10,573 solar panels and four 250-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cells. Together, these options cover roughly 60 percent of the company’s energy needs, which amounts to the energy consumed by about 690 American households.

Data on off-grid energy production is presented in real time on the brewery’s website. A curious consumer can discover that, at 3:48 a.m. on January 20, the company was producing 0 kilowatts of solar energy and 775 kilowatts of fuel cell energy to offset 65 percent of its overall energy demand. Or that by 10:05 a.m. on the same day, 600 kilowatts of solar energy and 775 kilowatts of fuel cell energy were offsetting 84 percent of the brewery’s energy demand. Sierra Nevada points to these numbers with understandable pride, seeing them as the fruits born of a “hardscrabble ethos” it has nurtured since Grossman began to pursue the art of fermentation back in the 1970s.

Sierra Nevada has set an admirable benchmark of sustainability for craft brewers to follow; indeed, New Belgium seems to have paid close attention to the company’s ecological moves. But there’s more to it than just emulation. Another incentive for greening the brewery is the notion that the industry is no longer serving automaton consumers seeking a generic product. That is, brewing is no longer considered a one-way street.

If old breweries “made so the world could take,” craft breweries seek to incorporate consumer concerns about climate change and resource limitations into the final product.

Several brewers with whom I spoke noted the direct influence consumers have on fostering a corporate culture of sustainability. At Wisconsin’s New Glarus Brewery, brewer Dan Carey explained that people ask a lot of questions about his approach to brewing. For example, his customers want nothing to do with genetically modified wheat. Neither, in turn, does Carey. At New Belgium, Simpson agreed that “a progressive, intellectually aware group of folks come to craft brewing,” and they do so expecting some “paradigms to be upset.” At Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Wilmington, Delaware, founder and president Sam Caligione told me that, while he has no interest in “slapping consumers on the face with green gloves,” he’s well aware that they have green expectations.

Beer drinkers are not the only ones able to see the big picture—so are brewery dishwashers, accountants, and forklift operators. New Belgium’s worker retention rate, according to Simpson, is around 94 percent. What exactly makes the company’s commitment to its ecological vision so unwavering is hard to pin down. But Simpson tries to illuminate the mystery by mentioning a “cool moment” in the brewery’s history, a kind of cultural tipping point from which the company continues to benefit.

It happened in 1998, when New Belgium managers conducted a voluntary environmental audit and discovered, to their dismay, that the biggest contributor to the brewery’s carbon footprint was the city’s coal-fired power plant. To address this issue, the company’s employees all voted to cut into their own bonus checks and pay a premium to subscribe to the Fort Collins Utilities Wind Power Program. This was done entirely voluntarily. It was at this point—this key moment of sacrifice to a common cause—that Simpson fully realized that brewing beer sustainably really was seen to be “a big part of everyone’s job” and not just the rhetorical handiwork of corporate leadership.

NBB GHG The Ecological Creed of Craft Beer

And nobody at New Belgium looked back. In fact, employees have only continued in the same vein. In January 2013, the company levied a per–kilowatt hour tax on itself (at the same rate charged by the city’s Green Energy Program) for electricity purchased from the city. These funds are used to pursue internal programs that will further help the brewery offset its reliance on fossil fuels. They are, in essence, a clear manifestation of the brewery’s mission to “kindle social, environmental, and cultural change as a business role model.”

Let the obvious be stated: microbrewers are out to earn a profit. As Brewers Association representative Chris Swersey told me, “no one is doing this to go out of business.” Every brewer I spoke with vehemently supported Swersey’s assessment. When asked why he pursued sustainable practices, Brian Dunn, owner of Denver’s Great Divide Brewery, didn’t skip a beat: “It makes financial sense.”

At the same time, there’s a belief among craft brewers that the hard imperatives of monetary profit do not conflict with the “softer” benefits of community, human ingenuity, and resource productivity. In this respect, the ecological values that guided the emergence of the industry over the past 40 years point to nothing less than a new understanding of industrial production. The humble art of brewing beer is pointing to a future in which industrialism is associated with ecological responsibility.

This idea has been out there in earnest for a while—at least since the 1980s. Noted environmentalists Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins have referred to the phenomenon as “natural capitalism.” Whole Foods founder John Mackey calls it “conscious capitalism.” In an email, Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce, offered a useful and quietly revolutionary way to think about the role of natural capitalism as it plays out in the craft brew moment. “As abundant energy (aka cheap fossil fuel) is withdrawn from an economic system,” he wrote, “decentralization and localization emerge.” He is dead on the mark.

“Beer is a social thing,” says Chris Swersey. He adds that craft brewers “are tied tightly into their communities and are very aware of the impact that their operations have on communities.”

At Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, founder Sam Calagione waxes passionate about his brewery’s integration into the surrounding “artisanal food community.” From sharing spent grain with nearby wheat farmers to sending 80 percent of the brewery’s effluent to soy and hay growers to buying local honey and lemongrass, Dogfish Head has worked “since the day we opened” to incorporate community values and sustainability goals into a more nuanced understanding of commercial enterprise.

If decentralization encourages mutually dependent and more localized relationships, it also creates a sense of ownership among brewers and their employees themselves. It’s common for public relations executives to unctuously refer to their “corporate family.” Within microbreweries, though, the rhetorical rubber hits the road in more plausible ways.

New Belgium is 100 percent employee-owned. Getting a new bicycle to ride to work after a year on the job might be a nice perk for the hardworking employee. But far more meaningful are the green initiatives that even the lowest-level workers are encouraged to pioneer. And have.

Some of the innovations might seem simple, but it’s often in the humdrum places where big gains are made. Line workers at New Belgium were the first to suggest the removal of cardboard inserts in distribution boxes, a suggestion they made after noticing that the bottles would not clink and clang if they were packed more tightly. Warehouse employees have undertaken a project to repurpose shipping palettes rather than send them into a waste stream headed to a landfill.

The collective focus on a sustainable bottom line has created the preconditions for something critical to happen in craft brewing: a shift from a corporate emphasis on making labor more productive to a corporate emphasis on making natural resources more productive. The consequences of this transition cannot be overstated. By keeping wages low and treating people as interchangeable parts, old-school brewing created antagonism between management and workers. The newer craft version creates a spirit of cooperation and gives workers a stake in a shared quest for sustainable solutions with positive community impact.

With this shift, a brewery becomes more than a brewery. It becomes a way not only to produce beer but also to produce community cohesion around sound ecological principles that improve the local quality of life in tangible ways. Who wouldn’t drink to that?

If the large breweries have traditionally treated the environment as a dumping ground, is it too much to hope that they will also join the environmental turn? John Stier thinks not. The former corporate director of environmental affairs for Anheuser-Busch, he now consults on sustainability issues for both craft brewers and global beer companies as a senior project engineer for Antea Group. The Political Economy Research Institute rated Anheuser-Busch fortieth out of the “Toxic 100” corporations contributing to air pollution in 2002. The company has since dramatically improved its environmental record. Stier helped that happen.

Stier stresses the role of water in the brewing business. He notes that water shortages in the American West have pushed large brewers to recognize that declining water access is “a business disruption kind of a risk.” Global producers with deep pockets are pursuing greater efficiencies in water usage, most critically in crop production. “We must have outreach to the farmers,” said Stier.

This last ambition should thrill the craft brewers, who lack such reach. “There’s no way the little guys can do this,” Stier says. The craft brewers, he explains, “can reap the benefits” of more sustainably produced barley and hops.

Don’t jump to the conclusion, however, that the globalizers are storming the small brew house. The New Belgiums of the craft universe are not lost on the periphery of an industry in which big brewers each churn out over 100 million barrels of beer a year. To the contrary, Stier says, “The big guys are looking to the small guys for innovation. They envy the fact that the small guy can be so nimble, always looking for a new and innovative niche.” When it comes to changing the industrialized tenor of one of the world’s oldest industries, craft brewers are at the helm—giving new meaning to the directive “drink responsibly.”

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James McWilliams is a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. His books include Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little, Brown) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press). His writing on food and agriculture has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, and Slate.

Top photo ©David Arky/Getty

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