Sustainability in Craft Brewing:

A Journey Without An End

By: Gerald Dlubala

4 beer bottles on solar panel

Environmental stewardship and sustainability are a top priority for craft breweries. It needs to be in their business plan because climate change affects every facet of the brewing from the agricultural side through the actual brewing process. A balance between workable stewardship and attainable sustainability practices ensures a quality craft brewing future. The Brewer’s Association is a not-for-profit trade organization of brewers for brewers and by brewers that make it a point to help small and independent brewers reach these goals by offering benchmarking tools and sustainability manuals that encourage and promote these practices.

  Chuck Skypeck, Technical Brewing Projects Manager at the Brewers Association, told Beverage Master Magazine that conscientious brewing practices ensure the long-term success of the craft beer brewing process and the communities they call home.

  “According to business models, there are upwards of 8,500 craft brewers in the United States, with a third of them making a substantial part of their profit through foodservice,” said Skypeck. “Their outlook on the meaning of sustainability and what they want to focus on is different from others that don’t revolve around food service. Regionality also influences a brewpub’s focus, with Western based brewers looking more towards water conservation and Eastern-based counterparts more concerned over energy conservation.”

  But where do you start? What type of benchmarking tools do you need? “That depends on what category you want to focus on,” said Skypeck. “When you break it down to basics, brewing is no different from any manufacturing business. It’s okay to start small and make incremental changes when possible and practical. For example, smaller brewers will not look at solar energy due to the length of time they’d have to wait for the payback. Still, they can certainly make smaller changes such as LED lighting and newer, energy-efficient equipment. And let’s face it, sustainability is truly a journey without an end. Still, any size brewer can be a good community partner and interactive participant in community programs such as clean water campaigns. Of course, even the largest craft brewers are small compared to the big, mainstream national breweries. However, as demonstrated by the Sierra Nevada and New Belgium breweries, possibilities exist for craft brewers, both currently operating using facilities based on sustainability practices, including landscaping and wastewater applications.”

  The Brewers Association offers manuals to help guide producers through various focus areas, including energy, solid waste, sustainable build and design strategies, water and wastewater management.

  Climate change affects everything brewing-related, building the need for sustainability within the industry. Barley has been drought-impacted, with warmer temperatures and irregular, late-season rains, causing early sprouting and more crops to be unusable for brewing, rendering them fit only as livestock feed. Hops have fallen victim to wildfires (smoke taint) and drought, leading to decreased resistance to pests. Then there’s water supply issues, hurricane devastation to specialty citrus ingredients, and CO2 shortages, exacerbated by extreme cold that affects compressors and natural gas supplies.

  “Many brewers talk about using only locally grown ingredients,” said Skypeck. “That sounds good, but many times it’s hard to pull off in the long run. Ingredients like barley have optimal conditions to thrive and are best grown where the climate conditions match that. Ninety-five percent of hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest because of the preferred climate conditions. That type of growing infrastructure is important but expensive to develop and perfect. Other non-optimal areas will naturally have trouble competing not only in quality but the price, and some local level producers can’t produce enough high-quality yield over time consistently. We’re trying to help with that. While the pandemic put a hold on our annual conference, we were still able to move forward with funded research to encourage and facilitate economic, agricultural practices. These included developing barley with longer root masses to use less water for both irrigation purposes and in drought conditions, as well as ways to minimize the need for fertilizer.”

  Skypeck told Beverage Master Magazine that he has seen a trend in the idea of CO2 capture within the brewing industry. The CO2 produced by craft breweries is roughly between 10-20% of the brewery’s carbon footprint. That seems like a small amount, but it’s an economical and sensible way to build sustainability with notable returns on investment when efficiently captured. In addition, smaller capturing units are now more feasible for microbreweries because of the rising purchase cost due to the ongoing supply shortage.

Carbon Capture Is Within Reach

For Craft Brewers

  Earthly Labs is the leader in small-scale carbon capture, with more small-scale systems deployed than anyone globally. Their plug-and-play units are specifically designed for brewery environments and handle variable gas flow rates, allowing capture from different sized vessels and brite tanks.

  Amy George, Founder and CEO of Earthly Labs, operates under the assumption that people will help protect our climate and planet given the right useful and affordable tools.

  “We are constantly innovating on our platform to increase the benefits to the brewer,” said George. “CO2 capture has long been a benefit for large-scale brewers and industrial players, but our system gives most breweries that same opportunity to avoid waste and produce a better product while also helping the environment. Operationally, most brewers larger than 1,000 barrels can now implement and maintain a CO2 capture system. Historically, the economic feasibility of a system used to be governed by the purchase price of CO2. For example, a brewery with an annual production of 5,000 barrels paying one dollar per pound for CO2 supply would receive a faster payback than a brewery producing 20,000 barrels paying ten cents a pound. However, post-Covid, that supply chain is now challenged with volatile pricing and reduced availability. The risk of not being able to make your beer due to CO2 shortages puts pressure on ways to capture your waste gas to use in your beer-making process.”

  George said that carbon capture helps avert shortages, provides cleaner CO2 for use, reduces purchases and ultimately makes products better. The Earthly Labs carbon capture CiCi system is designed for craft brewer or beverage manufacturers with an annual production rate of 5,000 barrels or more. Additional designs for breweries with annual production rates of 1,000 barrels up to those that top the 20,000 barrel mark are in the works. The CiCi system uses a three-step gas purification system that dries, scrubs and liquifies the captured gas to remove unwanted acid gases, aromas, moisture, oxygen and volatile organic compounds. This process ultimately provides a clean product that can potentially help brew a tastier beer.

  “Additional benefits include more certainty of supply while reducing costs caused by delivery fees, surcharges and price volatility,” said George. “Your brewery will reduce CO2 emissions, improving safety while enhancing your brand image by offering a more sustainably brewed product. Looking at cost-benefit alone, most breweries recover their investment within two to three years. That can be far less looking at resulting sales gains based on a better-quality product and marketing that product on a sustainable level. The expected time to recover your investment cost is directly affected by your current cost of CO2, how much you’re using, and the expected volatility of your supply. For example, if you currently can’t brew your beer due to CO2 shortages, then you can recoup your investment in a matter of months.”

  George told Beverage Master Magazine that while some claims are not part of their guaranteed results, brewers currently using Earthly Labs units report additional quality benefits, including better mouth feel and aroma, head retention and lacing. There are also reports of lower dissolved oxygen in the finished product.

  “The natural CO2 that brewers create and then capture comes from the brewer’s ingredients versus hydrocarbon sources, so the resulting CO2 waste gas doesn’t include many of the volatile organic compounds or hydrocarbons found in commercially available CO2 gas,” said George. “As a result, there is statistically less oxygen in the gas, often well below the allowable beverage grade limit. We like to say that this captured CO2 is the fifth ingredient in great tasting beer.”

  The CiCi system captures the waste CO2 vented from a blow-off arm. A stainless-steel drum called a foam trap replaces the blow-off bucket, designed to seal the gas and push it via flex tubing to the carbon capture system, purifying the gas through a three-step process. First, the CO2 is dried to remove water and oxygen, then scrubbed to remove the VOCs and other impurities down to the parts per million or parts per billion levels. After that, the gas is converted to a liquid at -34.7 degrees Celsius, sterilizing the gas allowing more accessible storage. Finally, the liquid is stored in a CO2 tank and usually connected to a vaporizer for integration into the brewery manifold, facilitating use in carbonation, packaging and purging.

  Earthly Labs provides field training through the installation, including equipment operation, troubleshooting, safety, cleaning and general maintenance. The design of the CiCi system makes it easy to use while it runs in the background, allowing the brewer to concentrate on making their beer. Essential maintenance, including weekly cleaning and monthly filter changes, can be done by brewery personnel. The system is also connected to a cloud-based dashboard so Earthly Labs can remotely troubleshoot to resolve the issue or dispatch field personnel to service the unit if necessary.

Packaging for a Sustainable Future

  “Packaging choice is another option to increase sustainability in your brewery, but like ingredients, you should consider the quality, availability and other hidden costs of your choice. There is always a tradeoff when considering suppliers, whether local or national,” said Skypeck. “The brewer has to consider the cost of transportation, how far the packaging materials are traveling and the actual shipping costs for their packaging choices. If you want to use recyclable containers, know the recycling rates for that packaging choice, as well as the recycling rates for your community. There is a current bill in Congress, [The CLEAN Future Act], addressing the returnability of bottles for the entire beverage industry. But will you get people like those in Flint, Michigan, to pay more for [non-carbonated*] returnables and recyclables when they can only use bottled water? There are pros and cons to every decision, so true sustainability is a process for continuous improvement, not necessarily a result.”

  One example of a 100% plastic-free, fully renewable, recyclable and biodegradable packaging solution is the TopClip system from Smurfit Kappa. Maria Berdugo, Smurfit Kappa’s Innovation & Development Manager, told Beverage Master Magazine that sustainability is in the company’s DNA and is the core of their business.

  “To us, sustainability in the beverage market means the reduction of waste going into landfills, the reduction of CO2 emissions and the responsibility in using recyclable raw materials when available,” she said. “We offer our TopClip cardboard solutions for packaging in 12 and 16 ounce cans packaged in a four, six or eight-can pack. TopClip is a Forest Stewardship Council certified, paper-based packaging option. It offers protection from contamination with complete coverage of the can lid and customized, easy-to-see branding opportunities. Additionally, the TopClip offers a more than 30% carbon footprint reduction over alternatives like shrink film.”

  The downside for craft brewers may be that TopClip does require specialized application machines. However, Berdugo said, multiple machine systems are available depending on canning line speeds and individual brewery’s packaging needs. Smurfit Kappa works with the beverage producer to identify the most efficient and best packaging solution.

  “TopClip is an ideal solution for companies that are purpose-driven to invest in sustainable solutions and avoiding landfill waste,” said Berdugo.

The Potential For Tax Credits Is Out There

  “We at the Brewers Association provide nationwide help,” said Skypeck. “There are 50 state brewer’s guilds for craft brewers to turn to for the local support they need, including sustainability guidelines. Along with developing resources and providing safety, sustainability, and quality development tools, we advocate for craft brewing on the federal level, helping to get reductions in federal taxes and working with federal trade bureaus and OSHA regulators. Alcohol law is based on state-level regulations, so the individual states guide breweries on navigating those laws. But we know that there are tax credits associated with CO2 capture for large breweries. We are working diligently to get those same credits available to all of our smaller craft producers.”

* In current Michigan law, residents pay a 10 cent deposit on all carbonated beverages. The CLEAN Future Act proposes a national U.S. law that would require a 10 cent deposit on all carbonated and uncarbonated drinks in glass, plastic and metal beverage containers with the exception of infant formula, liquid drugs and meal and caloric replacements.

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