By: Gerald Dlubala
Shortages, surcharges and sketchy availability: that’s not what any craft brewer, distiller or winemaker wants to hear about their supply stream. Yet that’s the reality that many brewers have been, and still are, living with after the pandemic played havoc with CO2 (carbon dioxide) availability.
The lack of regular, planned delivery and variable costs and surcharges of CO2 has brewers looking at ways to cut their costs or amount of usage of CO2, including replacing CO2 with nitrogen in some capacity. Nitrogen is readily available and an inert gas that does not typically react with its surroundings, so there’s no worry of adverse reactions with the brewed products.
Reducing and Replacing CO2 Use
Matt Malloy is the founder and CEO of Dorchester Brewing in Boston, Massachusetts, a contract partner brewery usually brewing for and partnering with 12 to 15 breweries at any given time. When facing a 75 percent reduction in planned CO2 deliveries from their supplier, Malloy knew it was time to look into new and alternative ways to keep his taphouse and brewery producing, especially as he is responsible for brewing beer for his partner breweries.
“We’ve long had a great relationship with our gas supplier,” said Malloy. “But this became a serious issue for us. We are a contract brewer for others, so production and quality are always our absolute priorities. We adhere to strict best practices with the required equipment for our industry and have to perform at a certain expected level. We have a bulk CO2 tank but couldn’t get the supplies necessary to keep us going, so we had to start looking at other options and even other suppliers than we had previously. We began by looking at where we use CO2 in our production. (Like other brewers, they found it in use virtually everywhere in their process.) We decided that the 25 percent supply we could get would go towards the most needed tasks. Then we would look for alternative solutions for other tasks that would cut the CO2 usage or, in some instances, replace the need for CO2 altogether with a better, more economical option. In our research and testing (Dorchester Brewing has a full-time quality control and testing lab), we found that we could initially replace CO2 with nitrogen in our canning, seaming and kegging operations. Additional notable savings came from using it to purge our two 60-bbl and one 120-bbl brite tanks. It was pretty much a one-for-one swap between CO2 and nitrogen. Our gas supplier helped with suggestions, and we were able to use our current piping systems by installing T-valves for switching use to liquid nitrogen supply, vaporizers and dewars when needed. We also found that cleaning under pressure used less gas than cleaning in place. All of these changes were made incrementally, using slow and steady testing to ensure that using nitrogen in place of CO2 did not compromise the quality of the beer in any one step of change.”
Malloy told Beverage Master Magazine that one very effective thing he and his brewers started doing is incorporating the German method of Spunding in their brewing process, using special valves attached to your tanks. Spunding literally means bunging, and the old German technique is making a comeback and something that Malloy says every craft brewer should at least try. It involves carefully monitoring the present gravity and sealing off the tank after the initial, aggressive fermentation stages have been completed. Once the wort ferments to near the targeted final gravity and orifices are closed off, you set the Spunding valve on the tank to your desired hold pressure setting. The valve’s attached gauge monitors PSI levels, and any levels above your set pressure tell the variable pressure relief valve to open automatically and release pressure down to the preset level when the valve will once again close. Spunding traps the naturally occurring CO2 created during fermentation so that it absorbs into the wort as it turns into beer. When done correctly, a brewer ends up with a perfectly carbonated beer ready for packaging and a decreased need for additional purchased CO2.
“Right from the start, we reduced our CO2 needs by 30 percent,” said Malloy. “Spunding saves us money, but I also believe it makes better beer. There is an increased sense of quality with better aroma components. We are making better beer, with less cost and more flexibility.”
Malloy encourages brewers to initially consider ways to save on and reduce CO2 usage before blindly transitioning everything to nitrogen.
“As brewers, we have to be super nimble and flexible in our thinking,” said Malloy. “Here at Dorchester Brewing, we’ve looked at and studied every step in our brewing and production process. As a result, we now see some of the duties that traditionally call for CO2 use, like purging and blowing down, as valid ways to use nitrogen instead and save money.”
Malloy says that Spunding, combined with an intense review of brewery practices, has gotten their facility down to a 50 percent reduction in the amount of CO2 they would typically require, but he’s not stopping there. He is currently testing nitrogen use in his can seamers and fillers. As a result, he expects to reduce his CO2 deliveries from once a week to once a month, resulting in even more savings.
Nitrogen offers a way to create your own gas supply or have a less costly bulk option. Onsite nitrogen generators provide nitrogen on demand and, depending on use, can pay for themselves in a short time, sometimes within the same year. Cryogenic bulk tanks offer an onsite nitrogen supply with fewer deliveries, and dewars are available for more minor production needs.
Innovation Leads to a Change in Philosophy and Brewery Practices
“Spunding and nitrogen use have changed how we approach brewing, but those practices have also built a new philosophy within our brewery,” said Malloy. “We are always looking to improve, and now we see a change in behavior within our team. We’ve changed cleaning protocols and team behavior. Our team now sees value in every pound of gas used. Each pound used is sacred, and this type of thinking breeds innovation. We’ve used these protocols with all our brews, with no issues, differences or deficiencies noticed.”
Malloy says that these changes help production, but just as significantly, they also add up to reduced costs for brewers. The cost savings in buying bulk is significant, with some breweries paying up to eight times as much for supply as Dorchester Brewing.
“I would recommend that craft brewers first look at all of their production tasks in detail and, where applicable, incorporate the Spunding valves in their process,” said Malloy. “The upfront cost would be that of the valves, but the savings resulting from Spunding can be significant. Getting caught short can cause irreparable harm as a craft brewer, so you should also work with your gas supplier to investigate and research the possibilities of using nitrogen for as many practices as possible. It’s a win-win situation for both of you.”
Malloy is invested in the brewing community and is willing to discuss his experiences and help to show other craft brewers how they can start reducing costs through Spunding, nitrogen use or both in their brewery, pub or taproom. In addition, Dorchester Brewing offers free lid seaming checks and DO (dissolved oxygen) testing for area brewers.
Reusing Produced CO2 Through Carbon Capture: Earthly Labs
Due to the nature of the brewing process, breweries produce large amounts of CO2. With CO2 supplies being in such short and erratic supply, plus variable pricing structures, it may make sense for breweries to consider recapturing some of that produced CO2 for their use. Earthly Labs, a division of Chart Industries, is at the forefront of CO2 capture technology, manufacturing plug-and-play carbon capture units that enable a brewery start capturing and using their own produced CO2 within one day of installation.
The Earthly Labs CO2 capture technology is designed to capture CO2 waste from smaller sources that ultimately make up more than half of all CO2 emissions. For breweries specifically, this translates to allowing brewers to capture their own produced CO2 and subsequently purify it to food-grade gas for reuse in the packaging and carbonating processes.
Using recaptured CO2 for your beer immediately allows a brewer to reduce CO2 purchases and the associated delivery fees and surcharges. Additionally, peace of mind comes with decreasing worries and making an environmentally conscious decision to increase sustainability. Earthly Labs compares the capture and reuse of CO2 to brewers or distillers disposing of spent grain because it is also a way to become more sustainable while also simultaneously benefitting your brewery’s bottom line.
Amy George, founder and CEO of Earthly Labs, says that while distilleries and wineries don’t have the amount of need that breweries have, they are also in the early stages of showing interest. Distilleries are continuously looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, with some having plans featuring net zero carbon futures. Wineries are also exploring ways to capture and reuse CO2 onsite to help with tank purging or carbonation needs for specific products.
George says that their CO2 capture units are about the size of a double-door refrigerator and can be running and capturing gas the next day after installation if the brewery is producing gas. Training is straightforward, taking one to two days. After that, the brewery employees will be fully able to use the system under the oversight of the Earthly Labs team. Additional support is always available, including the possibility of remote monitoring. Return on investment timetables varies by producer, based on the amount of gas captured versus what a craft producer would have to pay for supply, surcharges, frequency of delivery, and more. As the price of CO2 rises, the return-on-investment timeline shortens, but on average, the client can expect the units to pay for themselves within two to three years.
Earthly Lab’s units are currently in use by breweries and craft producers of all sizes, but George says that the sweet spot for their workhorse unit, the CiCi ® (Oak), is for producers in the 5,000 to 20,000 bbl range. They can accommodate smaller producers with their CiCi ® (Teak) units, and larger producers will benefit from their CiCi ® (Elm) units.
George believes the complex, ongoing supply and delivery conditions will ultimately lead breweries to explore ways to remain viable and become more efficient in their operations. This includes capturing the CO2 waste for reuse that would typically be released into the environment and looking at replacement alternatives for CO2 within production operations.
Earthly Labs works to accommodate all producers, including offering a winery leasing program to provide flexibility during harvest seasons and to help eliminate the upfront expenditure by spreading payments into more manageable monthly programs. Additionally, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act also allows for tax credits for these types of purchases.
Chart Industries CO2 storage solutions and partner networks offer opportunities to turn waste streams into value for businesses while reducing environmental impact. Chart also partners with buyers and distributors to help sell excess CO2 to other partners in the exchange ecosystem. The ultimate goal is to reduce as many emissions as possible to help achieve overall climate goals.