Big Beer and a Little Brew

Chances are you’ve heard of an ecological footprint, a tool that quantifies energy consumption and waste production in terms of land area. But have you ever heard of a “beer footprint”? The idea is the same except that instead of assessing an individual’s impact on the planet, it is beer that is put under the microscope. Like nearly every other product at the grocery store, beer has undergone an extensive manufacturing process and has traveled great distances to make it from barley to brew kettle and then to the consumer’s belly.

It was my goal to examine this process and to determine the environmental effects of one of my favorite brewing companies, New Belgium Brewery, located in Fort Collins, Colorado (If you haven’t tried Fat Tire, I recommend you hop on your bike and go grab a pint ASAP). Not only was I curious about the footprint of New Belgium, I wanted to see how brewing my own beer would compare in terms of sustainability. Would I be reducing the environmental strain by producing the product myself or did the scale and sustainable mindfulness of New Belgium make them the more environmentally friendly choice?

Because there is no calculator or established quantifier (in truth there was no such thing as a “beer footprint” until this blog) to determine a beer’s environmental impact, I had to devise my own set of criteria to judge the brews. Pulling from the ecological footprint I came up with a series of categories to assess both the New Belgium beers and my home brew: water usage, transportation distance, and waste produced.

The results of my investigation were not what I had expected. I had been anticipating and hoping that by brewing my own beer I would be saving the planet some harm. What I found led me to believe that conscious, committed companies of scale have the potential to provide consumers with a more environmentally friendly product.

Water Usage
Beer is essentially water with a little hops, yeast, malt, and an alcoholic kick. Water is the main ingredient of the finished product as well as the backbone of the brewing process. Unfortunately, I found that that this process is very water intensive regardless of whether you brew your own or buy a commercial beer.

New Belgium
As of 2011, New Belgium Brewery reported that it took 4.22 glasses of water to produce 1 glass of beer. In reality, this is very efficient, at least compared to my operation.

I regret to say that my home-brewing adventure gulped down the gallons. While I can only come up with a rough estimate, I’d say that the ratio for water usage to beer produced would be more around 8 to 1. This regrettably large amount of water was attributed to a variety of factors including: soaking recycled beer bottles to remove their labels, sanitizing equipment, washing bottles in the dishwasher, and the water as an ingredient of the beer.

New Belgium – 1                             Homebrew – 0

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Transportation Distance
The calculation of distance is somewhat subjective. For example, buying an imported beer obviously means that the distance traveled will be much greater then a domestically produced one. Conversely, if you can find a more local ingredient supplier you can reduce travel miles for your homebrew.

It was very difficult to come up with an accurate comparison. Fort Collins, Colorado is located 510 miles from Albuquerque but that number doesn’t take into account where New Belgium sources all of their ingredients, equipment, etc. As for my home brew, the equipment was purchased from an online retailer who shipped from Minneapolis, MN, a distance of 1,223 miles from Albuquerque – but, this was a one-time purchase and I can theoretically brew unlimited batches from this setup. My ingredients were purchased at a local store but they were surely sourced from other parts of the country. While both styles of beer production require ingredients from various suppliers, I give New Belgium a slight edge in beer miles traveled because of their commitment to sourcing as locally as possible.

New Belgium – 2                             Homebrew – 0

Waste Produced

New Belgium
During 2011, New Belgium claims to have diverted 94.38% of their waste from the landfill. This waste includes the manufacturing byproducts but does not take into account the potential waste of packaging from bottles, cans, boxes, etc.

I am proud to proclaim that my operation produced no material waste! The bottles I used were recycled from friends and from the local recycling center, and there was no use of boxes or containers. Additionally, the leftover brewing “sludge” (from the yeast and hops) was added to my compost, creating a closed system in terms of waste.

New Belgium – 2                             Homebrew – 1

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I was somewhat naïve in thinking that brewing my own beer would be better for the planet. While there are trade-offs to both forms of production, it appears as though a larger scale, environmentally conscious company better succeeds at producing a smaller “beer footprint.” If a company, such as New Belgium Brewing, embraces the goal of sustainability, their size and efficiency means that they can provide a product with a minimal footprint.

That being said, brewing my own beer—or for that matter making any good yourself—has many wonderful and less quantitative benefits and advantages over buying commercial products. There is more intimacy, feelings of accomplishment, self-education, community building and fun to be had in getting your hands dirty and turning something into nothing—hops, yeast, malt and water into delicious homebrew.

-Posted by Spencer

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