(This originally appeared as my column in the Summer 2008 issue of American Brewer.)
Cash-conscious customers are well aware of rising beer prices. But carbon-conscious consumers realize this is linked to the world’s expanding appetite for energy. Given the industrial economy’s heavy reliance on fossil fuel energy, it follows that brewing costs are escalating as oil hits record highs of over $110 per barrel. Advanced environmental brewers such as New Belgium Brewing (NBB) are connecting the dots by reducing energy consumption and limiting release of climate-changing greenhouse gases (GHGs). But the climate challenge is a tricky one with impacts lurking in unexpected places.
Effects from global warming are adding new dimensions to the energy equation. First of all, energy costs get passed along the supply chain from manufacturers to brewers so there is a general cost creep from upstream goods such as packaging and ingredients. If it takes energy to produce packaging, and energy prices are going up, then the price of packaging goes up too. It is spiking malt prices, though, that are hitting brewers the most acutely. That spike is due largely to the rapid growth in demand for biofuels, such as corn-derived ethanol, as alternatives to fossil-fuels. Despite the fact that corn is one of the least efficient crops for ethanol production, it is still somewhat preferable to petroleum since it produces slightly lower GHG emissions. But the demand for ethanol is driven by a second, more important trend that is affecting energy consumption patterns in general: climate policies are mandating change.
A 2007 White House Executive Order requires federal fleets to rely on non-petroleum-based fuels for at least 10% of overall fuel consumption. As a result, farmers are growing more corn to quench thirsty cars rather than barley to slake a parched populace. But the biofuels mandate is just one of many climate initiatives being launched across the country. The American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment has garnered over 500 signatories, while more than 800 mayors have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Soon these efforts may seem paltry if a new administration in Washington D.C. enacts a national policy setting ambitious GHG reductions goals, as is expected to be the case regardless of which presidential hopeful is elected.
Climate Footprint of a Six Pack of Fat Tire Amber Ale
New Belgium is one brewery trying to stay ahead of the climate-curve. They’re tackling the challenge by getting the facts about their own impact. They partnered with the non-profit Climate Conservancy to conduct a lifecycle assessment (LCA) on the climate footprint of their flagship beer. The assessment measures the material and energy flows of a six pack of Fat Tire Amber Ale from raw materials to disposal and describes the associated environmental impacts in grams of carbon dioxide equivalent (gCO2e), the accepted unit of measure for the GHGs that contribute to climate change.
The results of the study reinforced some of New Belgium’s assumptions about beer’s contribution to climate change but the report also contained some surprises.
The total carbon footprint of a six pack of Fat Tire is 4,982 gCO2e. In other words, a 60-case pallet of beer produces more than one metric ton of greenhouse gases. Sounds like a lot, but NBB actually produces 35% fewer emissions than the estimated industry average of over 7,100 gCO2e per six pack. That admirable performance earns NBB the Climate Conservancy’s ‘Climate Conscious Silver’ rating.
Let’s take a closer look at those numbers. The LCA report breaks down the beer lifecycle into three stages: Upstream, Entity, and Downstream. Upstream includes all the raw materials and energy associated with ingredients and packaging. Entity includes all the impacts created by brewing and marketing Fat Tire. Downstream systems include distribution, storage, retail, consumption, and final disposal.
Surprisingly, transportation accounted for a mere 3% of the Upstream carbon-equivalent emissions. The big Upstream culprits turned out to be glass, barley and malt, which comprise the majority of the upstream impact. From a climate angle, single-use glass bottles are probably the least efficient packaging available to brewers today. Glass manufacturing alone accounts for nearly 45% of Fat Tire’s upstream footprint, while the combined impacts of barley and malt were another 39 percent. All together, glass, barley, and malt represent more than a quarter of Fat Tire’s total lifecycle footprint.
Understandably, brewers may be inclined to look first at their own operations as the most obvious place to find emissions-reductions. So it seems surprising that NBB’s Entity impact represents a measly 3.5% of Fat Tire’s total footprint. But does this low impact mean that brewers get a free pass when it comes to climate change and can contentedly point the finger toward Upstream suppliers and Downstream polluters? Definitely not.
The reason NBB’s operations are relatively low-carbon is that they have already taken great strides toward limiting their environmental impact. The biggest factor affecting their praiseworthy carbon performance is the fact that Fat Tire’s electricity-related emissions are a big fat zero. That’s because NBB uses electricity generated from renewable resources, primarily locally-produced wind, sourced through the Fort Collins Green Energy Program. If they relied instead on the standard resource mix in the regional grid, the Entity impact of NBB would more than double. In addition to their green power purchasing, NBB has implemented a host of eco-improvements, from energy conservation and efficiency measures to waste reduction programs – many of which could be replicated by other brewers.
The Downstream Dilemma
The biggest surprise of the report came in the final stage. About half of Fat Tire’s carbon-impact comes from the electricity used to run retail beer coolers. Open coolers (the kind without doors) are the worst energy wasters. But NBB estimates that 70% of their retailers actually use closed door coolers, which means that even if the company could somehow help the other 30% convert to more efficient units, retail energy use would still remain the biggest and most confounding source of GHG emissions during the lifecycle of their leading beer.
Carbon Conscious Solutions for Brewers
Of the three lifecycle stages, brewers clearly have the most control over their own operations so it makes sense to start there, even though this stage accounts for the smallest portion of a six-pack’s carbon footprint. Curbing energy consumption, implementing efficiencies, and switching to renewables can potentially reduce a brewer’s GHG emissions by more than half. Starting with conservation and efficiency and linking the savings in these areas to capital improvements (on-site generation assets, grid-delivered green power programs, and renewable energy certificates) can knock out about 5% of a brewer’s total carbon footprint. That’s not bad, but it’s only a starting point.
Curtailing the upstream impacts associated with glass remains what Jenn Orgolinni, NBB’s Sustainability Director, called “a head-scratcher.” In a sense, this is good news for brewpubs and all-draft production brewers since kegs and refillable growlers are the obvious alternatives to single-use glass bottles. Cans could also be a game-changer. The craft market is already seeing interest surge in this once-unlikely packaging choice. Cans are lighter, more optimal in size and shape, and show significant energy savings when they enter America’s highly efficient aluminum recycling system – a program which is far more efficient and effective than the glass recycling system.
Lowering the impacts from barley could be relatively straightforward. The solution is one that this writer has touted for years: go organic. According to NBB’s LCA report:
The production of synthetic fertilizers and related emissions from the soil are a substantial part of the GHGs allocated from malted barley and could be reduced by switching to organic barley (or barley fertilized from organic sources).
Relying on their experience with Mothership Wit, the company’s first foray into organics, NBB might be able to plot out a transition to organic malts across the board and rack up significant carbon-savings in the process.
But the real motherload of carbon-reductions will come from improvements in retailer cooling systems. Wal-Mart arrived at this same conclusion when they researched ways to reduce energy use in their mega-stores. They have already begun making the switch to closed-door coolers. Warm-storage, the only other possible solution identified in the report, is likely a non-starter in the craft industry given its deleterious effects on product freshness. But again, a solution may be achievable in the form of kegs stored in naturally-cooled cellars the way Real Ale has been for centuries. With soaring malt and hops prices and the drive to limit GHG emissions, there could be a session-beer Real Ale resurgence on the horizon.
One thing this report seems to make clear is that brewers marketing beer in glass bottles bound for the retail market have a long row to hoe if they are going to find carbon-friendly practices. Maybe the solution is a thousand, or even ten thousand, more brewpubs. Who could argue with a solution like that? Well, except for production brewers that is!