Beer and Climate Change

(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.

The Costs of Climate Change
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.
The carbon impact of a six pack of Fat Tire beer.

The carbon impact of a six pack of Fat Tire beer.

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.

Upstream Offenders
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.

New Belgium earned the Climate Conscious Silver certification.

New Belgium earned the Climate Conscious Silver certification.

Entity Effects
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!

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13 Responses to Beer and Climate Change

  1. Mr. Joel says:

    Thanks for posting this, Chris! Fascinating stuff.

  2. Angela says:

    brewpubs sounds like a great idea for me but it is probably I am a sucker for good beer as well as environmentally conscious.

  3. [...] are one of the big dogs in the craft beer movement that is sweeping the nation and a pioneer in green brewing practices. I have called 1554 my favorite beer, in fact, until recently. Either my palette has changed, which [...]

  4. [...] New Belgium, America’s third largest craft brewer, has relied entirely on renewable energy for ten years now by sourcing wind power and using a combined heat and power system that treats their wastewater and generates methane gas for use as fuel (related: read my article about the lifecycle analysis of their Fat Tire beer right here). [...]

  5. Henry Galt says:

    CO2 exits a warm pint – fast. CO2 is sucked up by a cold ocean and that is happening now. It is going to get colder than it already is. No ice age but some places will not be able to grow hops for the next 60 years.

  6. Duncan says:

    I’m really curious about the relative footprint of cans vs. bottles. I have found a few articles:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2006/nov/23/ethicalliving.leohickmanonethicalliving
    http://video.titantv.com/content/000B00GB/video.aspx

    that claim an aluminium can has between 9 and 14 time the embodied energy of a bottle. This only takes the manufacturing process into account, not the recycling lifecycle. This would seem to counter the move to cans being suggested in this article. Any further detail on the recycling lifecycle that accounts for the much higher energy required to make single use bottles vs. cans?

  7. beeractivist says:

    Duncan,

    According to studies I cite in my book Fermenting Revolution, recycling an aluminum can takes 95% less energy than is required to produce one from scratch, whereas glass recycling takes only 25% less energy than producing a new glass bottle. Cans have an average of 55% recycled content but glass bottles only contain an average of 23%. Add in the reduced impact from lighter and better shaped cans, and combine that with the efficiency of aluminum recycling, high aluminum recycling rates and high recycled content average, and one begins to understand why aluminum is more energy efficient than glass even though the production process is more energy intensive. So, really we need to recycle more glass and use it more in bottle manufacture. But the game changer here is getting rid of packaging altogether – brew at home, drink draft, or drink at a brewpub!

    Cheers,
    Chris

  8. Duncan says:

    Thanks Chris,

    Got your book in the post from Amazon today. Looking forward to an interesting read.

    D

  9. Aaron says:

    BeerActivist,

    Do you have the statistics on the differences in the emissions between glass and aluminum during their recycling processes? Which creates more pollution versus the % of recycling capabilities? That would be interesting to know.

    Aaron

  10. beeractivist says:

    Aaron – My understanding is that the total lifecycle of aluminum cans is slightly preferable to that of glass. Glass is heavier and harder to recycle. There are major concerns with mining the bauxite for aluminum, but once it’s been mined it is cheap, low-energy, and easy to recycle. It is also much lighter and more ideally shaped so as to pack into smaller boxes and reduce shipping impacts. It is also easy to package them with six-pack rings rather than in paperboard, which is again more resource intensive. Sorry I don’t have actual numbers for you, but if you google a bit you’ll find them.

    Cheers,
    Chris

  11. Electric Impact Wrench Review…

    [...]Beer and Climate Change « Beer Activist[...]…

    • Adriana says:

      Let me start out by saying that I love my Keurig breewr. It brews a great cup of coffee (GMCR Dark Magic is my fav) and the convenience can’t be beat. However, I’ve always felt a little guilty every time I throw out a used K-Cup. It seems like they’re not only completely UNrecycleable, but totally UNbiodegradeable as well. Enter the My K-Cup reuseable filter. Yes, it takes a little practice to fill up the mesh filter with grounds without making a total mess, and sure it takes a few seconds of rinsing when finished. But the result is a great cup of coffee and no guilt trip about filling the landfill with punched out K-Cups. And if you’re feeling reckless, it’s an easy switch back to those good ol’ prefab cups. I’d recommend this to anyone with a compatible breewr. It’s not that much more of a hassle to use, the results are excellent, and there’s no waste. Oh yeah, it’s also a whole lot cheaper to fill these with your favorite pre-ground GMCR blend (Dark Magic baby!) than to buy the equivalent number of cups. The only negative that I’ve seen is a tendency for more sludge to get through to the bottom of your cup. Watch that last sip, it’s a doosy!

  12. Ronald says:

    Ronald…

    [...]Beer and Climate Change « Beer Activist[...]…

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