(This originally appeared as the Guest Editorial in the June/July 2008 issue of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.)
Growlers: the ultimate in green beer packaging?
Editor’s Note [Greg Kitsock]: It might seem like hyperbole to call brewpubs an “endangered species,” inasmuch as their numbers and output are still increasing. But with the economy tanking and the price or raw ingredients soaring, brewpubs are very vulnerable. Many restaurateurs are going to take a look at all that stainless steel equipment and wonder if it’s worth the investment.
Selling it off would open up space for more tables and chairs, increasing the revenue stream. Ceasing to brew would mean a lot less red tape when it comes to licensing, as well as eliminating a source of liability in the event a customer tripped over a hose or got sprayed with hot water.
And there are so many production breweries making great beer. Why not sell the tanks and be content to sell other people’s brands?
It would be a shame, however, if a large number of brewpub owners reached that conclusion. Beer Activist Chris O’Brien, author of Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World tells us why:
Fight climate change. Conserve resources. Reduce waste.
These are ambitious goals being pursued by scientists, government agencies, businesses, environmental advocates, and concerned citizens everywhere. But is it possible for craft beer drinkers to make a difference too?
Consider a few of the environmental impacts from beer. New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado recently conducted a study to quantify how a six pack of Fat Tire ale contributes to climate change. They discovered that over fifty percent of the greenhouse gases related to Fat Tire was emitted as a result of the energy consumed by the refrigerators at beer retailers. Another big chunk was emitted during the production and transport of the glass bottles used to package the beer. The third biggest carbon impact came from the agro-chemicals and energy used to grow and malt barley.
The good news is that New Belgium is already taking great strides to limit their contribution to climate change. For example, they source renewable energy to power their brewery. They are also considering packaging some beer in aluminum cans, a lighter and more compact packaging that requires far less energy to recycle than glass. New Belgium is also brewing their Mothership Wit with organic ingredients grown without petroleum-derived fertilizers and pesticides, another small step that helps to slow the climate crisis.
But the fact remains that most of the greenhouse gas emissions occur at the point of retail. That’s a tough issue for brewers to tackle but is there anything a climate-conscious beer drinker can do about it? Could the answer be as simple as visiting the nearest brewpub?
Brewpubs utilize a couple environmentally preferable packaging options: reusable kegs and refillable growlers. Most kegs are made of stainless steel or aluminum, both of which are materials that have relatively high recycling rates in the U.S. Kegs are also more optimally shaped so they take less space in coolers so the coolers can be smaller and use less energy.
Now dispense that keg beer into a growler that will generally be emptied within one day, requiring little or no refrigeration. Growlers are made of glass just like standard 12 and 22 ounce beer bottles but every time a growler is refilled, its ‘embodied energy’ is spread out over a longer and more useful lifecycle, making it less energy intensive with every reuse.
A true lifecycle assessment comparing the environmental benefits of a beer served in a brewpub to a glass bottle of beer would account for a variety of other factors that complicate the equation, such as how the customer arrived at the pub. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that customers drive cars whether they are buying beer at a grocery store or a brewpub, so there is no net additional expense or reduction of energy during that part of the formula. On the other hand, with very few exceptions, the glass beer bottles arrived at the grocery or beer store in a truck fueled with petroleum, whereas the beer in the brewpub was merely piped from a storage vessel to a serving vessel within the same building.
Based on these packaging and dispensing options and the lower levels of energy needed for refrigeration, brewpubs are starting to look like a better bet for someone concerned about reducing the environmental footprint associated with their beer drinking. Now consider one additional factor: fresh flavor. It’s hard to get a fresher beer than one served at the point of production. Since quality suffers when beer is exposed to light, heat, and oxygen, foreshortening a beer’s lifespan from fermentation tank to beer drinker has the benefit of improved freshness and flavor. Score one for brewpubs.
Unfortunately, not many brewpubs in the Mid-Atlantic region are using organic ingredients yet. But now that Clipper City has converted their Oxford line to be certified organic, local craft connoisseurs have the option of locally produced bottled organic beer. What are the environmental trade-offs of a non-organic draft beer compared to an organic bottled beer? The complexity of the issue is almost mind-numbing. But I do know one thing. As the number of brewpubs in America continues to grow, and more brewers shift to organic ingredients, life keeps getting better for beer drinkers.