Beer and Climate Change

July 18, 2008

(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!

The Ultimate in Green Beer Packaging

July 18, 2008

(This originally appeared as the Guest Editorial in the June/July 2008 issue of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.)

the ultimate in green beer packaging?

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.

Beer Activist Talks Fair Trade on KPFT Next Tuesday

July 18, 2008


Tune in next Tuesday, Noon-1pm Central time, to the Open Journal on Houston’s Pacifica radio affiliate KPFT when host Tim O’Brien (that’s my bro) interviews Chris O’Brien (that’s me) about responsible purchasing, fair trade, and sweatfree apparel.

Maybe we’ll even talk about beer, who knows?


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