The Beer of Choice

Recently, I was asked the question: When choosing a beer, which is better for the environment – a locally brewed beer, or one from a brewery that employs sustainable practices?  Good question!  And a complex one! 

The environmental benefit of buying local is pretty straight forward.  As discussed in Local Sourcing, buying a beer that is brewed locally avoids the greenhouse gas emissions associated with transporting that beer brewed farther away.  The more distance, more greenhouse gas emissions (unless the transport was via an electric vehicle that was recharged with renewable energy – but that’s a long shot for now). Additionally, the local beer, typically a craft beer, supports the local economy as compared to the global economy and multi-national corporations. (See A Local Economy)

An article in Thrillist entitled How Craft Breweries are Saving the Planet, One Pint at a Time, explains how some craft breweries are changing their operation for the better. The article details eco-friendly practices by Kona Brewing Company in Kona, Hawaii.  Kona has or plans to divert and re-use 95% of their waste which would otherwise end up in a landfill or the atmosphere.

Currently Kona: (1) transforms spent grain from the brewery into housemade pizza crust; and (2) uses air-conditioning runoff water for onsite veggie and herb gardens.  In a new, larger brewery,  Kona will also: (3) install enough solar-and-battery capability to power 25% of their use; (4) develop a C02 reclamation center to siphon off gas produced naturally during fermentation for use later in the brewing process; (5) incorporate its own wastewater and re-purpose system for external uses like washing down kegs, floors, and brewing equipment, thus, minimizing their need for city-supplied water by 50%; and (6) capture methane gas – another brewing byproduct – to generate  electricity to power their water re-purpose system. 

Buying Kona beer has a smaller environmental footprint than another brewery that does not incorporate “sustainable” practices. However, it has to be shipped from Hawaii – a long way away. 

In addition to Kona Brewing, the Thrillist articles describes the eco-friendly practices of these eight other breweries.  Their environmental and sustainable practices are similarly impressive.

  • New Belgium Brewing Co., Fort Collins, Colorado
  • Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing, Westfield, New York
  • Ninkasi Brewing Co., Eugene, Oregon
  • Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn, New York
  • Alaskan Brewing Co., Juneau, Alaska
  • Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, Richmond, Virginia
  • Allagash Brewing Co., Portland, Maine
  • Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, California

Returning to the question: “Is it better to buy Kona beer, brewed in Hawaii, or a local craft beer which requires little transport emissions?” I’m not sure.   Maybe it’s better to buy one of the eight breweries listed above that are brewed within the continental U.S.?  Turns out the form of shipping plays a large role in efficiency.  Large ocean ships, aside from being the cheapest mode, are also the most carbon-efficient method of shipping – even though many of today’s large ships use very dirty fuels. A big ship will emit about 0.4 ounces of carbon dioxide to transport 2 tons of cargo 1 mile. That’s roughly half as much as a train, one-fifth as much as a truck and nearly a fiftieth of what an airplane would emit to accomplish the same task.  Kona involves big ships, and trucks.  The others breweries listed above involve trucks.  And while all of these modes of transportation are becoming more efficient every year, they are still not as efficient as my local brewery.

So, we must consider what the local craft brewery choices are doing relative to the environment.  The degree to which local craft breweries are incorporating sustainable – or eco-friendly practices – in all likelihood, varies widely.  Many of these craft breweries are relatively new and may have focused their efforts on making and selling the best beer they can.  Sustainable practices may be something they’ll consider once they are on stronger footing.  My survey of web-sites of near-by craft breweries had few, if any mentions of sustainable practices… so I e-mailed several of them… and I am awaiting their responses.  I have learned that several are incorporating sustainable packaging (cardboard packaging) and one (St. Arnold’s) provides incentives to customers who return the plastic carrier…and St. Arnold reuses them.

Another environmentally-friendly practice some breweries are using involves contributing a portion of their proceeds to a worthy cause.  Forbes published an article, 6 Earth-Friendly Beers to Drink on Earth Day, and describes the organization they are supporting.

  • Anchor Brewing Baykeeper IPA – San Francisco Baykeeper
  • Karbach Southern White Wheat Ale – Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation
  • Golden Road Brewing Heal the Bay – Heal the Bay (Los Angeles)
  • Worthy Brewing Ten Mile Lager – Operation Appleseed (Oregon)
  • Alaskan Icy Bay IPA – Coastal CODE (Clean Oceans Depend on Everyone)
  • Barrell Brewing Co. Lazy Trail IPA – Outdoor Alliance

Like so many things, picking the right beer requires a bit of homework and you may or may not get the “absolute best environmental choice” but the research will likely lead a better choice than doing no research at all.  If you can find one that supports an organization you also support, then you’ve got additional incentives for your purchase. 

Local craft or multi-national?

But we need to be vigilant in our choices because some companies might attempt to fool us.  Last year one of my posts prominently discussed how Budweiser is being produced using 100% wind power.  And that’s great, no doubt.  But what I didn’t know then is that Budweiser’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, has apparent ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose rejection of climate science and environmental regulation is so extreme that even Exxon Mobil decided to jump ship on this organization.  And Exxon Mobil’s bar on what is acceptable is, in my opinion, pretty low.  Houston’s Karbach Brewery, a locally crafted beer that donates a portion of its proceeds to worthy causes, was purchased by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2016, so even buying locally has risks of supporting organizations that oppose climate change initiatives.  Be careful, don’t be fooled again!

Bottom line, I’m torn.  I want my local craft breweries to survive – it’s good for the community and local beers don’t involve a lot of distant shipping, which I know is good.  But also, I want to support breweries that are aggressively incorporating sustainable practices to benefit the earth.  Their leadership provides guidance to other breweries as to what can be done better.  So, if I find myself in Portland, Eugene, Fort Collins or another city home to one of the sustainable crafters listed above, I’ll take advantage of that local beer and keep the transport emissions low.  But while at home,I guess I’ll split my support and drink some of both – the local crafts, and the eco-friendly more distant ones.  Said another way, drink more beer that’s either local, or brewed using sustainable practices; not a bad outcome!

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