In our new series, Small Changes, Big Impact, we explore the compound effect that minor adjustments can have on boosting sustainability. The first article explores affordable ways for breweries to boost sustainability and save money by reducing and reusing ingredients.
A Colorado company called Sustainable Beverage Technologies claims it’s found a novel way to half the amount of water its client breweries use – by dehydrating beer and selling it as a concentrate to be reconstituted at the point of sale.
Conserving water is a commendable and financially prudent goal, of course, but if putting your name on beer syrup isn’t your thing, you don’t have to go to such drastic extremes to help save money or the planet. Right now, hundreds of easily accessible and affordable ecological improvements are hiding literally under your nose. `
In the first installment of our Small Changes, Big Impact sustainability series, we’ll show you ways to extract maximum value from minor eco-improvements. The best news is that not only will you be helping the environment, you’ll realize massive monetary savings and qualify for green business rebates, credits and write-offs.
Don’t believe in the economic value of these investments? Bell’s Brewery Environmental Programs Director Walker Modic says his employer recouped the cost of an ultrasonic measurement tool, base price approximately $5,000, in one CO2 leak. Other – low-to-no-cost – examples abound.
How to Get Started
The world of sustainability can feel overwhelming, and not knowing where to start can derail even the best intentions.
New Belgium Brewing advises ‘progress over perfection.’
“Start somewhere and start now. Pick at least one action to do TODAY, roll up your sleeves and get to work,” reads the brewery’s Drinksustainably.com tips-based website.
Here’s where we think you should start: your phone. Book an on-site efficiency audit with your public utility (your municipality or local brewers guild can tell you what agencies offer this) then schedule visits from your equipment manufacturers to train or retrain your staff on how to properly set up, calibrate, operate and maintain every component for peak performance.
Now the real work begins. To decide what to do next, you must assess every tangible aspect of your business.
As the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) says on its website, “If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
“It’s not fun and it’s not particularly sexy but you’ve got to track everything down to your kilowatt hours of electricity used per package. It’s really the basis for how you want to get this done,” says Modic, who recommends launching with projects that will deliver the most noticeable ROI. “If you pick priorities ad hoc, sustainability in your organization won’t be as effective and you won’t get the buy-in from your team.”
Once you’ve compiled your data, compare it to industry benchmarks. (The Brewers Association, New Belgium Brewing and the NHDES offer excellent free measuring and benchmarking resources.)
“You may discover you’re really great at electricity but not so great at natural gas or pounds of solid waste, and you can see where you can get the bang for your buck,” Modic says. “That may be something as simple as a leak. Breweries are noisy, noisy places; it’s really easy to walk by and it happens all day, every day, for a year.”
You don’t have to do this alone. You can create an advisory board of employees from each department or you can enlist everyone’s assistance. Deputize a leak patrol unit or gamify the detective work by turning it into a regular scavenger hunt complete with prizes.
Jamie Schild, founder and CEO of A-Bay Engineers, loves the idea of asking staff to walk around with Post-It notes to identify problems and possible solutions.
“Prioritize (the tasks) according to what’s the impact and what’s the ease of implementation? Everyone discusses and votes. Then revisit that matrix later to choose new priorities,” he says.
Keep employees engaged by hanging whiteboards to mark progress and celebrate the wins, both big and small.
An obvious place to look for wins is in water consumption. An average brewer uses 4.28 gallons of water per gallon of beer when factoring for the brewhouse, cellar, packaging and utilities. While the price of a water-saving centrifuge and state-of-the-art membrane filters have come down considerably, a brewery not flush with cash (pun intended) can quickly lower that ratio by reusing surplus wort or filtering yeast to recover residual beer.
At the same time, Schild says, “Create an understanding of where you’re using water throughout your process. Have an intern or family member sit there with a stopwatch and time how long it takes to use that hose. Cleaning tanks is the big one.”
To reduce the amount you expend on CIP, store your final rinse water in a tub and reuse it in a subsequent pre-rinse phase. To clean everything else, use alternative tools like brooms, squeegees and shovels instead of mindlessly flushing messes down a drain. For those times you do need a hose, buy high-pressure, low-flow nozzles with a shut-off feature. Your water utility probably offers discounts on these and other gadgets like low-flow spray valves, faucets, and bathroom appliances.
With climate change killing global barley crops, brewers are seeking ways to make their supplies last longer. Mash filter presses have dropped in price and boast grain savings up to 20% (plus water savings of up to 40%). But they’re not free. Van Havig, master brewer at Gigantic Brewing in Portland, Oregon, has some options that are.
Using 35 Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery locations as case studies, he discovered three main factors that together raised mash efficiency by up to seven percentage points: mash pH, grind and lautering technique.
“It was really noticeable and correlatable with sugar extraction when mash pH was out of spec,” he told a Master Brewers Association of the Americas (MBAA) podcaster.
Every Rock Bottom brewhouse that very coarsely ground its grains achieved commendable efficiencies of 89% and higher, while no sites finely grinding attained efficiencies above that. How coarse is coarse enough? Havig recommends buying a #14 sieve and setting your mill so that 68-71% of the grain stays on top.
“You’re talking about a grist where your mill has just broken open the kernel,” he says. “That’s enough to get liquid into the giant starch packet that the endosperm is. You don’t need to turn this thing to flour, you just need to access it.”
The rough grind helps establish a consistent mash bed in the lauter tun, which allows the liquid to flow uniformly. Stir the wort just enough to get a loose, permeable bed of even depth; don’t stir before vorlauf; and don’t run off too fast. If you brew at a typical small brewery you’re doing it right when you can lauter for 90 minutes – no more, no less.
You can support hop growers’ efforts toward sustainability by buying hops and hop products that minimize their impact on the environment. Some newer varieties give higher yields; require lighter inputs (notably water, fertilizer, fungicide and pesticide); and boast far lower CO2 emissions. Even disease resistance plays a part.
In a series of articles for Beer & Brewing magazine’s industry guide, Stan Hieronymous writes that bittering varieties yield significantly more per acre than aroma varieties – requiring less water while generating much lower CO2 equivalent (CO2e) emissions. Hopsteiner’s new high-alpha Helios, for instance, boasts extraordinarily high yields and resists downy and powdery mildew. At the MBAA summit in 2022, research agronomist Ryan Gregory presented evidence showing that a 100 barrel batch of beer dry-hopped at four pounds per barrel with a variety susceptible to powdery mildew would have 39% higher CO2e (254 pounds) than a resistant variety that gets treated with a lower chemical load.
Hieronymus notes, “That’s comparable to a 282-mile road trip.”
Meanwhile, hop scientists are developing eco-friendly alternatives to tried-and-true T-90 pellets. Pellets like T-45’s, T-35s from Hopsteiner, Cryo from Yakima Chief Hops and CGX from Crosby Hops are so much more concentrated that some recipes call for a mere half – or less – than the volume of T-90s. At Roy Farms, hops get pelletized on-site instead of being shrink-wrapped into bales then driven around by forklift or truck.
According to Hieronymus, a pound of T-90’s absorbs 1.2 gallons of beer, which adds up to almost 20% loss in a beer dry-hopped at a rate of five pounds per barrel. Further, he says, researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) found that in general, spent Amarillo, Cascade and Centennial hold onto a whopping ¾ of alpha acids and half of their total oil.
So what if you didn’t need to use vegetative material at all?
That’s the prospect offered by hop oils, available in the US from entities like NZ Hops, Ltd., in partnership with Totally Natural Solutions (TNS). TNS extracts and fractionates lupulin from pellets instead of following the standard protocols of extraction with carbon dioxide (CO2).
Perhaps to growers’ chagrin, outside researchers are discovering that some aroma hops can actually be replaced by another primary beer ingredient – yeast.
Two studies over the past few years found that brewer’s yeast can produce the terpenes and thiols normally found in hops. In 2018, researchers at University of California, Berkeley genetically engineered S. cerevisiae to produce linalool and geraniol, the floral flavor compounds that contribute to Cascade hops’ signature nose.
In 2022, a team at OSU genetically modified a strain of brewer’s yeast to express an enzyme that boosts the number of tropical flavored 3-mercaptohexan-1-ol and 3-mercaptohexyl acetate thiols produced during fermentation. Beers brewed with this yeast were described as having intense aromas of guava, passionfruit, mango and pineapple with no off-flavors.
“When I was tasting these beers my eyes popped out of my head,” OSU fermentation science professor Thomas Shellhammer told the Science X network. “This really represents a quantum shift, not just an incremental shift, in terms of the expression of these strong flavors.”
Brewers who don’t reuse yeast are adding a lot of solid matter and BOD to their outgoing wastewater. In fact, in places where municipalities or other governing bodies have regulations in place regarding these types of industrial waste disposal, brewers may be forced into positions where they’re having to literally pour clean water down the drain in order to dilute yeast slurries as they are discarded. Therefore, re-use of yeast that would otherwise go to waste can not only reduce overall brewery waste, but it can have a significant downstream impact on further water treatment and reuse efforts in the community.
Developments in yeast technology, such as continuous fermentation monitoring, increase control over yeast vitality. The automated monitoring and logging of quality parameters allows users to make real time assessments of yeast health and propagation performance. The ability to compare different propagations to each other shows the progression of yeast growth and allows changes in yeast metabolism to be easily seen. Being able to pinpoint changes in yeast metabolism gives brewers greater ability to refine their propagations, increasing yeast health and process efficiency.
Head Brewer and Owner of Western Red Brewing, Denver Smyth, uses BrewIQ for his fermentation monitoring. Since starting, Smyth has gained new insight into yeast vitality. “We’re starting to pinpoint the best time to collect yeast,” he said. “This is giving us between eight and nine generations out of our yeast. It’s easy to look at the dashboard and see everything taking off. Before, we would be 24 hours in before knowing the yeast wasn’t taking off because we didn’t see bubbles. Seeing the DO drops in real-time saves a lot of money on yeast. Now we can see exactly when the yeast is going dormant.”
Before the pandemic, a tank of CO2 cost so little that most American brewers didn’t mind buying between 4 and 21 pounds per barrel to carbonate, clean and push beer around even though they produce – and blow off – their own during fermentation. But now the crippling shortage is generating unprecedented interest in carbon capture technology, which allows brewers to store and reuse the CO2 they produce instead of wasting it.
Obviously, this cuts down on greenhouse gas (GRG) emissions. But brewers are discovering stunning surprise benefits in their beer.
In a recorded BA presentation, Josh Hare of Hops and Grain Brewing in Austin says by requesting a CO2 analysis from his energy company, he learned he’d been producing and releasing three times the amount of CO2 he needed. Once he hooked up a carbon capture machine built by market leader Earthly Labs, he began collecting 1.3 times what he’d been buying. He reduced his GRG’s by 44% and realized his ROI within two years.
But that may not be the best part. Without the customary “bite” that comes with commercial CO2, Hare’s sensory panel identified 3-5 previously hidden characteristics in their kolsch, which they continued to decipher 90 days later. The kolsch passed true-to-brand tests for the same 90-day period – 30 days longer than with store-bought gas – and measured 6-10 DDB less dissolved oxygen.
Brian Peters at The Austin Beer Garden Brewing describes the test batch of pale ale he carbonated with recycled CO2 as having “noticeably better” lacing and head retention and a much softer palate. With a first-generation Earthly unit the size of a sub-zero refrigerator he was able to carbonate a keg of that ale with the 4-5 pounds of CO2 he recovered from a fermenter after spunding.
So how does the tech work? Generally, tubes siphon CO2 from the fermenter into the unit, where it gets dried, scrubbed of volatile organic compounds and impurities then converted into liquid by getting chilled to below -34.7 ℃ (-30.46 ℉).
Analysis of the Hops and Grains and Austin Beer Garden beers showed much cleaner profiles than typical commercially carbonated beers; and a beer brewed at Celis Brewery contained zero oxygen, thanks to an O2 sensor on Earthly’s models, which also come with remote digital monitoring.
During a BA seminar Sierra Nevada Brewing innovation brewmaster Scott Jennings said that in Sierra’s experience CO2 conservation techniques have “a reasonable ROI, reduced the brewery’s carbon footprint … and remain an easily implemented strategy for any size brewery.”
Breweries that capture more gas than they need can sell it to others; Denver Beer Co. has sold its surplus to a nearby marijuana grow facility. Not only does owner Charlie Berger say he feels very good knowing his brewery has its own supply of CO2, the partnership with the pot plant got “a ton of love” from the press that translated to sales.
And therein lies an additional payoff in reducing and reusing: the goodwill that comes from your community when you promote all of these good environmental works.