Better Brewed Beer

foamy-beer

A time-honored artisanal endeavor is quietly articulating a 21st century version of industrial production

When we have links to articles reviewing the literature of vegetarian cooking and/or first-person stories, told in multiple parts about the ecological benefits of eating invasive fish species, it is only fitting that we offer information about ecologically sensitive beverages. The community of craft beer producers in the USA in particular has undergone nothing less than a renaissance. Thanks to the magazine website of Conservation for this story:

From the outside, the New Belgium Brewery, located on 50 acres near downtown Fort Collins, Colorado, appears to be an environmentalist’s dreamscape. Company-issued bicycles surround the facility. A parking lot next to the brew house has an electric car charging station. Solar panels layer the roof of the bottling plant. A well-worn biking path snakes across the property.

This tableau of eco-correctness is impressive. So impressive, in fact, that I found myself feeling skeptical as I watched the brewery come to life on a cold January morning. After all, there’s a lot of what Robert Engelman of Worldwatch Institute calls “sustainababble” out there. Brewing is a quintessential artifact of rust-belt industrialism, so it is hardly the first place I’d think to look for environmental inspiration.

It’s no secret that the brewing industry as a whole has traditionally had a dismal ecological track record. For decades big brewers, like big industries everywhere, followed the seemingly inexorable path of brute-force production. Natural resources were seen to be boundless and expendable, scale economies the Holy Grail, and pollution hardly an afterthought. Coors, for example, has a long rap sheet of environmental violations. It illegally dumped industrial solvents into Clear Creek from 1976 to 1989. The Sierra Club accused it of violating the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts 240 times between 1986 and 1991. In 1991 the company, under pressure from the EPA, paid a $700,000 fine for violating hazardous waste laws. Coors was hardly alone among large-scale breweries in treating the ecosystem like a dumping ground—all the while keeping the suds flowing and the bottom line firm.

Then something curious and hopeful happened. In the 1990s, small craft breweries began to proliferate, and they began to do so in a more progressive atmosphere. In 1980, when the only noteworthy craft brewer at work was Sierra Nevada Brewing, located in Chico, California, there were only 89 craft breweries in the U.S. Today there are more than 2,400. This rapid proliferation took place on the cusp of a fresh environmental moment. It was a time when the children of an intellectual ecosystem framed by Rachel Carson were reaching the drinking age and exercising consumer choice. And it was a time when buzz phrases such as “the ecology of commerce” and “green capitalism” were beginning to infiltrate the corporate playbook.

brewery-graph

If this transformation has an epicenter, it could justifiably be back in Fort Collins, amidst the toasty aromas of the New Belgium brewery. Their eco-chic exterior turns out to be an accurate reflection of what’s happening indoors. And what’s happening indoors suggests that this time-honored artisanal endeavor—craft brewing—is quietly articulating a twenty-first century version of industrial production. The familiar grammar of progressive environmentalism—reduce, reuse, recycle—becomes a creed worth not only repeating but actually living by.

I learned about the finer details of New Belgium’s ecological philosophy from Bryan Simpson, the company’s media relations director. When we met, Simpson wore light cargo pants, a bright flannel shirt, and skateboarding shoes with red laces, looking more like a graduate student than a seasoned corporate executive. Before we dove into the bowels of the brewery, he said that New Belgium was focused on determining “how to do this work differently than what the industrial revolution laid down for us.”

It shows. Solar light boxes illuminate a room of large, silver brew tanks; window sills are fabricated from “beetle-kill pine,” wood taken from local ponderosas destroyed by Asiatic beetles; a special “Merlin” brew kettle heats wort (the sugary liquid extracted from brewing mash) across a flat metallic plate, increasing surface area to save about 50 percent of the energy otherwise required to cook wort in a vat; a labyrinthine recovery apparatus captures steam and returns the heat back to the brewing process. As with most green initiatives, these innovations are more common sense than rocket science.

The rocket science is left for what’s happening out back. It involves a brewery’s most precious resource: water. Most brewers are veritably obsessed with reducing water-to-beer ratios, especially in the West, where droughts are intensifying and water wars endemic. Despite constant monitoring, even the best efforts leave behind a considerable amount of industrial wastewater, most of it having been used for cleaning purposes. Forty years ago, few breweries would have cared much about this problem. But within the emerging culture of craft brewing, it has become a central corporate concern, one that craft breweries clamor to manage.

Rather than dump untreated wastewater on the city’s doorstep, New Belgium pumps it into an on-site anaerobic digester that it built in 2002. Brandon Weaver, a prodigiously bearded and long-haired employee who showed up on a bicycle to give me a tour of the digester, joked that we were getting ready to witness “some dark magic.” For sure, alchemy went down. He explained how introduced microbes consumed residual brewing biomass to produce methane, which collects in two moon-like balls rising a couple of stories into the sky. This methane is subsequently channeled into engines that convert the gas to electricity that’s used to brew beer…

Read the whole article here.

3 thoughts on “Better Brewed Beer

  1. Pingback: Craft Beer, Designed | Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Britain’s National Collection of Yeast Cultures (Beer Aficionados, Read This) | Raxa Collective

  3. Pingback: Beer, Craftily Crafted | Raxa Collective

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