How to brew a greener beer

From start to finish, making alcoholic beverages asks a lot from the environment. It takes about 20 gallons of water to produce a single eight-ounce serving of beer and 30 gallons per five-ounce serving of wine. Then there’s the glass and aluminum production for alcohol containers, the plastic and cardboard for packaging, and energy consumption for home and retail refrigeration. Many types of alcohol are only made in one or a few places—tequila in Mexicoscotch in Scotlandbourbon in Kentucky—requiring long-distance transportation to reach consumers.

The most common ingredients in alcohol production—grapes, wheat, barley, hops, sugar—are some of the most water- and energy-intensive crops on the planet. Brewing and fermenting also require huge amounts of energy. While specific estimates of the alcoholic beverage industry’s carbon footprint are not available, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says the wider food and beverage industry is one of the most unsustainable in the world, contributing to an estimated 60 percent of biodiversity loss and 30 percent of emissions-driven climate change worldwide. Alcohol makes up about 16 percent of the U.S. beverage industry by volume, according to Park Street, a Florida-based firm that provides logistical support to alcohol companies.

As climate change closes in, affecting every part of beverage producing, from agriculture to trucking, could these long-enduring practices spell an end to cheap beer on tap? Not necessarily; help is on the way. Innovations and technologies are emerging to reduce the environmental footprint of the alcoholic beverage industry, while some large manufacturers are taking steps to make production more sustainable. Here are a few examples.

Tackling transportation

In 2010, after hiking to the top of a mountain in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, Patrick Tatera really wanted a beer. Knowing that it’s about 95 percent water, Tatera, whose background is in chemical engineering and mathematics, started to ponder how he could dehydrate beer for easier transport and then rehydrate it when he was ready to drink it.

Tatera began experimenting and realized that a technology that could do this on a large scale could impact the entire beer industry, which is plagued by an inefficient distribution chain, according to Gary Tickle, the CEO of Sustainable Beverage Technologies, or SBT, the company Tatera went on to form.

Global transportation accounts for an estimated 20 percent of beer’s carbon footprint. Beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages are generally shipped in climate-controlled vehicles to prevent spoiling. “There’s a lot of stainless steel, water, and air being shipped around the country and around the world by virtue of the technology that’s being used today,” Tickle says. 

Tatera developed a process called BrewVo, which creates highly concentrated beer that can be transported at one-sixth the weight and volume of traditional beer. The BrewVo process is similar to traditional brewing except that the beer goes through multiple rounds of it. The final product of each brew cycle is sent through a BrewVo unit, which separates out the water and alcohol. “Everything else, all the good stuff that we typically find in the body of the beer,” such as the flavor from the hops and grain is shipped in plastic bags instead of cans, bottles, or kegs, according to Tickle.

At its destination—a bar or local brewery—it’s mixed at a ratio of one part bulk beer, six parts water, alcohol if desired, and then carbonated. It can then be sold as beer. BrewVo’s beer products are available at several bars in Denver, Colorado; the company is working to open a bar in South America, and soon will partner with Sleeping Giant, a brewer in Colorado, to scale up production.

Hoppiness from yeast

Another sustainable solution for the beer industry came to life in 2013. Charles Denby was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley studying how to genetically engineer yeast to make biofuels. In his spare time, he was brewing beer. He learned something in the process: Hops, which give beer its distinctive aroma and flavor, are one of the most expensive parts of the process. A pound of hops, which can make anywhere from about 10 to 25 gallons of beer depending on the recipe, can cost upwards of $15. Hop production is also a water hog. Growing one pound takes about 300 to 450 gallons of water depending on local weather and soil conditions, according to studies in Washington and Oregon, two of the largest hop-producing states. Denby applied his expertise in yeast genetics and synthetic biology to making beer.

He thought, “What if I just got the yeast to do it; we can cut out all of that agriculture and all that cost,” Denby says.

Denby and his Berkley colleague, Rachel Li, set to work engineering a strain of yeast that would produce terpenes, the chemical compounds in hops responsible for the “hoppy” flavor. In 2018, Denby and Li reported their success in Nature. In fact, beers brewed with the strains of yeast they developed tasted even hoppier than traditional beers, according to results of a double-blind taste test reported in the study.

The pair went on to create Berkeley Yeast. But despite the promise of their innovation, the hops substitute wasn’t immediately taken up in the industry, according to Denby.

“When you have an application that can replace or reduce the reliance on agriculture, but people have been using agriculture for centuries to do the job that you are replacing or improving, it takes a little while. In the beer industry in particular, a lot of these breweries already have contracts where they have hops on contract for the next five years,” Denby says. 

To overcome that stumbling block, the company instead promoted its yeast-derived flavors as a lower-cost, dependable alternative to hops. Today, Berkeley Yeast supplies brewer’s yeast to hundreds of breweries, Denby says, and has expanded into the wine industry.  

Carbon-neutral production

While start-ups such as Tatera’s SBT and Denby’s Berkeley Yeast look to create innovative solutions, other beverage companies are shifting their entire production processes to be more environmentally friendly.

Diageo, one of the largest multinational beer and spirit producers in the world, owns over 200 well-known alcoholic beverage brands, including Guinness, Don Julio, Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, and Crown Royal, and has pledged to eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

To do that, says Kirstie McIntyre, the company’s Global Sustainability Director, Diageo is taking a multi-pronged approach. Increasing efficiency is one way—upgrading equipment, improving building insulation, and speeding up the production process. The company captures and reuses heat energy, which is required in several stages of production. Diageo also uses renewable energy sources such as biomass generators fueled by byproducts from the brewing and distilling processes and waste products from farming hops, barley, and other ingredients to generate energy and electricity on site.

So far, Diageo has three carbon-neutral distilleries and is working to make their other 150 production sites worldwide carbon-neutral in the coming years. “It’s not a one size fits all. You can’t do the same thing in every single site,” McIntyre says. “We will go through that same hierarchy within each site, no matter how big or small, no matter how new or old, and we will work through all of that. ” 

In early September, Diageo’s strategy to reach net zero emissions was certified by the Science Based Targets initiative, a joint effort by CDP Worldwide, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute, and the World Wide Fund for Nature, which helps the private sector lower its emissions. Net-zero is achieved when a company eliminates its emissions, or offsets them by planting trees, for instance, so that it doesn’t add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. 

Momentum for sustainability in the alcoholic beverage industry seems to be growing as emerging innovations take hold and well-known brands work to reduce their environmental footprint. “This truly is a global opportunity, says Tickle. If you think about this industry, it really hasn’t changed a lot in many hundreds of years. We think that this really is the first unique opportunity to truly upend an industry.”

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