Concrete Progress: Drink Responsibly

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s two-year Reimagining Infrastructure project.

When historians assess the era in which we live today, they will say, “It was the Time of Craft Beer.”

OK, maybe they won’t say that. But there is no doubt that craft breweries (defined by the Brewers Association as brewers making less than six million barrels; defined by me as breweries that do not offer a “lite” beer) have exploded in recent years. In the 1960s there was—I can barely believe this—one craft brewer in the United States: Anchor Steam, in San Francisco. There will soon be 4,000, the vast majority founded in this century. The only surprise to me is that this is just happening now. Brewing calls upon the kind of earthy magic that many of us seek in our lives—it is no mistake that the brewery making the widely-acclaimed “best beer in the world” is called The Alchemist.

So now America drinks craft beer. But beer, of course, demands a lot of resources—it takes about six barrels of water, for instance, to brew one barrel of ale. (A barrel holds thirty-one gallons.) And craft beer is, if anything, more resource-intensive. It uses more grains, and especially hops, per bottle than the macrobrews do. However, as craft brewers take up a growing share of the industry’s flows of water, power, ingredients, and waste, they are also leading a drive to make brewing sustainable. They’re pushed both by their own values—the kind of people who found craft breweries are, I feel confident in saying, the same kind of people who read Orion—and by their customers, who want to feel as good as they do when they buy their beer as when they drink it.

If I had to pick one place where this sustainable revolution began, it would be Fort Collins, Colorado, and the New Belgium Brewing Company. Looking at its bottles over the years, New Belgium always seemed to me like a sort of rural paradise, where happy people work and frolic and celebrate together—Brambly Hedge with beer. And I arrived to find… That it’s just like that. After driving through heart-lifting Colorado scenery, I opened the car door to the incredibly delicious smell of hops and malt, like my kitchen when my brew pot boils over. Lined up outside the entrance were bikes, exactly like the ones on the labels of their flagship amber ale, Fat Tire. New Belgium gives its employees a bike after their first year with the company. For those who still wish to drive to work, there are favored parking spaces for electric vehicles. I walked in the door already impressed.

New Belgium was an early part of the craft movement—they started selling beer in 1991—and is now the eighth-biggest brewer in the United States. From the get-go, the company hated waste and loved efficiency; founding brewer Jeff Lebesch was an electrical engineer. They were also committed to environmental stewardship. In the late nineties, an environmental assessment revealed that the biggest portion of their footprint was coal—it takes a lot of power to boil thousands of barrels of beer a year. So New Belgium partnered with their local utility and the city of Fort Collins to buy wind power from nearby Wyoming.

As a major founding subscriber to the program, it’s not too much to say that New Belgium changed the whole community’s means of providing power. Forward-thinking companies can help drive innovation in just this way, both because they’re major consumers and employers, but also, I’d speculate, because in America—even in progressive places like Fort Collins—many people ascribe a certain legitimacy to business that they do not give to the government. Action by a locally important company like New Belgium enables whole communities, not just local government or nonprofits, to take major progressive steps. As New Belgium embarked on the plan, the only potential stumbling block was that the money to do it was earmarked for profit-sharing amongst employees (New Belgium is employee-owned). So the company leadership asked the people whether they would favor using that money to buy wind. The employees voted yes—unanimously.

Moving on since then, New Belgium has dug in to all phases of its operations in search of sustainability and efficiency, and has learned all sorts of tricks. They actually make 18 percent of their own electricity now, between waste methane from their onsite water treatment plant and a new solar array. They divert 99.9 percent of their waste from the landfill, between recycling, reusing, and sending spent grains to feed cattle. To keep everyone conscious, the company’s trash cans are labeled LANDFILL. New Belgium also works with the farmers who grow their ingredients to improve their operations through such nifty expedients as growing buckwheat between rows of hops to attract pest-eating insects, thus cutting down on pesticide use.

New Belgium dry-hops many of its beers (this means that it adds hops after fermentation), which adds flavor, but demands more water to extract hop resins and to clean their equipment. Nonetheless, the company strives to be as water-efficient as possible, using about four gallons of water per gallon of beer. The company also helps lead the Save the Colorado campaign, which pushes to conserve the Colorado River. Half of New Belgium’s water begins in the Colorado system.

You may not drink Fat Tire—New Belgium only distributes to thirty-six states—but your local brewery probably does this stuff too. Sierra Nevada, the second-biggest craft brewer, produces much of its energy with solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells. Full Sail, in Hood River, Oregon, uses 2.5 barrels of water per barrel of beer; in Boonville, California, Anderson Valley Brewing’s bottles are 65 percent recycled glass. And Alaskan Brewing burns its spent grains—not much livestock in Juneau—to power its boilers and create “beer-powered beer.” More broadly, many craft breweries make organic beer and sell their brews in cans—not just to be hip, but because aluminum is far lighter to transport and easier to recycle than glass.

Of course, craft beer remains a pretty small part of the American economy—it only makes up about 10 percent of the nation’s beer sales. But its impact, like that of so much new infrastructure, springs up community by community—like New Belgium’s role in Fort Collins. The very nature of the craft beer revolution is stoking sustainability—if you want to drink a fine sustainable beer, and there’s none around, just wait—a new green brewery is likely to crop up. As the movement grows—and it will continue to grow, if people continue to enjoy drinks that taste good—the whole industry will keep moving toward sustainability, and with them, our grain, water, power, and waste systems. In fact, it’s already happening: in 2006, Anheuser-Busch started selling organic beer.

Peter Brewitt is at work on a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’s researching the ways people restore and remake their environments. He wrote this post while drinking the craftiest beer he could find, a micro-scale IPA brewed in a college town in Oregon. He reports that it was delicious.


  1. I was impressed with New Belgium when they decided to move away from Renewable Energy Credits. RECs arguably undermine investments in new generation and only provide windfall profits to project developers. Onsite renewables with my fat tire? Salud!

  2. Dustin: This is an interesting point. The math with REC’s is more complicated, and the payoff more remote, than many people think. I expect to dig into this in a future column. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. Beer will only become more important (and prevalent) as water quality drops. If I lived in West Virginia, I would only drink beer for the next couple of months.

  4. Cool, I’ll pass along our testimony against the use of voluntary RECs by PG&E before the California Public Utilities Commission.

Commenting on this item is closed.