September 24, 2020

A Kinder, Gentler Beer

Climate-conscious local brewers are doing their part to reduce their environmental footprint.
By Craig Manning | April 18, 2020

Could climate change impact what’s in your pint glass?

In late January, brewers and beer drinkers alike packed The Workshop Brewing Company in Traverse City’s Warehouse District to find out the answer to that question. 
The brewery was the venue for a “Beer & Climate” event, co-hosted with the Grand Traverse Area Citizens’ Climate Lobby, the local branch of a nationwide, non-partisan grassroots organization aimed at advancing the conversation about climate change. 
With the focus on how climate change impacts the building blocks of beer, the Workshop’s Head Brewer Michael Wooster walked attendees through some of the ways climate change could affect beer — and, by extension, beer drinkers — by impacting its core ingredients.

BLAME IT ON THE RAIN
“Really, the problem lies in the raw materials that we use as brewers and in how climate change is affecting growing seasons and yields and things like that,” Wooster said. “Those things have a direct correlation to the price we pay for raw materials, which in turn correlates to the price that we then have to charge for beer.”

While every beer is different, the primary ingredients tend to be the same across the board: barley, hops, yeast, and water. Malted barley acts as the primary source for fermentable sugar in beer, which means it drives the fermentation process and the alcohol content. Hops, though originally used as a preservative because of their acid content, are popular today for the bitterness, aroma and unique flavor they lend to beer — particularly IPAs. Water, finally, is the basis of the beverage and makes up 90-95% of what you’re actually drinking when you crack open a bottle of beer.

Climate change is currently impacting all three of these ingredients in some
way. Drought is the big problem for barley, which Wooster says is the core driver for raw materials costs in beer production. Part of the reason higher ABV beers are more expensive, he notes, is that they require more barley to produce. If heat and drought start to affect barley crop yields — something Wooster says experts have predicted — it could mean higher prices for beer drinkers.

With hops, drought is a concern, but so is excess rain. Andrew and Jamie Kidwell-Brix, the husband-and-wife team that own and operate Traverse City’s Earthen Ales, know of at least one local hops producer that lost an entire crop last year dear to flooding from a very rainy spring. Another lost their crop because the rain prompted a notorious agricultural pest — the European corn borer — to search for a new food source.

As for water, much has been said or written about the freshwater crisis that could face the planet in the coming decades. It’s already impacting brewers; according to Jamie Kidwell-Brix, several major breweries based in “water-constrained areas” — including the Chico, California brewing giant Sierra Nevada, along with numerous other California breweries — have since opened brewing facilities in other less dry parts of the country. 

OUR SLIGHT EDGE
Northern Michigan’s location to the Great Lakes means it’s insulated against some of these challenges. Furthermore, its status as an agricultural region means brewers have access to local hops and barley — along with other ingredients — and don’t necessarily need to freight everything in from long distances.

Still, any climate change factors that hit the brewing industry at large could affect northern Michigan, too. For that reason, numerous breweries in the area are doing their part to reduce their environmental footprint and minimize the impact they might have on the climate. 

Both Workshop and Earthen Ales, for instance, have opted to pay a little extra to ensure that all of their electricity through Traverse City Light & Power is coming from renewable resources. Workshop makes a point of sourcing roughly 90% of its hops from local producers, only going outside the area for specialty hops that are necessary for the pungent, citrusy notes common in certain types of IPAs (particularly the recently popular “hazy” IPA).

SMART, SENSITIVE BREWERS
When the Kidwell-Brixes started Earthen Ales, they did so with the environment in mind. Before moving to Traverse City to start a brewery, both had worked on climate, energy and sustainability initiatives for the City of Ann Arbor. Urban planners by trade, Andrew had spearheaded the city’s climate action plan while Jamie had drawn up its sustainability master plan. Even the name “Earthen Ales” was intended as a reminder for the pair to keep pursuing the same green values in the world of beer.

From LED lighting to on-demand hot water, Earthen Ales tries to capture efficiency gains wherever it can. That approach trickles down to the brewing process itself, which Jamie says is all about “not fighting the climate” of northern Michigan. For example, since lagers require colder water for brewing, Earthen Ales brews them exclusively in the winter, when the cold outdoor temperatures can do a lot of the work. On the other side of things, for summertime brewing projects, the brewery uses special Norwegian yeast strains that ferment well at warmer temperatures. In both cases, Andrew says the brewery saves some water and some electricity by not having to chill water down for the brewing process.

For John Niedermaier of Brewery Terra Firma, finding ways to repurpose brewery waste is the key to reducing brewery impact – not just on the environment, but also on public infrastructure. The brewery, known for its agricultural setting and approach, harvests all liquid waste and spent grain and puts it back into the crops.

“All of that material is really a problem in the industry,” Niedermaier said. “There’s a lot more waste generated when you make beer than there is beer itself.”

For every pint of beer made, there’s six or seven pints of liquid waste alone, which winds up at the local wastewater treatment plant, Niedermaier said. 

“It’s really a burden to the waste treatment plant, to the point where it actually cuts down on the lifespan of the plant,” he said.

Another factor that might help create a more climate-conscious beer industry is the ever-increasing number of craft breweries. While more brewers mean more production and more resource use, it also means a localization of beer that could cut down on the costs and emissions that come with product distribution.

“The most responsible beer to buy would be the one that was brewed in your neighborhood,” Wooster said. “When you go to a local brewery, not only are you interacting with your community and spending your dollars in your community, but you’re also reducing the impact that your enjoyment of craft beer has on the environment.”

Wooster sees the proliferation of the local breweries as a good thing reminiscent of earlier days.

“We see all these breweries popping up all the time, and some people say it’s getting oversaturated, but I think it’s actually becoming something that better resembles what the beer industry was before prohibition, where you have more neighborhood breweries and it’s more of a local experience,” he said.

The Kidwell-Brixes agree. While certain breweries can still command a lot of attention on a nationwide scale – Founders Brewing Company, based in Grand Rapids, is officially distributing to all 50 states as of last year — those breweries are in the minority. 
“Everyone can’t be everywhere,” Andrew said, noting that a localized brewing model not only cuts down on distribution costs, but also reduces the footprint caused by bottling, canning and other packaging.

Jamie says she is hopeful that the growth of the local brewing model will make it possible for beer communities such as Traverse City to band together to achieve more climate-conscious methods of production. 

Several larger breweries, she says, have systems that can recapture carbon dioxide — a natural biproduct of the beer fermentation process — and repurpose it for carbonation and other purposes. Those systems are extremely expensive and aren’t necessarily an accessible investment for breweries operating on a smaller scale. What Jamie would like to see is something of a brewing collective in northern Michigan, that could share the investment and then mutually benefit from the technology. 

“What’s really interesting about Traverse City is that we have a cluster of breweries. There are a lot of us now. I’m hopeful that, at some point, we can all work together on some of that cutting-edge sustainability stuff,” she said. “Scale doesn’t always have to be by ourselves.” 

CELEBRATE EARTH DAY WITH BEER TO GO!
Since opening in 2013, Brewery Terra Firma has reclaimed more than 40,000 gallons of brewery process water annually and re-used it as “fertigation” on its crops via a low-tech, efficient process developed in cooperation with Michigan State University and the Michigan DEQ. You can savor their efforts now by ordering its beer for curbside pickup (usually runs 1pm–7pm Weds through Saturday; call first) or home delivery: (231) 929-1600

With “pre-beer” careers in energy and sustainability, Earthen Ales’ Andrew and Jamie Kidwell-Brix make sure the earth — and their customers — get extra love on Earth Day, April 22. Last year, they even served B’Earth Day cake. This year, the celebration won’t be at their Traverse City brewery, but you can still toast with EA beer at home: Order it in to-go vessels of all sizes at www.earthenales.com. Pickup is 2pm–7pm Wednesday, April 22. 

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