Sustainable Brewing: A Modern Problem for an Ancient Industry

“The hard work of a few brewers going above and beyond won’t move the needle unless the industry as a whole, and all of the associated stakeholders,  work together to deliver the change we need.”

 

I’ve been interested in beer most of my life but, presumably like many people, had no real appreciation of what went into making it. I knew the bare bones – hops, grains, yeast and water – but had no real clue about how much of each and no earthly clue about just how resource hungry the whole process might be.

That began to change as my fascination with brewing grew. My first 40lt batch of beer produced some 10kg of spent grain, scale that up to commercial volumes and it’s a grain mountain. It’s also tricky to deal with because it’s wet, drying it out to do anything with it presents a whole new problem.

The other strikingly extravagant waste product is water. I was surprised at my own yields of around 70%, down to 50% on my bad days, so an initial 80lt of water would yield me 40lt of beer in the keg. There’s also cooling and cleaning water to be taken into account so I became very quickly aware that brewing is a thirsty process.

My work in the real world puts me in contact with brewers and I became curious about how the professionals get on. I asked a few questions and the honest answer seems to be that traditional brewing consumes 7/8 pints of water in order to produce one pint of beer.

Add into that how much energy goes into the boil itself and it becomes clear that the brewing industry has some work to do, particularly in these times when we have developed a social conscience and become aware that living and working sustainably isn’t just for hippies; it’s something we should all be striving to achieve.

This, then, was the backdrop to my conversations with brewers when looking for content for this issue. I’ve been impressed over this last year or so by the social conscience that the new breed of brewers in the industry operate with; how are they meeting the sustainability challenge?

Brilliantly well is the truth of it in some cases.

I tripped over Good Things whilst researching the brewery listing for our last issue and liked the cut of their jib immediately; their goal is to operate “the world’s most sustainable brewery. That means completely energy efficient, off-grid, closed loop brewing with everything recycled and reused from water to grain.”

That’s a lofty ambition right there, how is that going to happen given the amount of energy required?

It starts with the will to do it of course, but the skills to implement such a vision are honed over many years in sustainable engineering and the process itself doesn’t happen overnight:

“So we reduced our power every step and process we could, we are still going and will always push to lower our usage. We then built a battery network with photovoltaic panels to cover all the lowered power we need. The idea is to be completely self-sustained, be that water, waste, spent grain, power and everything in-between.”

So said Chris from Good Things. As we were putting this piece together Chris emailed me to say that the brewery would be featured on Jamie & Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast. The show gave the brewery’s angle on the spent grain and Good Things are doing great work there as well, they have the process resolved to the point that now they can dry out the grain and produce flour on site:

“The real trick is getting the grain to dry in a quick enough time prior to it going off and doing that with only green energy was even more of a task. There are around 30 sensors, various controllers, fans and louvres that all lead to this model being viable.”

Chris hopes that this is the equipment and process that they can now roll out to other brewers. He’s not alone in believing that the brewing future is green, Felix at Small beer is also a passionate advocate of sustainability.

“The hard work of a few brewers going above and beyond won’t move the needle unless the industry as a whole, and all of the associated stakeholders, work together to deliver the change we need.

 

We put pressure on all of our suppliers to do better in this regard. So often we are told that cost will be a barrier and so often we find that as soon as that barrier is broken, and the other early adopters start piling in, volumes go up and the costs come down.

Sustainability is a thread that runs through everything we do at Small Beer. The consumables we use from our bottles to our boxes to our business cards are recycled and recyclable. We pay particular consideration to the full life cycle of all of the materials to mitigate excessive transport and waste to landfill.

Brewing beer is water intensive. In a traditional brewing environment, brewers drain waste products to the brewery floor and use hoses to wash down into a drain. Hoses aren’t particularly suited to this purpose and many brewers will relate to the frustration of wasting time and water washing down floors.

Warm wet environments eventually lead to less than hygienic conditions and the need for more washing down and harsh cleaning chemicals.

Every brewer worth his or her salt knows that a good brewery starts with a draining floor but we decided there was a better alternative. We have successfully engineered a brewery with a dry floor which saves hundreds of litres of water every day and makes for a drier, safer, more hygienic environment.

All of the electricity we use comes from wind, water and solar and we use this energy for cleaning where typically other breweries use mains water.

When we chill our wort, we only use the exact amount of cooling water we need to make the next day’s batch of wort. Any surplus heat we can’t recover into that water is extracted from the wort with an electrical heat pump and used to heat the air in the brewery, which is most welcome at this time of year!

Similarly when removing waste solids we use industrial vacuum cleaners. They’re more effective and hygienic than hoses (don’t get me started on power hoses!) and the solid waste is sent to our local anaerobic digestion plant or our on-site wormery rather than into the effluent system.

We have a fantastic relationship with a farmer just outside of London who takes our spent grain and feeds it to his herd of Dexter cattle.

We recently ran a ‘Beef and Beer’ pop-up night where we served his beef to demonstrate the benefits of integrating urban food production into a closed loop agriculture system. All of these things help us to nurture a culture of respect.

It is as important that everyone who we employ holds these same values so that they are not diluted as the team grows. We’ve found that tackling one issue at a time we can continue to chip away at the bad habits that our culture, and our industry in particular, have adopted over the years.

It is of paramount importance to us that we never diverge from our founding principles and that we are continually asking ourselves what we can do to be better to our community and to the environment.”

Is there anything about Small Beer Co. not to admire? It’s the same at German Kraft Beer, that thread of sustainability and low impact brewing drove thoughtful design from the very start and means they can recover what would otherwise be wasted heat.

“We harvest the waste heat from the cooling unit of the fermentation and lager tanks to distil the London tap water.

We completely reuse this high temperature waste energy and pump it back into our system to strip the water of any salts, microplastics etc. that we don’t need in order to create pure distilled water. This process works under vacuum and recycles the energy six times to get to a good output.

So, with very little energy, we can distil water on site and then feed it with a mineral set to customize it to our specification.

We’ve also requested from our brewery equipment provider that they reengineered the whirlpool and feed water tank to sit one on top of the other so we can use the energy from the hot wort to heat up the feed water, which is then distilled.

All of the excess mineralised water is put into refillable containers and given to the staff of the community market, Mercato Metropolitano, to drink.

We are also starting a community project where we sell this mineralised bottled water in glass bottles that customers pay a deposit for but can come and refill them at a competitive price. All the profits of this go to a water charity called the Aquiva Foundation.

At the brewery we only use refillable aluminium kegs and don’t allow any guest beers to arrive in key kegs as we don’t believe in one way plastic containers whatsoever as no one recycles them properly. All guest beers come from other local breweries and never from overseas.

Our beer is only available fresh from the tank and the keg, so no one way containers like bottles or cans, and we don’t ship anywhere outside of London so keep our carbon footprint as low as possible.

By not using key kegs we’ve saved over 8250kg of plastic and we calculated that with our system we managed to recover 68700kwh of thermal energy since we started brewing in February 2018.”

For me this whole idea of thoughtful design and passionate yet creative sustainability is inspiring.

We’ve been a wasteful industry traditionally and nobody seems to talk about it, it certainly hasn’t been on my radar in more than thirty years in the industry.

Times change though and the national conversation now includes sustainability and environmental impact. It’s heartening to see new brewers taking singular, and very expensive, decisions and putting themselves ahead of that curve.

“Brilliant beer doesn’t have to cost the earth”