Brewing, Naturally

(This originally appeared as a feature article in the Fall 2006 issue of American Brewer magazine.)

Brewing Naturally

Nature is the quintessential design expert, creating products that far surpass human engineering in elegance, efficiency, and performance. For example, spiders weave webs that are stronger than steel. Aviation engineers at Berkeley are studying common houseflies in attempts to mimic their flight designs. Wetlands are uniquely capable of cleaning and storing water far more efficiently than any design humans have engineered.

Throughout the Industrial Revolution, people were intent on building things bigger. So engineers and designers became preoccupied with design models intent on viewing the natural environment as the enemy. Industrial design set out to work against natural forces, creating big tools to subdue and conquer the even bigger natural world. Industrial breweries were one result of this kind of thinking. But today, pioneering businesses are learning how to integrate some of nature’s own design principles into their business models. Brewers happen to be on the cutting edge of this trend.

In 1992, a businessman named Gunter Pauli developed the world’s first “ecological factory,” designed to produce non-toxic cleaning products for his company Ecover. During his design process, Pauli realized that in order to make his factory truly green he would need to involve other businesses in a partnership. Thus, he conceived the idea of an “eco-industrial park,” where a series of businesses are arranged to be interdependent – the wasteflow from one is redirected into another as useful material input, thus totally eliminating waste. After building the first such enterprise in Belgium, he surveyed a variety of other industry sectors and determined that brewing was perfectly suited for the eco-industrial park model.

Pauli went on to build a pilot eco-brewery located in the desert environs of Namibia. Ever since, a growing number of visionary brewers have been perfecting the design through practical trial and error experiments.

Beer fist worldBefore we explore the key elements of ecological brewery design, it is essential to note that operating businesses in harmony with nature is not only an ethical imperative (as if ethical principles alone are not enough to guide our behavior!). Eco-design is also good for the financial bottom line. Eco-minded businesses refer to what is called the “triple bottom line” of people, planet, and profit. Many volumes have been written about all three, but given space restraints, we will only be able to scratch the surface of the issues related to meeting the planetary bottom line, though cost savings will be apparent in many places.

The three tenets of eco-brewery design:

1. Reduce Inputs
Basic efficiency is the first step. Use less of your raw material to make more of your primary product. It seems simple, but inputs are easily overused, especially when they seem relatively cheap, and when day-to-day business operations distract from long-term planning. At the same time, resource efficiency is the easiest concept for businesses to grasp. Historical example abound, just consider that brewers have continuously improved mash extraction rates over the centuries. In so doing, they’ve reduced the amount of malt required to make a given volume of beer. Another example is the British “Union system” devised to conserve beer lost during cask fermentation. The essentially caught wasted beer, separated out the spent yeast, and returned the beer back to the cask, saving between five and ten percent of the cask’s total volume. But modern breweries have many diverse inputs, including: facilities, equipment, ingredients, packaging, and energy. New opportunities for efficiency are plentiful.

Here are some simple ways to reduce resource requirements (and save money while you’re at it).

Malt and Hops: Use them sparingly. I can see Sam Calagione and Vinnie Cilurzo already starting to sneer! Don’t worry, I’m not advocating for thin, light beers. What I am really talking about is quality control. It’s the best way to reduce ingredient waste. Design your brewing system and recipes to get the most from what you use. This is basic brewhouse operating procedure but bears emphasis. Ingredients that are swept up off the floor, or washed down the drain are wasted money. Enough said.

Water: On average, industrial breweries use between five and six gallons of water to make one gallon of beer and four gallons of wastewater. Water use is down by about 50 percent compared to just a generation ago, but we can continue improving. Well-conceived breweries today can reduce the water to beer ratio down to as little as two-to-one or even less. Part of the answer is again, quality control. Schedule regular maintenance to identify and fix leaks. More importantly, design a water-efficient brewing system. Good breweries are designed with convenience in mind, but a carefully considered brewhouse design also limits the waste of water (which, after all, is the number one ingredient in beer). Water-efficient breweries reduce cleaning needs, place equipment with water consumption in mind, and include water-reuse systems. Sound design will lower water bills, reduce capital investment needs and limit maintenance costs.

Packaging: Brewers make beer. Marketers make packaging. Good packaging can help sell good beer, but in the end customers don’t drink glass bottles or cardboard. In effect, packaging is an inherently wasted input. Since it requires far less packaging, draft beer is intrinsically more resource efficient, especially when used to dispense beers on brewery premises, a fact that is reflected in an improved profit margin compared to off-site distribution. Furthermore, aluminum cans are far more resource-efficient than glass bottles, due mostly to their lighter weight and higher recycling efficiency, which again is reinforced by lower overall costs. Post-consumer waste recycled cardboard is available for cartons and carriers, as is post-consumer waste recycled paper for labels.

According to Cynthia Barstow, in The Eco–Foods Guide:
We now pay more for packaging and advertising than we pay the farmer to produce the food.

Facilities: Retrofitting pre-existing structures is generally more resource-efficient than building from scratch. Many craft breweries are located in renovated historic buildings, which themselves serve to attract customers, thus contributing to business success. On the other hand, new construction offers brewers the opportunity to integrate green design from top to bottom, using eco-friendly building methods like straw bale construction, living roofs, passive solar (such as day-lighting and natural cooling) and many other resource and cost efficient techniques.

Energy: Brewing consumes a great deal of energy. Considerable natural resources and energy are embodied in brewing equipment and facilities, though these are usually quite durable, which reduces their overall ecological footprint. And some energy is embodied in the beer that is eventually metabolized by customers. But a lot more is spent on making, packaging, and delivering the beer.

America enjoys cheap energy due to the tremendous subsidies heaped on the fossil fuel industry. These subsidies make energy costs seem low, but the fact is we pay for energy in hidden ways. Roads and wars are two obvious ones. Subsidies for these come from tax dollars, and no brewer needs to be reminded of the disproportionate tax burden carried by the brewing industry. Some brewers are shifting to clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar, which cost more up front, but save money in the long run by reducing America’s massive giveaways to the fossil-fuel industry. Lots of breweries are now using cogeneration technology to harness steam that’s emitted during brewing and reuse it as a power source. And that leads us to waste elimination.

2. Eliminate Waste
Again it seems ridiculously obvious, but waste represents lost resources and therefore lower profits, not to mention irresponsible environmental ethics. Waste elimination is different than resource reduction and captures the nature’s key design concept: interdependence. In nature, the waste is one organism is food for another. Chief among brewery waste products are spent grains, water, and squandered energy. All of these can be entirely eliminated as waste, and transformed instead into valuable products. Packaging is another major waste, but in the interest of space, we’ll save this for a future article.

Brewing extracts less than ten percent of the usable material from barley, mostly just the starch, and basically wastes all of the fiber and protein. Most breweries give spent grains to farmers as livestock feed. This is fine, but livestock are also fairly inefficient, requiring about eight pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. One solution is converting cow manure into methane gas, but this may be more than most small brewers are willing to take on. Composting is another choice and, in many cases, may be a more viable option than biogas production. Some breweries use compost to enrich the soil of their own brewery herb and vegetable gardens. Another option is reusing spent grain in products like bread mixes or pizza dough. On a similar note, beer from low-fill bottles can be used in food recipes like Great Lakes Brewing Company does with their own-brand Edmund Fitzgerald Porter Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream.

Wastewater can be entirely eliminated as a brewery waste by treating water on site. Some breweries are already do this, like New Belgium and Anderson Valley, both of which have two-step anaerobic/aerobic wastewater treatment systems. Using methane gas produced through this system, New Belgium provides 10% of its on-site energy needs.

In the age of climate change, energy is probably the most egregious waste product in any endeavor, including breweries. Mentioned above, steam recapture is a common way to harvest wasted energy while reducing energy costs. Sierra Nevada’s one megawatt fuel cell installation supplies most of the brewery’s electric power and heat requirements. But the fuel cell system also includes co-generation boilers that convert brewery waste heat into steam for boiling. The system’s overall efficiency doubles that of grid-supplied power and significantly lowers air emissions at the same time. The real kicker: they sell surplus electrical energy back into the municipal power grid. Between cogeneration and water treatment, major breweries are generating as much as 20 percent of their own energy needs from what would otherwise be wasted electrons.

Speaking of climate change, carbon dioxide must be the most profoundly ridiculous brewery waste product of them all. Even though CO2 is a natural byproduct of fermentation, many brewers rely on external supplies for carbonating their beers. CO2 recovery technology is available from many companies, like Wittemann ( and Haffmans (

3. Stay Small
Large, uniform systems crash easily, but local, diverse systems are resilient and thrive over the long-term. Global agribusiness exemplifies the old industrial model of production, relying on uniformity and volume to attain what is inaccurately called the “efficiency of scale.” Efficiency in the old industrial model is measured in quarterly reports, rather than long-term sustainability. In the long run, this false efficiency creates instability and sets the stage for large scale crises. Although large corporate brewers have adopted (even pioneered) many efficiency measures, they fall short in this key ecological business criteria. Megabreweries adhere to the old industrial model where bigger is better. But craft brewers are engineering the new ecological model, where the mantra is “small is brewtiful.” Like biodiversity is to the natural world, beerodiversity is to the brewing world. To state it succinctly, 1500 small breweries are better than three megabreweries. The reasons should be obvious.

To summarize, evaluate what you take, make and waste. Taking as little as necessary not only makes ecological sense, it is common sense business practice. Use waste to make new products. Waste is bad for the planet, but it is also lost business value. Small, local breweries are best positioned to eliminate environmental impacts related to the excessive packaging and fossil fuel consumption necessary for shipping. Perhaps the most important environmental lesson for customers is one that should resonate well with American Brewer subscribers: think globally, drink locally.


28 Responses to Brewing, Naturally

  1. nryder98 says:

    Chris, thanks so much for that post. As a beer-lover and home brewer, I’ve always looked for ways to make my own brewing process a little more efficient and easier on the environment. I’ve always known New Belgium took some special steps to be easier on the environment but I never knew they took it that far. Now I have double the respect for their company and beer. The same for Sierra Nevada. We as the consumers have the responsibility to help companies move away from the mega-brewery if that’s what we really care about.

  2. beeractivist says:


    Glad you liked the article. You might enjoy my book Fermenting Revolution even more! Just click on the book cover image in the right column on this page to check it out.

    Happy eco-brewing!

  3. […] striving for climate-neutrality, like Sierra Nevada, who is nearing energy-independence with their on-site efficiency, fuel cells, and solar arrays. I expect this from a lefty, northern California […]

  4. ilovebeer says:

    You need to check out New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins Colorado. They are one of the leaders in the brewing industry when it comes to being “green”.

  5. beeractivist says:

    ilovebeer – Thanks for the suggestion. If you notice in the article above I actually mention New Belgium a couple of times. I’ve also written about them in a number of other articles as well as in my book Fermenting Revolution. I just wish their beers were available around here in Washington D.C.!


  6. Astrid says:

    Brewing naturally sounds perfect. But what is with genetic engineered ingredients? I am very conderned about the health impacts of genetic engineered organisms in my food. I heared some frightenig story about tests on rats. I definately want that stuff in my beer.

  7. beeractivist says:

    Astrid – I agree. Click on the Organic/GMO category over in the right hand column of this page to read some of the articles I’ve posted about GMOs and beer. I also covered this issue to some degree in my book, Fermenting Revolution. Click the book cover in the right column over there to read more about it.


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