Sustainable Beer Beyond the Hops
By Eileen Weber
Beer drinkers aren’t just picky about what’s in their mug. They’re pretty discerning about how the beer is produced. An increasing number of breweries—and that number has jumped to 5,000 craft brewers nationwide up from 4,000 last year—are producing sustainable beer. From local ingredients and composting to implementing wind and solar power, breweries are taking the environment seriously.
Let’s look at Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia. As proudly proclaimed on their Facebook page, they are Pennsylvania’s first 100% wind-powered brewery. Brewery Vivant in Michigan, according to their web site, is the first LEED-certified microbrewery in the world. Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee was the first certified organic brewery in the country.
Then, there’s Brooklyn Brewery. They repurposed an old iron works building for their facility, retooled the heat exchange systems to reduce energy, compost spent grains, use LED lighting, use recyclable materials, and they partnered with the Arbor Day Foundation to offset 1,500 tons of carbon usage with 375 acres of trees planted.
But none of this can be highlighted without first discussing the forerunner in brewing sustainability—Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California. They have covered every aspect of the brewing process from energy, transportation, water recovery to packaging, ingredients, and even LEED certification at their facilities in California and their satellite facility and taproom in North Carolina. According to Green Tech Media, the brewing company recently added a Tesla Powerpack energy storage system to reduce usage during peak production hours.
Across the country, breweries new and old are making a pledge to not just drink responsibly but to run their companies responsibly. What’s even better? You don’t have to go too far to find them. There are plenty close to home.
Veracious Brewing Company in Monroe repurposed pew benches from an old church in New Canaan for their taproom walls, bar top, and a few of the tables. They used old light fixtures from the parking lot. They give their spent grains to the livestock at Snow’s Farm in Easton. They use local hops whenever possible from two other small-scale farms a few minutes away and compost the hops and yeast after the brewing process. All their fruit beers get produce from Jones Family Farms in Shelton, like their “Bloobs” wheat ale with blueberries.
“We really try to do local things with local people,” said Tess Szamatulski, co-owner of Veracious with her husband, Mark. “Molly & Murphy out of Trumbull makes some of their dog biscuits from our beer. We’ve even got beer soap made by a Trumbull police officer who makes it in his off hours.”
But, make no mistake. Using local ingredients is not all that easy, particularly with hops. Here in Connecticut, the growing season is pretty short. You can only get just so much. The majority of hops is actually grown in Oregon. And, some of the specialty malts for specific beer styles like porters and stouts come from overseas. As a brewer, you can be torn between authentic taste and supporting your local community.
“As best we can, we use local ingredients but we can’t rely on everything from here,” said Kim Vigliotti of DuVig Brewing in Branford. Using Connecticut-grown hops, for example, means working with them only when they are available. Farms can grow them, but they can’t sustain them all year round. So, imported hops must be used the rest of the time.
Vigliotti explained that the state of Connecticut has been working on incentives for farmers to start growing hops and barley to increase the opportunities of promoting local farms and businesses. But when working with the actual hop flower, you need a large amount. She talked about picking hops a few months ago on a day-long excursion to Dudley Farm in Guilford, which only got them enough for 10 kegs worth.
“The biggest difference between breweries and wineries is that wineries are also a farm,” said Vigliotti. “Breweries are often in industrial parks in larger buildings with no land. But if we partner up with farmers, brewers are going in together to grow the industry.”
Fairfield Craft Ales, co-owned by Fairfield residents Mike Borruso and Joseph Bow, occupies a space in Stratford. They are starting small, but definitely taking a local approach as much as possible. Like Veracious, they also give their spent grains to Snow’s Farm in Easton. Irv Snow who runs the farm said the grain donation is mutually beneficial.
“It saves them on costly disposal fees and it saves me on costly grain,” he said. “It’s a once a week treat given to our Scottish Highland beef cows. It’s a source of protein in addition to hay and other grain they receive.”
They use hops grown in Borruso’s backyard as well as from The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. That is usually enough to make one batch of beer. It’s not enough to make it on a large scale.
“It’s a real effort to do things the right way,” said Borruso. “It’s part of the culture. Sustainability is driving the craft beer business.“
John Stier, the Sustainability Mentor for the Brewers Association in Missouri, said the supply of sustainable brewers is based on consumer demand. The food movement of farm-to-table, organic, and sustainable extends beyond what we eat to what we drink, too. Knowing that a brewery is taking responsible steps makes customers more comfortable with the operation.
“A few farm breweries have popped up. They are a closed-loop lifestyle,” said Stier. “It’s catching on. How far it will go, I don’t know.”
Building a brewery on a farm is certainly idyllic. But the kind of investment in land, equipment, and even legislation can take a toll on any brewer. Barry Labendz, one of six entrepreneurs to kick-start Kent Falls Brewing Company two years ago, would be happy to tell you their story. Purchasing farmland, getting the facility up and running, sitting through public town hearings to get approval and proper permits, none of that was any small feat. It was well worth it, however.
“We’ve gotten pretty good feedback. People like it,” he said. “I’m proud of that.”
This brewery probably has the most sustainable model possible. Not only are they focused on the reduction of energy and wastewater usage, but they also have solar panels that cut up to 60% of their year-round electricity. They are their own eco-system as the only farm brewery in the state. Utilizing their own land on what was once Camps Road Farm, they can compost excess by-products while growing the ingredients they need. Literally, it’s a beer life cycle. What goes into the beer ends up on the farm. What’s on the farm ends up in the beer.
“All the things we do are return on investment,” said Labendz. “Any time you are making something using natural resources, down the road you want to have access to those ingredients. It’s economic. It’s environmental.”
The facility functions on 52 acres of land. Of that, one acre is devoted to growing hops and one and a half acres to apple orchards. They have pastureland and wetlands while chickens and pigs enjoy the space as well, just not during the winter.
“It’s extremely expensive to do anything on a farm. It’s not a wave of the future like all breweries will be farms,” he said. “It’s going to remain a niche, but you will see a lot more. It just won’t be the new norm.”
Kent Falls Brewing sells their beer at local farmers markets with a few retail options. Slowly but surely, they are starting to expand. Perhaps as early as this spring, they are hoping to offer onsite tastings and growlers.
If none of these sustainable brewers are near you, don’t worry. There are others scattered throughout the state that in one way or another work with local businesses and farms, recycle, and compost. Check out Thomas Hooker Brewery in Bloomfield, Two Roads Brewing Company in Stratford, OEC Brewing and Black Hog Brewing Co. in Oxford, 30 Mile Brewing Co. in Old Saybrook, and Hanging Hills Brewery in Hartford.
Kicking back with a cold one never felt so good.