Friday, April 25, 2008

A Day (or 3) Late and a Dollar Short

Earth Day was earlier this week. And I was going to write this really awesome article about the perfect way for Wisconsin's craft breweries and craft beer drinkers to single-handedly save the planet from Al Gore. But, remember a few days ago when I said I was lazy? Yeah. I wasn't kidding.

Whatever happened to returnable bottles? The inimitable Joe Sixpack has an article about returnables.
Go visit a brewery in Belgium or Germany, and the biggest piece of equipment you'll see is the bottle washer. Placed at the head of the production line, the machine automatically sorts, scrubs and sterilizes bottles and their plastic cases. Watching one of the machines at work in Norway, I marveled at how people even dutifully replaced the caps on plastic containers that were returned to be reused by the bottler.

Likewise in Canada, beer drinkers return an astounding 97 percent of refillable bottles. The Brewers Association of Canada boasts that refillable bottles are "quite possibly the most environmentally friendly container on earth" and claims its so-called "closed-loop" system diverts more than a million tons of waste from landfills each year.
There's no reason why even if the distributor or the retailers don't take them back, the breweries themselves can't take them back. It would have not only the advantage of getting the bottles back, but it gets customers out to the brewery. Maybe they stay and have a beer while they're there (not that you could feed them while they were there, and now we have this whole "Wisconsin drinks and drives too much" thing going on)? Is it that reasonable for me to save up Tyranena bottles, it's not like it's right down the street. But Ale Asylum is. And that might just make the difference in deciding to buy one beer over the other. And, it's not like I'm never in Lake Mills (or Amherst, or Spring Green, or Janesville), I could save up my bottles and take 'em with me when I get there.

On Wednesday we talked about brewers growing their own (hmmm, maybe I wasn't as remiss as I thought). Not only would this practice stabilize hop supplies, but it would significantly reduce the gasoline used trucking the hops across the country (most American hops come from the Yakima Valley in Washington, Oregon and Idaho) or indeed all over the world.

Adnams brewery has launched the first "carbon neutral" beer in the United Kingdom.[article at Publican via RealBeer]
“If this beer sold in comparative volumes to Broadside it would be the equivalent of taking six cars off the road a year,” he said. “It is a great-tasting light golden beer and it is greener than any other beer on the market.”
What was the most effective means of reducing the carbon footprint of this beer? Yeah, you guessed it. Local ingredients. Adnams also used a "very light malt" - although that phrase is somewhat ambiguous - does the malt weight less or did they simply use less malt?

So, what's the lesson here? Well, it seems like it's the message we've been preaching from the beginning - drink and brew local! In this case, by acquiring local ingredients not only are raw material inventories stabilized (thus prices and availability are easier to predict, making costs and profits easier to forecast), but you support your local farmers. I have it on good authority that farmers like to drink beer. Sourcing locally also reduces your carbon footprint by reducing the fossil fuels required to truck you ingredients all over the place. Using and re-using re-usable bottles not only saves water, fossil fuels and landfill space, but it generates positive goodwill by drawing customers out to the brewery. How's that for environmentally friendly?


  1. You can kind of do the returnable thing using growlers with some of the local brew-pubs, but I've always found growlers to be a bit unwieldy unless you're planning on going full-bore and drinking the whole thing. I really wish it were the other way with returnable bottles, because glass seems to make up over half of my recyclables. When I buy milk it's Blue Marble returnables, and if they can do it I would think other local operations could to.

  2. I can't say that I'm a big fan of returnables. Even with those big washers, crap has a tendency to stay in them. Once upon a time in my life, I worked in a bottling house for a summer job. One position on the line was inspector. The inspector watched the full returnables fly past a bright light. Your job was to pull bottles that had debris in them. Unfortunately, the line move fast...very fast. If you get stretch of 8 bottles, and 4 of them have debris, there was a very good chance you'd miss one, and there was no way to get that bottle back. I stopped drinking returnables after that.

  3. New Belgium recently performed a life cycle study that tracked a six pack of Fat Tire from farms through consumption. The results, which are based on emitted greenhouse gases, were fascinating:

    -31% came before the brewery, with glass being the biggest contributor and transportation being less than expected (I couldn't write numbers fast enough to get a lot of the details). 2/3 of barley growing "emissions" came from fertilizer.
    -Only 4% came from the brewery. If New Belgium didn't use wind power and generate some of their own electricity, the number would be closer to 7%.
    -65% came downstream of the brewery, and the majority of it was due to retail refrigeration.

    CO2 produced during fermentation was considered equal to the CO2 consumed during barley growth, so both were counted as zero.

    I'm skeptical that Adnams didn't scrutinize themselves as much as New Belgium, especially in terms of refrigeration. 100% green manufacturing sounds a lot like perpetual motion.

  4. Luckily enough, my local pub is currently carrying East Green as one of its guest ales. Ignoring the tacky plastic (!) beer pump tag, I have to confess I supped a few pints last night, and admit that it's very nice - those in the know would probably call it a session beer.

    However, as I awoke this morning a thought occurred to me, no doubt prompted by the actual reason I woke up so early. Adnams haven't thought this carbon neutral thing

    Methane is 25 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

    Do I need to continue?


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