The Road to Brew-topia

Tue, Feb 24, 2009

3. Case Studies

Beer. It does the planet good.

Nearly two decades ago, beverage visionary and Beer School author Steve Hindy made a decision that would help change the way New Yorkers drank beer.
“You want me to do what?” asked Brooklyn Brewery’s first head brewer.

“I want you to brew the best-tasting beer you can, whatever the cost,” replied Hindy, the company’s president and co-founder.

For the brewer, it was an unusual request, one he had never heard before. He came from a tradition of beer-making that had been dominated by large-scale producers — macrobreweries like Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors — whose light-tasting, marketing-heavy beers accounted for 19 of every 20 beers sold in the US during the ’80s.

But over the next twenty years, rogue “craft brewers” — Hindy and his upstart Brooklyn Brewery among them — would gain ground by using macrobrewery production as a foil. They insisted the title craft beer be used to differentiate breweries that were small (producing less than 2 million barrels annually), independent and dedicated to using 100 percent taste-centric ingredients.

Today, because of that insistence on quality over quantity, they are the fastest growing segment of the beverage industry. While macrobrewery growth stagnates, craft breweries enjoyed an unparalleled 58 percent increase in sales between 2003 and 2007.

Having achieved a sustainable level of success, they’re taking an opportunity to once again change the way their customers think about beer. No longer bemuddled by finding their niche in the market, Hindy and a few upstart brewers are refocusing their energy on, well, energy itself.

A handful of craft pioneers are reinvesting their profits in green power, and, in doing so, expanding what it means for everyday imbibers to drink responsibly. They’re powering their operations with wind-, solar-, and bio-energy, and finding new ways to recycle and reuse their waste, all despite the fact that it is getting more expensive to do so. Shortages of grains and hops, coupled with increasingly hostile competition from larger conglomerates has put a pinch on their efforts.

On principle, though, they forge on.

“Alternative energies are costly,” Hindy says, “but we think it’s the right thing to do.”

This year, Brooklyn Brewery will produce 80,000 barrels of beer — and they’ll do so having run entirely on 100 percent sustainable wind-power. The energy alternative adds a 10 percent premium to a monthly bill that already hovers around $20,000; but it prevents more than 300,000 pounds of pollution from entering the earth’s atmosphere each year.

When the system was implemented several years ago, Hindy received unexpected praise: some sent letters, others simply bought more beer.

“I guess people feel better about their beer knowing it’s powered by the wind,” he says.

In the face of corporate lip-service announcements, Brooklyn Brewery’s quiet efforts led the way in showing New Yorkers that reducing their carbon footprint wasn’t about walking on USDA-certified organic eggshells. It was about everyday choices, even the ones made in the beer aisles of the local supermarket.

Months earlier, in a distant Williamsburg office, Hindy set the tone for such decisions. After biking to work from his home in Park Slope, he sat down at his desk, considering operational improvements that might be made without reducing the quality of his beer. Some time in the afternoon, he received a call from a local energy advocate informing him of a temporary strain on the grid. After Hindy hung up, he walked to the front of his office and switched off the lights and went on working near his window.

He would go on to review improvements in his distribution network, making concerted effort to distribute within a reasonable radius. Growing regionally is more practical, he says, now that it costs more than $3 to truck each case of beer across the country.

Down the road, Hindy’s staff anticipates working with partner-breweries to spread the Brooklyn taste: crafting, bottling, and distributing Brooklyn-inspired beers on someone else’s home turf.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more breweries collaborating, sharing their processes in the future,” he says.

At home, too, Brooklyn Brewery continues to evolve their brewing process. They are in the midst of searching for a new facility, and the opportunity to start afresh has fueled a host of eco-friendly, energy-efficient ideas. Harnessing solar energy, utilizing natural heat transfer, and capturing chemical reactions are a few of the promising initiatives that would bring the brewery closer to running on its own homegrown power.

“Breweries lend themselves to a lot of eco-friendly processes,” Hindy says. As soon as the battle for a new space is won, they’re ready to tap in.

Photovoltaic solar panels, for one, have the potential to alleviate the largest energy expenditure in a brewery. Constant temperature modulation — roasting grain solutions, boiling and sanitizing the sugary byproducts, then reducing the scalding liquid down to cold, fermentable temperatures in the mid-50s — is akin to Brooklyn Brewery constantly heating and cooling the water held in 150 swimming pools.

According to the New York Public Services Commission, however, solar panels could supply half of that power (one-third of the brewery’s total usage) with an initial price tag of under $500,000. Recouping that cost through energy savings and government rebates would take Brooklyn Brewery less than 20 years, half the solar panel’s lifetime.

Furthermore, if they chose to couple the solar installation with a heat-transfer system, the brewery could make even more efficient use of energy. Pipes running alongside the hot panels could deliver water naturally heated to 140 degrees, well on its way to the requisite boil.

Processes happening within the brewery — many of them chemical — also hold potential to subsidize breweries’ energy needs. Scientists in Australia and Colorado have discovered that the same bacteria used to ferment beer can be used to help fuel the brewery. The process is simple: What we consider waste, the bacteria consider food. By placing them in an oxygen-free microbial cell with the brewery’s waste water instead of in tanks of beer, the bacteria consume undesirable elements in the water, and, in the process, leave behind both chemical energy and partially-treated water. Foster’s Brewery in Australia produces enough energy with this method to power a house for one year.

* * * *

Still, significant hurdles stand between Hindy and his brew-topia. Rising real estate costs in Brooklyn have made the battle for a new brewery nearly impossible, shelving green innovation for the time being.

To make matters worse, precipitate rises in the price of grains and hops (the bittering agent in beer) have increased brewers’ costs an extra dollar for every six pack produced, compared to just 3 years ago. It may not sound like much, but with macrobreweries like Anheuser-Busch and Belgian-owned InBev consolidating to hold more sway in the grains and international markets, craft breweries know something has to give.

Reducing quality has never been an option for Brooklyn Brewery. The use of adjuncts, additive grains like corn and rice favored by larger breweries, would dilute their taste and violate the goal of brewing the best beer regardless of cost.

“You can’t compromise those kinds of principles without sacrificing your business,” Hindy says. As for their green initiatives, he believes “they may be costly in the short run, but in the long run they will be worthwhile.”

Warily, Hindy announced this past February that Brooklyn Brewery would be increasing the price of their products by six percent, across the board.

Since the price increase, Brooklyn Brewery’s sales have held steady, growing by double-digit percentages in each of the past six months. As of December 2008, no progress has been made in acquiring a new facility.

By Ashwin Sodhi

Ashwin Sodhi is a freelance writer and new media journalist living in New York City. He specializes in the creation and syndication of interactive content, and has been featured on several prominent blogs and online magazines. Ashwin can be contacted at ashwinsodhi@yahoo.com.

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