Zero-waste beer

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Zero-waste beer

A pint of the unusual? The search for a zero-waste beer

Making beer carries a fairly formidable environmental footprint, but craft brewers are taking up the challenge, using food waste and grey water to make sustainable ales

Daniel Tapper, Guardian, 27 June 2016

Have you ever pondered how sustainable your favourite beer is? No, I hadn’t either – until I started brewing. In truth – and it pains me to say it – the act of transforming barley into fermented beer carries an environmental footprint of pretty epic proportions.

To put it into perspective: average energy consumption is estimated to be about 0.2 kilowatt hours for each bottle of beer, enough energy to run a 40-inch TV for almost three-and-a-half hours. As for water, although it’s hard to quantify exactly how much is used to create beer – from the growing of hops and barley to the cleaning of brewing equipment – recent studies suggest it can take up to 300 litres of water to create just one litre of beer. Worse still, the majority of ingredients used to make beer are never actually consumed, with most leftover hops and malt earmarked for landfill.

Craft beer fans with an eco-conscience may want to avert their eyes now because the high alcohol, hoppy beers associated with this scene can sometimes be even worse for the environment. Why? High aroma is generally achieved through a process known as dry hopping, meaning the addition of hops post-boil. On a commercial scale, this often requires an energy-rich process of recirculation, plus the movement of beer between tanks, ultimately requiring the use of electricity for pumps and water for cleaning. What’s more, hoppy, high-percentage beers generally demand more ingredients. It is not uncommon for some craft brewers to use twice as much malt as an industrial brewer and 25 times more hops. In Scotland alone, annual beer-related by-product waste is estimated to total 53,682 tonnes. Battle brewing: female beermakers take aim at industry sexism Read more

The good news is that - thanks to their diminutive size – so-called craft brewers are far more likely to leave a smaller environmental footprint than their mega-brewery counterparts. However, all this could change as the latter begin to mimic craft beer’s ingredient-heavy styles. But do we really have to make a choice between good quality, flavoursome beer and sound environmental credentials? Perhaps not.

The Leeds-based Northern Monk Brew Co has just released what could be the world’s first zero-waste beer – and it tastes incredible. The beer, Wasted, is a 6.7% golden farmhouse ale made in collaboration with the Real Junk Food Project, a charitable foundation that runs a series of “pay as you feel” cafes serving waste food sourced from supermarkets, allotments, restaurants and food photographers.

The brew was created using 120kg of waste pears, croissants and brioche,. Not content with saving food, the beer’s creators have also packaged the beer in 100% recyclable glass and have donated all the hops and malt used in its production to a local farmer for use as feed and fertiliser. The beer’s champagne yeast, meanwhile, is being used in other brews.

Northern Monk’s brew is an echo of a wider trend for sustainable brewing in the US. Last year, the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, located south of San Francisco, created a version of its Mavericks Tunnel Vision IPA using recycled “grey water” – water that has been used in sinks, showers and for washing clothes. It was made with the help of the same technology found on the International Space Station, which transforms urine and sweat into drinkable water. Although it hasn’t yet been released commercially, a tasting panel of experts couldn’t detect any differences between the brewery’s original IPA and the waste-water version.

Another Stateside pioneer of sustainable brewing is Sierra Nevada, which recovers 99.8% of its total solid waste through reuse, recycling or composting, and is powered almost entirely by solar energy and micro-turbines. The brewery also grows its own organic hops and barley, and has reduced its water intake by 25% with the help of rainwater catchment cisterns. It even boasts its own herd of cattle – reared on spent brewers’ grain – which supply the brewery’s onsite restaurant with beef.

Closer to home, Hackney Brewery in east London has recently started producing an impressive amber beer for the food-waste charity Feedback. The beer, aptly named Toast, is made from surplus bread. Its creator, Tristram Stuart, estimates the beer will help to offset some of the 24m slices of bread thrown away each year by UK households. The beer’s creators have discovered that toasting the bread prior to brewing adds subtle caramel notes that balance the bitter hops. (This does prompt the question: how much energy does it take to toast industrial quantities of sliced bread?)

The south-east London brewery Four Pure has switched from bottles to cans, a form of packaging that is not only infinitely recyclable but also smaller and lighter than a glass bottle, making it more efficient to deliver. In Suffolk, meanwhile, Adnams is using the first “anaerobic biodigester” in the UK to transform waste liquid into methane gas, which it uses to power its brewery and distillery. Purity Brewing Co in Warwickshire has installed a series of ponds, ditches and reed beds around the brewery, which filter and clean its waste water. The effluent not only feeds willow and alder trees, but also provides food for insects and helps green algae and other aquatic plants to reoxidate.

The dawn of sustainable craft beer, it seems, is upon us. But how will British drinkers respond? A pint of helles landfill lager, anyone? Or how about a glass of grey-water gueuze?