The eco-friendly kind, not the St. Patrick’s special

by Jason Foster


Beer drinkers are no different than anyone else. With the polar ice caps melting, severe weather incidents becoming more frequent and reliable supplies of fresh water at risk around the world, it’s clear we can’t just blithely tip our pints and ignore the environment anymore.

But while beer lovers, like consumers of all stripes, are correctly becoming more concerned about the environmental cost of the products they buy, it’s often hard to figure out what exactly those costs are.

So in honour of Earth Day on Tuesday, April 22, here’s an overview of the environmental consequences of beer — and a few tips on ways to shrink the environmental footprint of your beer consumption.

There are three major factors in determining a given beer’s environmental impact: ingredients, production and distribution/serving. Let’s go through ‘em all.

1.) Ingredients

The three main ingredients in beer — malt, hops and water — are all fairly innocuous. Most malt used by Canadian breweries is grown in western Canada, largely Saskatchewan, and malted in nearby facilities. Better yet, most breweries have arrangements with area farmers to feed spent grains to cattle or pigs, maximizing the use of the barley.

Hops aren’t grown in Canada so they have to be purchased from around the world — but on the upside, they weigh very little so they don’t require much energy to move them around. Hops can’t be fed to cattle, but they’re easily composted along with other by-products.

So far so good — although the environmental impact of both barley and hops can jump dramatically depending on the type and amount of pesticides and other chemicals used for pest control and production enhancements.

Water is a different matter. All breweries source their water locally for obvious reasons, and it takes conservatively between four and eight litres of water to make one litre of beer, depending on the brewery. Much of that water is either used for washing equipment, absorbed by grain or lost to evaporation during boiling. But most of that water isn’t lost: it’s either sent back into the city water system (as wash water) or goes down the gullets of the cattle as they eat the spent grain, and many breweries also attempt to capture evaporated water for re-use.

2.) Production

The production of beer requires significant power and gas inputs to heat kettles, cool refrigerators and power machinery like grain mills, bottling lines, forklifts, filtration units and so on. Brewing equipment — kettles, fermenters, bottling equipment, etc. — also requires significant resources for their manufacture.

The good news is that there’s a thriving second-hand brewing equipment industry, meaning once a piece is produced it’s likely to have a long and prosperous life at multiple breweries before being decommissioned — a classic example of re-use.

At least with craft breweries, the use of dangerous chemicals isn’t an issue. Most of their cleaning agents and sanitizers are either natural, bio-inert or easily neutralized, and craft breweries don’t add any preservatives or colouring agents to their beer. I can’t speak for the big corporate brewers, who may engage in stuff that’s a little less innocuous.

3.) Distribution/Serving

This is actually the biggest footprint of most commercial beer. Bottles of beer are heavy and moving them around leads to a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Imports from around the world and corporate beer — which is often produced halfway across the country — can use up a lot of fuel to get to your local store. At least Canada has an excellent bottle recycling and re-use system: if your beer is produced in industry-standard bottles (the long neck with a twist-off top), you can trust that bottle is being re-used between 16 and 30 times before being crushed and melted. Import bottles and non-standard bottles are single-use, but still get re-purposed through crushing and melting for future glass.

Cans, on the other hand, are lighter to ship but can only be used once — and the process to create them is quite toxic. Plus, they have a plastic lining, which comes with all the bad things plastic does.

So: what can you do to reduce your beer footprint?

As a consumer the single biggest thing you can do is buy local. Purchasing beer from Paddock Wood, Prairie Sun, Great Western, Bin Brewing or one of the other Saskatchewan breweries makes the greenhouse gas costs of transportation virtually nil. If you’re in a pub, draught beer is more environmentally friendly than the packaged product. And always choose bottles over cans when given the chance.

Or, check out organic beers — a small but growing part of the industry. Mill Street offers an organic lager, for example, and many smaller breweries are moving toward organic beer. Quite a few breweries are also working to lower their footprint by recapturing waste products, increasing energy efficiency and minimizing waste. Some (like Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing) have gone farther and installed solar panels, which cover about a third of the brewery’s energy needs, or created a co-generation plant powered by bio-gas generated from cleaning waste water.

Drinking beer in an environmentally responsible fashion isn’t going to save the planet all by itself, obviously, but it sure can’t hurt. And knowing you’re doing at least a small part of your bit should make that pint go down even easier.