Craft beer's cool factor relies in part on its connection with the community, part of a value system often linked to sustainability.
Unfortunately, craft brewing doesn't naturally fit an environmental ideal, especially in terms of water usage and transportation costs.
For starters, the Brewers Association reports that a brewery's water use ratio is around seven barrels of water to one gallon of beer. That's a lot of water for eight pints of beer. Besides the fact that beer is as much as 95 percent water, extra water is used in sparging (rinsing out residual sugars), cooling, packaging and the essential steps of cleaning.
Next, unlike wine, mead or cider, beer's main ingredients — malts and hops —rarely can be obtained locally, much less on-site, and thus must be shipped in from afar. Beer is also heavy, contributing to shipping impact. Even the process of malting barley is water- and energy-intensive.
So should environmentally conscious consumers give up on craft beer? Not necessarily. Given that environmental stewardship began early in the craft beer boom and continues to thrive, we still have reason to support our local breweries.
Many of the problems, and thus the solutions, begin upstream, with the raw materials needed for making beer.
A lot of brewers are eager to use local ingredients and support local businesses when feasible: i.e., when these decisions will not negatively affect the end product. This saves excessive transportation. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, for example, used nearly 32,000 pounds of agricultural products from small, family-owned Virginia farms last year, according to co-founder Patrick Murtaugh. Those ingredients include fruits, honey, ginger, hops, malts, coffee and spices.
In Carytown, Garden Grove Brewing & Urban Winery owner Michael Brandt is one of the community's most vocal supporters of the environment.
"As consumers, our spending choices are an important method of influencing our culture as well as companies' practices," he says. "I prefer to research a company's practices and philosophies before I support them."
In addition to buying local when possible, Garden Grove grows a number of herbs, spices, flowers and fruits to use in its beer. The brewery uses organic ingredients, including difficult-to-procure organic malts, which Brandt says he hopes will become more readily available on the East Coast.
Breweries most directly can influence environmental impact at their own facilities. Of course, the bigger the brewery, the greater the impact.
At its Richmond location, Hardywood was Virginia's first brewery to use 100 percent renewable power through the Virginia Green program, which works to reduce the environmental impacts of Virginia's tourism industry. At its West Creek location, the brew house uses an upgraded vapor condensing unit to recapture steam and spray balls in the fermenting tanks that improve efficiency and decrease water usage. The new site was designed to direct rainwater to irrigation ponds and will include nature trails and wood duck habitats.
And then there's the area's largest beer producer, Stone Brewing. Its white roof reflects heat and skylights help illuminate the interior, and the building uses a management system to adjust heating and cooling as well as lights to minimize use. A steam recapture process heats water during brewing, and outdoor measures include a conservation landscaping program and goat patrols.
Brewing's impact isn't all bad. It can even help improve local water quality. Stone Brewing public relations manager Lizzie Younkin says the company trucks its high-strength brewing byproduct to the city's wastewater treatment plant for it to use removing nitrogen from the wastewater.
"They actually use our byproduct in lieu of methanol and purchase it from us at a lower cost than current market methanol price," she says.
Environmental concerns don't stop with production — packaging and distribution present their own problems. The shift to using lightweight cans rather than bottles means a smaller carbon footprint in transportation. But on the flip side, aluminum production is less friendly to the environment than glass production.
And this is where we as consumers can make a difference: Drink beer fresh, on draft, close to the source and support the breweries that align with your own values.
Attention to Detail
Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. Here's a rundown of some of the efforts local breweries are making to be environmentally conscious:
Fine Creek Brewing, which also serves food, composts kitchen waste and avoids using disposable plates, cups and flatware.
Triple Crossing has replaced old lights with energy-efficient LEDs, which use about a sixteenth the regular amount of energy, and it works with United Scrap to recycle materials. You'll also find chargers for customers with electric vehicles at the brewery, and a silo for grain storage, which co-founder Adam Worcester says will "reduce the number of deliveries to our building and hopefully as a result, emissions from vehicles making those deliveries."
Throughout the year, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery donates $5 per barrel of its Great Return India pale ale to the James River Association. It also participates in the Virginia Green program.
Väsen Brewing organizes events with groups that focus on sustainability and outdoor activities, like the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and Keep Virginia Cozy.
The team at Kindred Spirit Brewing uses a high-efficiency brewing system, which head brewer Lee Lonnes says saves "roughly 6 to 12 percent on ingredients and water, depending on the brew."
Ardent Craft Ales participates in Dominion Energy's voluntary renewable energy program Green Power, recaptures exchange water and reuses cleaning chemicals.