Beer. Because we love it, we thought we’d give a quick plug for this weekend’s ‘Brews at the Beach – Santa Barbara Beer Festival,’ an event that brings together craft breweries, local food vendors, and central coast musicians in a benefit for the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation. Local favorites including Figueroa Mountain, Firestone Walker, Telegraph Brewing Co. will be featured, as will New Belgium Brewery, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Stone Brewing Co. and a host of others.
But we love more than beer. We love the way the craft of brewing beer has evolved, especially when that evolution includes a big shift towards sustainable brewing practices. Three of the breweries mentioned above (New Belgium, Sierra, Stone) are the subject of the following story which appeared in the Winter volume of LoaLiving Magazine. It highlights some of the steps they’ve taken leading the sustainability revolution within the industry.
Can you drink good beer while saving the planet? We believe so. Let us know what you think! Cheers.
It was sunny and 85 degrees in Santa Barbara, so naturally I thought it would be the perfect day to convince my wife and two friends to sit inside, play dominoes and drink sustainable beer for six hours. Afterwards, I was lucky enough to speak with some kind folks from three companies that have embraced sustainability as a guiding principle.
You’ve probably encountered Stone Brewing Co.’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, New Belgium Brewing’s Fat Tire Amber Ale and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Pale Ale. These are absolutely ubiquitous beers – and they are awesome. But we wanted to try something different, so our impromptu crew got down and dirty with fourteen other beers from these three sustain-a-brew pioneers. And as we sipped, we reflected on what might qualify a brewery as sustainable.
While the four of us tasters are absolutely beer enthusiasts, and some of us have even made a few homebrews over the years, none of us are ready to be crowned beer experts. So while we tried to follow some conventional “vertical” tasting rules (Pale Ale before India Pale Ale before Double IPA), sometimes our tasting order went a bit horizontal.
For example, it felt right to start with New Belgium’s Abbey Ale, because Bavarian monks were probably the first sustainable brewers in history. Hundreds of years ago, they lived through fasts by consuming beer. The Abbey Ale has an appropriate hint of banana bread and a mellow, almost brandy-like finish. My fellow tasters call it “highly drinkable”- a much higher compliment than it sounds.
“Craft brewing brings life back to the human scale,” says Katie Wallace, Sustainability Specialist and Purveyor of the Good Life for New Belgium (yes, that’s her official title).
Human-scale error leads us to open Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo Extra IPA next. Fortunately, it is not only quite tasty, but it’s not at all oppressive for its high gravity (read: higher alcohol content). Although Torpedo is available in bottles, ours came in a can. Someone mentions that this is all the better for backpacking. Then, someone points out that if it’s easier for us bipedal mules to schlep aluminum around (as compared to glass), it’s probably a big deal for a brewery’s distribution chain – and, voila, we are talking about sustainability.
Our three featured brewing companies explain that many sustainable corporations hew to the “triple bottom line,” expressed variably as people/planet/profit or ecology/economy/equality. But what is sustainability? What does sustainable mean?
Cheri Chastain, Sierra Nevada’s Sustainability Coordinator, talks about “integrating community and the environment,” but acknowledges that almost everyone has their own definition of sustainability. “Ultimately, we are a business,” she says. “But just about every business wants to be in it for the long-term. That’s sustainability.”
You can’t make great beer without loving great beer. And Greg Koch, CEO and Co-Founder of Stone Brewing, loves beer. “Sustainability,” he says, “is about being able to continue on your chosen path for the longterm.”
In some ways, the craft brewery movement is inherently about sustainability. For example, many craft brewers serve a local customer base, and beer becomes, in Koch’s words, an “artisanal” product. “Craft brewers are more connected to their communities, and this moves them away from the industrial side of the [business] equation,” he says.
We wouldn’t be talking about these breweries if they weren’t making change. Sierra Nevada, which steers clear of politics, was nonetheless labeled “the most political beer” in America by the Huffington Post.
Koch, of Stone Brewing Co., says, “We do have certain responsibilities to leave things better than how we found them. These people with the Hummer-owning mentality have to realize they don’t have a right to #*!% it up.”
Sustainable brewing can be defined by at least three metrics: (1) sourcing (where ingredients come from) (2) production (how much and what type of energy is used, how waste is managed, etc.) and (3) distribution (how beer gets from brewery to consumer).
All three brewing companies make attempts to address each of the three metrics, but they are most dialed in when it comes to sustainable production methods. New Belgium is powered by wind and solar energy (right), while Sierra Nevada and Stone Brewing rely on solar (Sierra Nevada uses fuel cell technology, too!). Efficient water use and the responsible disposition of wastewater are also key to each operation. Most of these practices are friendly to the financial aspect of each brewery’s (triple) bottom line.
As far as distribution goes, New Belgium will soon be brewing in North Carolina to more efficiently reach its fans on the East Coast. By the time you read this article, New Belgium will have received the final delivery on a fleet of hybrid and electric trucks, and its local distribution (they also deliver on bicycles) will be largely carbon-free.
Big Beer can be incentivized to employ sustainable practices, too, says Sierra Nevada’s Chastain. She notes that Budweiser is one of the most efficient water users. “It just makes financial sense,” she says. “Efficiency gains in your utility bill, your water bill, what-have-you – that’s just basic business principle.”
Of course, craft brewers deserve a lion’s share of the credit for innovation. But everyone interviewed agreed that craft beer accounts for a small proportion of the national market, and it can therefore be difficult to translate new, sustainable practices to the entire industry.
“We [at New Belgium] think it’s an honor to be part of such a collaborative niche in the industry,” says Wallace. “We are successful because of collaborations and sharing innovation. For example, Sierra and Stone have been industry leaders, and they’ve drawn needed attention to our collective efforts.”
For his part, Stone Brewing’s Koch says that Sierra Nevada is laudable precisely because, “they don’t shout about it too much.”
“We help inspire people to live sustainably,” says Wallace from New Belgium’s home base in Fort Collins, Colorado. “For many years, we didn’t advertise our various initiatives, like our wind power, but when we finally put some information on our label, we saw that awareness increased. It used to be nerdy to talk about sustainability, but now it’s a popular conversation to have over drinks on a Friday night.”
Our tasting panel is a case in point. Seasonal beers (note: do not use the word “seasonal” when talking to most brewers; say “special release” or “rotating”) can be difficult to appreciate in Santa Barbara, where pleasant weather is essentially endless, but the Sierra Nevada Tumbler Autumn Brown Ale is a nice change of pace. We also enjoy Sierra Nevada’s eponymous Porter and Stout. Of the Porter, one taster says, “Tastes like stump.” And she means it in the most positive way.
We move on to Koch’s Stone Smoked Porter. It was not aggressively smoky, but had a bittersweet combo kicked off by a welcome bite at the finish. Two tasters who are self-described “Not Porter People,” say “Good!” and “Thumbs up!” There are smiles all around.
Our next set of beers is hop-heavy. Hops are quite possibly the craft brewing movement’s best friend. But talking about hops (and barley, which is turned into malt) shifts us back to thinking about that first leg of sustainable brewing – sourcing.
“Base ingredients are hard to source,” says Koch. “Consistency [of product] is an issue, and organic farming is still a frontier. Demand is key. Craft brew is still only six percent of the market, and that doesn’t always move the needle very much. For now, we try to make a difference where it will make the most difference.”
“We support the idea that organic farming can be just as productive as ‘conventional’ farming,” says Wallace. But she explains that brewers are faced with an “hourglass” supply chain, with barley growers on the opposite side and malters in the middle.
Chastain talks about how Sierra is trying to take this next big step. “Economies of scale necessarily come into play,” says Chastain. “Sierra Nevada consumes more whole cone hops than any other brewer in the country, and we have programs to incentivize our farmers to adopt more sustainable practices.”
Sustainability is an ever-expanding concept which the best companies (and individuals) should always aspire to. Fortunately for us beer-lovers, there are some top-rate brewing companies out there that have already embraced the challenge.
Beer recommendations from other brewers:
I asked our friendly brew-folk to step out of their companies’ comfort zones and recommend beers by other brewers. After zero prodding, they eagerly recommended the following:
-Ryan Arnold, Communications Manager for Sierra Nevada, recommends Russian River’s Temptation.
-Greg Koch, CEO and Co-Founder of Stone Brewing Co., recommends Societé Brewing in San Diego.
-Katie Wallace, Sustainability Specialist and Purveyor of the Good Life for New Belgium, recommends Supplication, also from Russian River (methinks I will be seeking out Russian River’s beers).
Some additional notes on the hoppy portion of our program:
New Belgium’s Snow Day Winter Ale is surprisingly (in a good way) sharp with hops, belying its dark color. It is nicely balanced with roasted malt.
Sierra Nevada’s Northern Hemisphere Harvest receives top comments from our tasters. The phrase “liquid gold” is thrown around. Sierra’s Celebration Ale was affected by our lack of something to actually celebrate, until my wife moved into an insurmountable lead in our domino game.
Stone Levitation Ale is light on alcohol but full of that clean, crisp, citrusy hop goodness. New Belgium’s Ranger IPA isn’t very hoppy at all in comparison, so we make a lateral move to Brett Beer, the result of a collaboration between New Belgium and The Lost Abbey. “Like sunlight through a hayfield,” says one taster. It receives much praise.
We linger on a Stone Ruination IPA (“sharp!” but “not overpowering for a big IPA”), and by the time we are finished with our final beer of the tasting, Stone Brewery’s Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale, my notes just say: “Fantastic balance of roast and hop. Black bunny.” I have no idea what that means.
For the direct scoop on sustainable practices for each brewing company highlighted above, visit:
By Nathan Alley, LoaLiving Magazine Contributor