When you hear the words "green brewery," you might picture gleaming solar panels or aerodynamic wind turbines. But the most valuable piece of technology at the $24 million headquarters of Smuttynose Brewing Co. on the seacoast of New Hampshire isn't quite as sexy.
"The place you have to start is the building envelope," says Smuttynose founder Peter Egelston.
That's the name for the interface between a building's interior and the outside world. It's basically the structural shell that's made up of exterior walls, windows, doors, the roof and foundation. Heating, ventilation and electrical work more efficiently in a tight building envelope, which keeps the interior temperature consistently cool or warm, prevents energy loss and ultimately saves money.
Homeowners understand all too well the payoff that comes with battening down the proverbial hatches, but the beer industry veteran says his team's motivation to tighten up was both an economic and a strategic response to Smuttynose's location.
New England has been battling some of the most brutal winters on record, forcing Egelston to reckon with the shifting power of Mother Nature. And he's not alone. Breweries around the country (and beyond) are grappling with their own climate and weather woes, and many are coming up with creative ways to adjust to their changing environments.
"Being sustainable these days isn't only about reducing our carbon footprint or saving resources and money," Egelston says. "It also means adapting to weather-related incidents — heat waves, freakishly snowy winters, heavy rains and drought. Sounds pretty grim when you rattle them off – but it's a new reality."
This new reality is hitting home in parts of California. Brewers there are reeling in the face of a relentless drought, now in its fourth year. The lack of precipitation has cast a dark shadow on their growing industry because water is one of the four main ingredients in beer – along with barley, hops and yeast. Water is also essential to keeping brew house equipment clean and sanitized.
Some companies have even had to cut back on production due to limited water availability from the drought. Bear Republic Brewing Company on the depleted Russian River in Sonoma County tells The Salt it has had to pull out of distributing to 27 retail markets across the U.S.
The enduring drought has certainly highlighted the critical need for adaptation, says Cheri Chastain, sustainability manager at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, headquartered in Chico, Calif. She's in charge of improving efficiency in every department at a brewery that sells about 1 million barrels of beer a year.
"We've been trying to be good stewards and all of the low-hanging fruit has been picked – things like automating more systems, which reduces the risk of human error and waste, and making sure all of the brew house hoses have highly-controllable nozzles and flow meters so we can identify leaks," she says.
They've also built a CO2 recovery system to capture the gas that's created during fermentation and recycle it back into operations. "This not only prevents CO2 from fermentation from immediately entering the atmosphere, but eliminates almost all of the need to purchase CO2 which eliminates a great deal of trucks from the road," she says.
Chastain is also helping raise awareness outside the walls of her own brewery as the co-chair of the national Brewers Association's sustainability subcommittee, which meets monthly to strategize about solutions.
Jarett Diamond of the non-profit Green Brewery Project says it's essential for an industry that depends so much on natural resources to get serious about sustainability. His consulting venture focuses on helping craft brewers be more efficient through better facility design, water management and converting to renewable energy sources. Diamond says beer makers both mammoth and micro are taking heed of signs signaling a need for change.
One example he points to is SAB Miller (South African Brewers), the multinational company based in London that's responsible for brands including Grolsch, Miller Genuine Draft, Pilsner Urquell and Peroni. For its African beer Eagle, SAB Miller is experimenting with the indigenous and plentiful cassava root as a more sustainable, local and less expensive replacement for barley malt, which doesn't grow well in tropical climates.
According to Ceres, an environmental sustainability group that's working with the beer industry, warmer temperatures and extreme weather events are also hurting hops, which are cultivated mainly in the Pacific Northwest. "Rising demand and lower yields have driven the price of hops up by more than 250 percent in the past decade," Ceres notes.
In March, the group announced that 24 breweries had signed its Brewery Climate Declaration, aimed at calling attention "to the specific risks and opportunities, of climate change on the $246 billion industry."
As for the hops, Diamond says some small farmers are stepping up to help breweries by growing hops so that they don't have to rely solely on the large hop producers in the Pacific Northwest hurt by their shifting climate.
Then there's Klamath Basin Brewing Company in Oregon. Diamond says staff there are taking advantage of geothermal energy sources that are abundant in the northwest, and it's the only U.S. brewery using geothermal directly to produce beer.
Diamond also sings the praises of the Alaskan Brewing Company where brewers have begun turning a waste product — their spent grain — as an energy source. Rather than burn fossil fuels by shipping the byproduct to other states, the staff there built the world's first grain-burning furnace that reportedly cut fuel oil consumption by up to 70 percent.
Diamond says these types of forward-thinking adaptations will serve those breweries well in the in an uncertain future. And he sees a "business climate change" on the horizon that he believes will cause the growing craft beer market bubble to burst. The sustainability expert predicts only the greenest breweries will survive.
"It's my theory that the breweries that are best equipped and have adapted to using fewer resources, less electric, natural gas, less water are going to be the ones that can sustain themselves through the coming sea change in the brewing industry," he says.
Andrea Shea is arts and culture reporter for WBUR in Boston and was a professional brewer for two years in the 1990s.