Eugene’s Beer Scene Leads the Way in Eco-Friendly Brewing

Brewers are passionate about innovative and delicious recipes, but they’re also showing that they’re dedicated to the environment. Eco-friendly brewing practices are taking center stage in Eugene, Oregon’s very exciting beer scene.

From water sources to farming and from spent grain to truck distribution, the business of beer can take a toll on the environment. High demand has expanded our options into an endless variety of beer, but it’s also increased the environmental impact of beer consumption across the country.

There’s more to the beer-making process than most imbibers think, and it’s easy to forget about the endless hours of work, stacks of packaging, rumbling forklifts, and meticulous cleaning that goes on behind the scenes at your favorite brewery.

America’s thriving beer industry stretches from dominant world- wide corporations to the nation’s muscular craft beer market to local brew pubs serving pints and filling growlers.

Playing vital roles are also the farmers, natural resources, and equipment that are necessary for the brewing process.

With all of these elements at play, it can be difficult to keep a focus on sustainable brewing that is kind to our environment. Despite the struggles, customer demand, escalating costs, and a growing need to conserve resources are all forcing breweries to bring new innovations to the table.

To best appreciate the eco-friendly brewing practices going on locally in Eugene, it helps to review what’s happening on the larger beer scene.

The Macro View: Global Brands Set Environmental Initiatives
Global brewing giant Miller Coors recently announced that all of their major breweries had reached a landfill-free milestone. Set back in 2009, they set a goal of drastically reducing waste in their operations.

Through employee groups and practices the expansive brewing corporation, which brews and bottles beer the world over, was able to use recycling programs and waste-to-energy facilities.

Their Fort Worth Brewery in Texas reduced waste by 66 percent in 2015 compared to 2014. Nearly 100 percent of brewery waste is recycled or reused, with the small amount of remaining waste going to a waste-to-energy facility.

Gavin Hattersley, MillerCoors CEO, says “We didn’t reach this milestone overnight nor can we attribute success to one department, one brewery or one employee. The entire MillerCoors family is committed to ensuring a sustainable future for our company and the communities in which we work and live.”

When these beer powerhouses make even a small change, the potential impact can be enormous. Craft breweries are smaller in scale, but their influence is growing stronger every year.

The Growing Giant: Craft Brewers Boast Eco-Friendly Marketing Strategies
Craft brewing companies make up an increasingly large portion of the top beer producers in the country. Often it’s their eco-friendly innovations that increase the public’s attention of the movement.

Stone Brewing Company is known not only for their finely-crafted beer, but for their iconic bottle designs. A major player in the rise of craft beer over the past decade, their labels have attracted many a curious shopper.

An often overlooked aspect of the brewing process, bottle designs and labels share a story about the ingredients, research, and creativity that are behind the brew inside.

For Stone, their process of emblazoning a story and design onto each bottle has helped them gain notoriety on the shelves. It’s an intricate process, but it gives their bottles a unique feel and character.

The brewery announced this month that they’ll start using a new, more eco-friendly, method of labeling some of their year-round releases.

Later in 2016, their labels will be affixed using a decorative process called Pressure Sensitive Labels (PSL). According to a statement released on their website, the PSL process is more energy efficient because it creates one-sixth the amount of CO2 of other common label application methods.

For Deschutes Brewery, the nation’s 7th largest craft brewery, the Oregon landscape has been central to their goals of sustainable brewing.

In December of 2015, the Bend-based brewery was one of several Oregon business to win a Governor’s Sustainability Award, granted for advancing environmentalism and reducing waste.

They’ve paired up with the Deschutes River Conservancy to restore 1 billion gallons of water back into the Middle Deschutes River each year beginning this summer. According to Deschutes, “This also equates to more than 14 times Deschutes Brewery’s annual water requirements, including our pubs and our entire supply chain combined! This action will improve fish habitat, water quality and overall stream health of our beloved river.”

The relationship between a brewery and its local ecosystem is dynamic. Brewers depend heavily on the health of the local surroundings, and local brewers have a lot to say about keeping the relationship mutually beneficial for a long time to come.

Loving the Local Landscape: Eugene’s Local Brewers Adapt Traditional Brewing Methods
Sustainable brewing is flourishing at the local level. Breweries that only distribute locally or simply pour pints at a community brewpub now have a hand in specific practices that have an impact locally.

Falling Sky Brewing in Eugene prides itself on its community involvement and carefully measures the impact brewing has on the environment.

Lead Brewer and co-founder Jason Carriere is clear about participating in local energy initiatives and environmental issues. “We participate in EWEBs (the local water and electric board) wind power and other carbon offset programs to try and balance our energy consumption in the process of making beer. We also take several steps to recover heat and water within our brewing process to minimize our resource consumption, as well as providing our waste products as animal feed to a local chicken farmer.”

Todd Perlmeter, General Manager of Agrarian Ales, speaks proudly of the beer ingredients grown at the farm where the brewery is located. “Growing all of the hops and majority of other produce and herbs used in our beer and food, allows us to manage our farm land sustainably and reduce our impact by not having to ship/use gas to acquire our products.”

The organic growing practices, composting, and a wastewater management system used by Agrarian Ales helps to keep the farm and beer cycle in motion while decreasing impact and waste.

Eugene’s Ninkasi Brewing provides a unique example of a local brewery expanding into an increasingly thirsty national market. In just a handful of years their beer has found its way to shelves and taps in 14 states and parts of Canada.

As they continue to grow, environmental sustainability becomes more and more important to their process.

They’ve put heavy emphasis on managing the practices at their brewing facilities. A 44.7 kilowatt solar array consisting of 160 panels provides partial energy for the Tasting Room, original production facility, and the brewhouse.

Ninkasi Brewing recycles more than 92 tons of cardboard annually, sending it directly to a paper containerboard plant less than five miles from the brewery. It’s made into new cardboard stock for new six-pack containers.

Ninkasi Communications Director Ali AAsum on the importance of sustainable brewing: “There is great value in consuming a product you can feel good about. When you have a pint of Total Domination you know that the hops were grown in the Pacific Northwest and that the water came directly from Eugene’s McKenzie River watershed.”

There’s a lot to say for creating a product you can feel good about. This is where things change for brewers at the local level. For the nation’s largest breweries, environmentally sustainable brewing practices not only serve to lessen impact, but also save money.

Reducing waste and streamlining the bottling process for worldwide distribution are certainly strategies to applaud, but they lack some power on the activism front.

“What I am more interested in is showing our customers and potential customers what kind of company we are, what kind of people we are, and what type of community we believe in,” says Carriere, “through other means, such as our support of environmental causes and charities, our commitment to local farmers, and our support of a more ecological future.”

When the local community finally does raise a pint to drink, they can also see and taste the immediate benefit of these eco-friendly brewing practices.

For fresh flavors, the newly harvested bounty at Agrarian is an delicious example. Pumpkins harvested in late fall help brewers at Agrarian Ales add a curious depth to their beers, while also taking advantage of fresh ingredients. “…we harvest our crop of Sugar Pie Pumpkins at the height of the season, walk them the 100yds to our outdoor wood-fired cobb oven, clean, cut in half, roast them next to open flame, then they’re added to the brew,” says Perlmeter.

Eugene’s breweries are acting quickly to take advantage of a community that’s thirsty for innovation. Eugene’s craft beer community expects great beer and sustainable practices to keep it flowing far into the future.

What’s the Future of Sustainable Brewing?
Innovations in eco-friendly beer brewing and distribution are far from finished. They’re important to both conscious consumers and the viability of the industry as a whole.

Just as larger breweries are increasing control of their farming, brewing, and bottling processes, they’re moving toward working with their own water treatment facilities too.

Beer brewing can result in wastewater that’s high in dissolved solids that give local treatment facilities trouble. In 2014, California’s Bear Republic Brewing Company was the first to implement cutting edge water treatment technology.

They worked together with Cambrian Innovation, a water and bioengineering technology provider, to install The EcoVolt system. It employs a proprietary bioelectric technology to treat wastewater and generate biogas, transforming waste into an asset.

According to Cambrian Innovation, “EcoVolt is the world’s first and only industrial-scale, bioelectrically enhanced wastewater treatment and reuse system. Electrically active organisms rapidly eliminate 80-90 percent of the biological oxygen demand (BOD).”

Carriere again on where he’d like to see local breweries work together: “It would be great to have one of those set up next to the brewery, or perhaps a larger facility somewhere in town that all the local brewers could pool together to supply with waste and pay for operations and sell the gas back to a local gas utility.”

Brewers utilizing more local farming practices is also on the horizon. Breweries like Agrarian Ales are pursuing drip irrigation to help manage water usage and installing a passive solar water system.

As these local breweries continue to expand, they’ll be focusing on more than the brewing process. Brewpubs, administration buildings, and other expansions will require new ways of doing things.

Ninkasi’s AAsum says their newer buildings are now meeting more and more strict environmental standards. “Our newest facilities (administrate building, local distribution facility and the production facility) completed in 2014 are all built to LEED standards. Upgrades to our other facilities include the installation of skylights, automated light fixtures and the installment of hand-dryers in place of paper towels.”

Supporting Local Brewers is Easier than Ever
Finding great beer brewed with innovative, eco-friendly practices is easy. It only requires a thirst for delicious craft brews and a curious character.

The beer brewing business is now bigger than ever, with the total number of breweries in the United States reaching an all-record number of 4,144 in 2015. Breweries are eager to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers, and that means celebrating what makes their beers unique.

Of course, supporting your local breweries is the best way to experience the benefits of eco-friendly brewing for yourself.

Illustration by the author