Pulling a greener pint

Last orders are being called on wasteful processing methods as breweries look to up their game when it comes to sustainability. Phil Mellows reports.

Brewing has always been a green industry. Go back far enough and you’ll find farmers recycling unsold barley as beer. And when some of them found it was probably more profitable to make beer in the first place, it was natural to plough the waste materials from the process – spent grains and the fermentation sediment known delightfully in the trade as ‘trub’ – back into the ground or use them as animal feed.

And don’t forget Marmite, made from left-over brewer’s yeast. The original Marmite factory opened in 1902 right next door to the Bass brewery. These early forms of waste management continue today, and the brewing industry has stepped up its game, improving efficient use of water, energy and packaging. At the end of last year, the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) produced a document titled Brewing Green that charts the industry’s progress toward sustainability and sets new targets.

“We have a record we can be proud of,” said BBPA chief executive Brigid Simmonds, introducing the report. “But there is a lot more work to do. We recognise that we can do more to influence energy and water use in our supply chain – and we are also committed to reducing packaging waste, encouraging recycling and reducing the weight of our bottles and cans.” There are some tough challenges. Brewing uses a lot of water, a lot of energy and, thanks to the changing structure of the market, increasing amounts of packaging.

The brewers themselves are a motley collection of enterprises of all shapes and sizes. The big international players, Heineken, AB Inbev, Carlsberg and Molson Coors, benefit from rigorous systems and economies of scale and have produced some impressive scores on minimising waste going to landfill. Heineken UK recycles 95% of its waste and UK environmental manager, Richard Naylor, believes that its brewery in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, is the only British brewery to so far to hit the zero figure for landfill after hooking up with an energy-from-waste plant at Huddersfield.

Brewing up biomethane gains

Family brewers and the burgeoning microbrewery sector find it harder to make gains, but they have come up with some of the most bold and imaginative solutions with Adnams in Suffolk leading the way in reducing energy and water consumption. Last year it opened its own bio energy plant that takes waste from the brewery plus local food waste and converts it into biomethane gas. About 4.8M kilowatt hours a year are injected into the national grid, enough to fuel the brewery, its vehicles and 200 homes.

According to Heineken’s Naylor, it’s not just about meeting legislative targets. There are commercial and PR benefits. “As well as good external PR, it’s something we can talk to our employees about, too. It makes them feel good about where they work.”

Water efficiency is a key challenge facing brewers. You may be surprised to find out that the pint of beer you’re holding is probably 95% water – but brewing uses up a lot more of the dull damp stuff than that. In the past, it took as much as a gallon of water to make eight pints of beer, the surplus rising out of the brewery as steam as well as being used for cooling and for washing brewing vessels and barrels. Huge progress has been made in reducing that figure. According to BBPA figures, since 1990 the number of pints used per pint has come down from 6.71 to 4.51, a 33% improvement in efficiency despite the fact that during that time more water has been needed to meet rising hygiene standards.

Some big brewers are doing much better. Heineken’s Royal Brewery in Manchester has got it down to 3.2 pints by recovering water and steam for use in air compressors and the refrigeration plant. And even a small brewer such as Batham’s in the Black Country is recirculating water used for cooling to its cask washer. Now the BBPA wants the industry to reduce its average water usage further, to below four pints per pint of beer. Then there is the waste. They can’t go into the beer because they would make it cloudy, but the nutritious sediments and proteins recovered from brewing have long been put to use on the land and as cattle feed. Other waste materials, however, present a tougher challenge. Brewers use a lot of plastic – strapping and film around packaging and the keg caps that have replaced wooden bungs.

Even so, across the industry the percentage of recovered waste has increased from 71% to 89% over the past 20 years, and the amount going to landfill has halved. Packaging is also a chief concern. Pubs are closing at the rate of 29 a week. People are drinking more beer at home. It’s all having a big impact on the brewing industry’s packaging demands. In the pub, 90% of beer is sold on draught from kegs and casks that might last for 30 years. But now half of all beer is drunk from bottles and cans. Brewers have largely stopped using returnable bottles, Harvey’s of Lewes being a notable exception.

Progress has been made, though, through successful recycling campaigns – Stella brewer AB Inbev has achieved a 50% recycling rate for aluminium cans and 75% for glass – and the ‘lightweighting’ of bottles. Carlsberg has, for instance, has reduced the weight of its bottles by 17%.

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist

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