The small footprints of craft brewing

How Boulder craft brewers are leaders in sustainability

Bryce Clark

Brewing beer has the potential to be pretty wasteful. Without mindfulness in brewing practices, it would be easy to cause harm to our environment. Although most beer is brewed with natural ingredients (water, malt, hops and yeast), it is not naturally occurring. The processes and equipment used in brewing can be cumbersome to our resources. Fortunately, most craft brewers are well aware of these risks, and go to extreme lengths to operate sustainably.

It’s no secret that the craft brewing industry is filled with a lot of eco-conscious individuals. We often hear about large craft brewers, their incredible sustainability efforts and the ways in which they give back to the environment.

But they didn’t always have top-notch automatic cooler doors to keep cold rooms from wasting energy, and flow meters to monitor their water usage. They weren’t always able to donate thousands of dollars every year toward environmental causes. They must have gotten their start somewhere.

And what about the little guys? Do the smaller brewers without the same resources, capital or equipment try and make those same strides? Or is operating sustainably beyond their reach?

Based on conversations with some of Boulder’s local brewers, it seems as if craft beer and sustainability go hand in hand.

Ian Clark, chef and founder of BRU handbuilt ales & eats, says operating sustainably is important to him for many reasons.

“The main reason is that BRU is an extension of who I am, and sustainability is very important to me,” Clark says. “Because of this, it is only natural that that sentiment would resonate in my business.”

Clark is not alone in his mindset; the craft brewing industry as a whole is filled with likeminded people who want to be as environmentally responsible as possible. Otherwise, they’d probably care more about quantity than quality — and they’d probably have to find a new industry.

Eco-friendly craft brewing isn’t simply a new trend. Sustainability in brewing has been going on for hundreds of years. Take, for instance, the practice of brewers giving spent grain (grain after it’s been used in brewing) to local farmers for feed and composting. This tradition is still going strong today. BRU donates most of their spent grain to local farmers. The same goes for Gunbarrel-based Asher Brewing Company, who sends their spent grain over to local organic farm, Frog Belly. Downtown brewpub Shine Restaurant & Gathering Place uses lamb from the same farm they send their spent grain to, Golden Hoof.

Brewers use more than their processes and equipment to create sustainability initiatives; they also give back through charitable donations to environmental causes. When it comes to giving back to the environment, our small local brewers make a big difference.

BRU donates 1 percent of their sales to a network of environmental organizations worldwide, while Asher donates kegs to raise money for local environmental non-profits and community fundraisers.

But what about energy? Big craft brewers are able to attain top of the line, energy-efficient equipment. That isn’t always so easy for smaller brewers with a smaller budget. Sometimes they have to get creative.

“Making beer on a commercial scale is not very eco-friendly,” Clark says. “It uses an incredible amount of water, some funky chemicals, and large amounts of brewers’ yeast released into municipal water systems wreaks havoc on treatment plants. On top of all that, it takes an amazing amount of energy to both heat and cool the beer to keep it tasting great. So, we have to make a conscious effort to mitigate that in all areas we can.”

Both BRU and Asher offset their breweries with 100 percent wind power.

So even though it’s not always the easiest route, our Boulder-based brewers have really made a commitment to sustainability.

“When we started brewing four years ago, we wanted to bring to market an innovative approach to beer making that was in line with the holistic healthy vibe of Shine Restaurant & Gathering Place,” says Jill Emich, co-owner of Shine.

Shine’s brewhouse is set up to recapture much of the water from wort transfers, and they use locally grown hops for some of their beers.

Besides working with farmers, whether it’s donating spent grain or using their products for ingredients, there are other ways brewers get creative in their efforts. For BRU, they find ways to incorporate any extra product into their menu. For instance, when there is a small amount of beer left over, it gets turned into vinegar for the kitchen. Additionally, some of their spent grain is used in their spent grain ice cream sandwiches. (And if you haven’t tried their ice cream sandwiches, you’re seriously missing out.)

The unique ways brewers strive toward having eco-friendly businesses goes all the way down to tap handles and furniture. BRU uses reclaimed utensils for the tap handles in their tasting room, and all of the furniture in Asher’s tasting room is re-purposed. There’s something scrappy about the craft brewing industry, which can be pretty endearing. But for the environment, it’s pretty powerful.

For these craft brewers, it’s not about marketing themselves as “green” or having an eco-friendly image. The business of craft brewing is one of passion. And the financial expenses, patience and innovation that go into many of their efforts toward sustainability, showcase that passion well. When walking through Shine, Asher or BRU, you might notice the eco-friendly and people-friendly chemicals they use to clean their equipment. Usually, this stuff isn’t going to save you any money, and it may take a little longer to use in some cases, but when it comes to their efforts toward sustainability, our local brewers are committed down to the last non-toxic drop.

“Sustainability is always under a microscope for us,” Clark says. “We are always trying to reevaluate sustainable practices and get better in every way.”