Appealing to eco-friendly tastes

Mike Dano //December 1, 2014//

Appealing to eco-friendly tastes

Mike Dano //December 1, 2014//

More than a decade ago, the employees of what was then a fledgling brewery in Fort Collins took a vote: Would they get their profit-sharing earnings that year, or would they instead put that money toward a 10-year investment in wind energy?

“It was really a defining moment for us,” Katie Wallace says now.

Wallace, assistant director of sustainability at New Belgium Brewing Co., says the vote was unanimously in favor of the wind energy investment – and was untainted by possible influence from the company’s owners, who stepped out while New Belgium’s employees cast their votes.

Wallace says the brewery was founded in 1991 partly on principles of sustainability and environmental friendliness. “All of us wanted to be a part of that,” she says in explaining the vote. “That’s the culture that we work within.”

Today, New Belgium is one of many Colorado brewers that have embraced a green approach to business. At New Belgium and other Colorado beer businesses, recycling, renewable energy and other earth friendly practices are de rigueur.

Indeed, Wallace says that New Belgium’s founders conceived of the company on a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, and one of their “core values” was that their business should operate along the same guidelines that conscientious people use – meaning, it shouldn’t be harmful to the environment.

“Having fun is one of our core values,” Wallace explained. “If it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable. Fear and guilt only motivate for so long. [So the founders decided that] we’re going to have to make it fun and enjoyable if we want people to stick with it.”

According to Bart Watson, staff economist for the Brewer’s Association, “Efforts vary by company, but water usage and sustainability are important for brewers. Regardless of their size, it’s a good business decision.”

He laid out three primary reasons why the craft beer community has invested its time, money and energy into environmental practices and policies:

1.   High -quality beer requires high-quality ingredients, such as clean water.

2.   The audience for craft beer falls into a higher socio-economic group, is more educated than the average beer drinker, and tends to be interested in environmental issues.

3.   Craft breweries are tied to their geographies and are locally focused, thus they tend to support those environments.

To Watson’s first point: Jules Masters, Asher Brewing Co.’s “master of mischief and organizer of others” (yes, that’s her official title) says that founder Chris Asher “felt that consumers in Colorado deserved world-class beer that was made with world-class ingredients.” Boulder-based Asher prides itself as “Colorado’s first and only all-organic brewery,” according to Masters.

“Boulder is a unique place where people are very environmentally aware,” Masters said.

And perhaps more importantly, the breweries in Colorado that have put green practices at the forefront of their business are seeing results – they’re both saving money and building brand stature among consumers.

Wallace says New Belgium decided to remove the cardboard inserts between bottles in its six packs, based on a suggestion from employees in its packaging division. The company now saves $1 million annually and is able to fit more beer in its delivery trucks, without an increase in broken bottles. The company is also involved in projects ranging from building massive solar panel arrays to save on electricity costs, to retrofitting its buildings – both owned and leased – with more efficient lighting. And, Wallace says, the company hasn’t stopped at the obvious: It is now upgrading its computer systems in an effort to wring out more efficiency in its brewing process to reduce water usage and save money.

“We think this kind of work is good for business,” Wallace says, adding that the company is profitable not in spite of its green efforts but because of them.

New Belgium isn’t alone. Masters says Asher Brewing has saved money thanks to various sustainability practices. “All of our energy is solar panel and wind subsidized,” she says. Moreover, she says the company spends 30 percent more money on its ingredients because they are organic and “we make a point of not passing that on to the customers,” Master says. “It’s worth it.”

The spotlight on sustainability stretches to the country’s biggest brewers. John Stonebraker, technical services manager for MolsonCoors in Golden, says the company saves $1 million per year thanks to its decision to discontinue sending trash to landfills. He says the company previously generated 138 tons of landfill-bound trash each month, but by recycling has cut that to just 20 tons monthly, which is now used to generate energy.

The company has also reduced its energy consumption (19 percent last year) and water consumption (8 percent last year). “We’ve seen a good return” on that investment, Stonebraker says. “It reduces our operating cost.”

Plain and simple: “When you recycle materials, you save cost,” says Watson.

But in discussing their focus on sustainability, brewers describe cost-savings as a secondary benefit. “We can feel good about the products we’re putting out,” says Asher Brewing’s Masters.

“We do it because it’s a foundation for our parent companies and it’s a foundation for MolsonCoors itself,” Stonebraker says, adding, “We know that our consumers prefer environmentally friendly companies, and that’s been true for a long time.”

Sustainable measures at a glance

MolsonCoors: In Golden, the brewer extracts up to 1 million gallons of ethanol per year from waste beer through two stills, which is then mixed with gasoline to reduce auto emissions.

New Belgium: Starting last year, the company began charging itself a per-kilowatt hour tax on purchased electricity, money that is reserved for energy efficiency and renewable projects the company says will help to directly reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

Asher Brewing: The company’s spent grain goes to the local organic farm Frog Belly to feed livestock.