Local Brewers Are Taking Ownership of Their Environmental Impact
Slumbrew co-owner Caitlin Jewell really wishes she hadn’t forgotten to pour herself a beer.
She’s spent the past 25 minutes lecturing the small crowd gathered around the brewery’s tanks. She’s taken them through Slumbrew’s history, given them the simple breakdown of how beer is made, cracked some good jokes, and doled out the instructions everyone will need for this evening’s workshop. Now, she’s getting tired of talking, so she leaves the group with one final word of advice.
“If you’re really anal about your home kitchen,” Jewell says, scanning the crowd to make sure everyone’s listening, “This is going to drive you batshit crazy.”
Thirty minutes later, the group is elbow-deep in flour and yeast in the Brewer’s Loft, little white splatters adorning their clothes, sticky spatulas precariously balanced on the table. Mastering the art of prepping and baking a loaf of Jewell’s spent grain rosemary bread requires getting a little dirty.
It isn’t often that one leaves a brewery with bread dough—or, to use Jewell’s terms, “an amorphous blob in a Ziploc bag.” The connection between bread and brewing only becomes clear when you discover the secret ingredient in Jewell’s recipe: brewer’s spent grain, a byproduct of the beer-making process.
Despite its unassuming appearance—the grains look like soggy brown rice, and Jewell stores them in a trash can—spent grain is actually a hyper-rich source of both fiber and protein. However, regardless of its residual nutritional value, spent grain is often simply thrown out. In fact, it’s the largest source of waste for most breweries, according to the Brewers Association.
“We’re a tiny brewery,” Jewell says. “But we’re getting rid of 10,000 pounds of spent grain a month.”
It’s no secret that the local craft beer scene is thriving. From 2011 to 2017, the number of craft breweries in Massachusetts leapt from 45 to 129. The state produces close to 600,000 barrels of craft beer a year at 31 gallons a barrel, making Massachusetts the 13th most productive state in the country. Somerville alone is home to five craft breweries—Aeronaut Brewing Co., Remnant Brewing, Small Change Brewing Co., Slumbrew (also known as Somerville Brewing Co.), and Winter Hill Brewing Co.—and one cidery, Bantam Cider Co. In these parts, you’re never too far from your next pint.
The proliferation of craft breweries is certainly celebration-worthy—the brewing industry has proven positive economic impacts in the community, and it creates a popular product. But brewing beer also consumes a copious amount of resources. At 95 percent of the country’s breweries, for example, making one barrel of beer uses three to seven barrels of water (a number that doesn’t take into account the water needed to grow hops and barley), Quartz reports. Much of this water is drained off during the brewing process, but it is full of yeast and sugars, making it difficult to treat. The entire brewing process, from drying the barley to cooling the fermentation tanks, also consumes significant amounts of energy, emitting CO2 and contributing to air pollution, the Brewers Association outlines. Finally, there’s all the solid waste produced by breweries—from cans, to bottles, to coasters, to all that spent grain—that could easily end up in a landfill if a brewery doesn’t prioritize waste reduction.
To see the tangible toll breweries can take on their communities’ ecosystems, one need only look to Burlington, Vt. Last year, the city, which is home to eight breweries and one cidery, was forced to close two of its beaches after 1.8 million gallons of sewage spilled into Lake Champlain during three days in June, the Burlington Free Press reports. Burlington officials pointed fingers at the city’s craft brewers, saying their sugary wastewater overloaded the sewage treatment plant’s system, inhibiting the water-treating microbes by disrupting their diet.
“For us to handle the [breweries’] waste, it takes more chemicals, more energy, potentially more staff,” City Water Resources Director Megan Moir told Seven Days Vermont.
As craft breweries continue to pop up, some brewers are innovating ways to reduce their footprints. From CO2 reclamation systems to tools that can scrub and reuse cleaning water, there are plenty of shiny gadgets that now allow breweries to scale back their negative impact on the environment.
For the breweries of Somerville, however, there’s just one problem.
“We’re so small,” says David Kushner, co-founder of Remnant Brewing. “A lot of the very cool toys that breweries can install to help them be energy efficient and sustainable are prohibitively expensive, or take up a lot of square footage that breweries like Remnant just can’t sacrifice.”
One wastewater treatment unit from MIT-born startup Cambrian Innovation, for example, measures 53 feet by 8.5 feet, an amount of space no small, local brewery could sacrifice. Somerville’s brewers, therefore, must find alternative ways to reduce their footprints.
“Every brewery, especially in New England, is trying to make an effort of sitting down and saying, ‘How can we be more sustainable with what we have and what we can use?’” Kushner says.
At Remnant, Kushner decided to make water use one of his primary focuses. He was particularly interested in cutting down water use during the phase of brewing known as knockout. One of the most water-intensive stages of the brewing process, knockout refers to the phase in which piping hot hops-and-malt-infused water (called wort) needs to be cooled down so that yeast can be added to it for fermentation. To cool off this mixture, breweries typically filter the liquid through a heat exchanger, which uses cold water to lower the temperature of the mixture. This process takes about 30 minutes at Remnant, and there is water flowing from the tap that entire time.
In planning Remnant, Kushner worked with the brewery’s manufacturer to ensure that the water used in this heat exchange process could be filtered back into the brewery’s hot liquor tank, allowing the water to be reused to make the next batch of beer. The benefits of this are twofold: Remnant captures and recycles water, and also conserves energy by using the wort to heat the water.
“It’s a relatively easy fix,” Kushner says. “You don’t need a $500,000 piece of machinery and you don’t need more square footage to implement this.”
Michelle da Silva and Dana Masterpolo, however, conserve even more water—by not brewing beer at all. Masterpolo and da Silva co-own Bantam Cider, the Union Square spot that holds the title of the state’s first cider taproom. Crafting cider is completely different from brewing beer—the process essentially involves pressing apples and fermenting their juice, which means that cideries use little water in their product, and produce no spent grain.
Most of Bantam’s raw ingredients are reused, Masterpolo says. The squished apple pulp, for example, is sent to farms to feed livestock. The natural flavoring additives that Bantam uses, like ginger, hibiscus, and mint, are composted.
Bantam also makes an effort to run their taproom sustainably. They recycle nearly everything—cardboard, water cups, and coasters, to name a few—and all of the glasses used in the brewery are washed by hand. Masterpolo and da Silva also took inspiration from the recent Boston plastic bag ban and stopped distributing bags to each customer purchasing cider to go.
“I think we feel a certain responsibility to the local community that has allowed us to run our business in their backyard,” Masterpolo says. “We’re operating right next to people’s homes, down the road from the center of town. We are part of a community, and I think we’re just doing what we should be doing.”
While the sizes of Somerville’s breweries bar them from experimenting with many of the latest sustainability innovations, there are environmental benefits to running a small brewery. Each operation is fairly limited in its distribution—Slumbrew’s is so modest that their canning apparatus can be folded and tucked away in the corner of the brewery—so they only produce a minimal amount of waste from packaging and delivery trucks. Remnant and Winter Hill don’t even distribute at all.
“A lot of our customers don’t even drive; they either bike, walk or take public transportation,” says Kushner. “So we have a small carbon footprint when you look at the total lifecycle.”
Kushner hopes that Remnant will become even more energy-efficient in the future. As Bow Market considers installing renewable energy sources, like solar panels and wind turbines, Kushner looks forward to further reducing the brewery’s electrical load. He’s also anxiously awaiting the day that sustainability technologies are adapted, and made affordable, for breweries of Remnant’s size.
“We plan on being here a long time, and I don’t think the brewery will look like this, ideally, in five to 10 years,” Kushner says.
For now, though, Kushner is dedicated to studying, evaluating, and adapting his brewing practices to ensure he is doing as much as he can to protect the community supporting his beer.
“That’s something I’ve really loved about this industry,” he says. “The constant driving thing is ‘Let’s provide a great product for people to enjoy—but let’s also be the best neighbors as possible.’”
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