Beer that reflects environmental concerns and social awareness is gaining traction.
Sustainable initiatives have applicability for breweries as well as for their restaurant customers. “Restaurants are trying to connect people better with their food. And people are, in general, understanding more where their food comes from,” says Cheri Chastain, sustainability manager at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. “Restaurants are also starting to ask a little more about the beverages that they’re serving and how they’re made.”
In March, Sierra Nevada opened the restaurant and taproom operations at its new East Coast production facility in Mills River, North Carolina. The decision to open a major point of production on the opposite side of the country from its home base in Chico, California, was itself, Chastain explains, “largely driven from a sustainability perspective.” The company’s transportation impact when serving large markets like Florida and New York is being reduced immensely by the addition of this production facility. Additionally, Sierra Nevada will be applying for LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification, the benchmark for adhering to green building practices, for the new facility.
Sierra Nevada is at the forefront of a growing number of breweries that are trying to address sustainable practices, a transition that seems—on the surface, at least—to be pretty straightforward. “The idea and concept of sustainability is to sustain something,” Chastain says. “Can you continue to do what you’re doing?” And of course, to do so without compromising the environment or wellbeing of the world in which the business operates. After 20-plus years of running and refining the brewpub operations in Chico, the company has learned a great deal about what it takes to do things efficiently, both at the brewery and the restaurant.
Save Resources, Save Money
“We approach sustainability from an operations perspective,” Chastain says. While a superficial understanding of sustainability tends to focus heavily on environmental concerns, it entails more than that. It’s also about making smart financial decisions as well as considering the societal impacts: keeping employees happy and healthy, engaging with communities, and being aware of how these relationships interact.
Sierra Nevada and other similar companies have learned a lot about reducing waste and identifying inefficient uses of key resources. “A lot of it really comes down to purchasing,” Chastain says, referring to the initial major adjustments made at the Chico brewpub. “Purchasing plays a huge role in waste generation, in water use, in all of it.”
Among the sustainable measures put into place: Single-use items were swapped in favor of reusable options purchased in bulk. Composting became a key practice—the Chico location composts on-site, while the Asheville location works with a local composter.
Sierra Nevada also noticed that—particularly applicable for restaurants with a heavy beer focus—they used significantly more hot water than the average restaurant. This led the company to adopt more-efficient dishwashers and, as Chastain notes, “Equipment selection plays a big role.”
There were also opportunities to save water with simple operational modifications, particularly in the area of food preparation. For instance, the company recognized that thawing proteins with running water was hugely unnecessary when, with better planning, proteins could be thawed a day in advance. This alone dropped the amount of water being used by 20,000 gallons a month. Implementation costs? “It cost absolutely nothing,” Chastain says, adding that she recommends the Food Service Technology Center for getting energy and water-use data on kitchen equipment. Another suggestion: Work closely with water and electricity providers; some utilities offer rebate incentives for upgrading equipment.
In terms of beginning to run a more sustainable restaurant operation, Chastain recommends starting with a recycling program. “Connect with whoever is able to provide recycling services. Find out what their capabilities are, what they can accept,” she advises, adding that trash bills may be reduced due to the downsized containers or fewer pickups.
Planet, Profit, People
Brewery Vivant is a LEED-certified brewery and restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the further distinction of being a Certified B Corporation, meaning it meets “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.”
The brewery is focused on Belgian- and French-inspired beer, food, and sustainability. Brewery Vivant’s co-owner and director of sustainability Kris Spaulding earned a degree in natural resources and the environment from the University of Michigan. (Both she and Chastain serve on the Brewers Association’s Sustainability Subcommittee.)
For Spaulding, sustainability extends beyond the obvious green actions. “There’s also,” she notes, “if you look at people, planet, profit—the people side. How are we impacting our community as a restaurant?”
For instance, every other month, Brewery Vivant hosts a charity fund-raiser where a quarter of the night’s revenue goes to a named charity partner. While the restaurant and brewery already aims to give 10 percent of profits to charity, the hosted events allow charities “to tell their story at our place,” she explains. Local charities are typically the recipients: A recent fundraiser benefited Arts in Motion Studio, which provides art outlets for people with disabilities.
While hosting events is a fairly natural extension of a restaurant operation—and Brewery Vivant typically uses its outdoor space for the events—implementing sustainability measures in a restaurant setting can be challenging. Again, Spaulding recommends starting with people, particularly employees who show an initial interest in environmental or sustainability issues. Find a small group, she suggests, ask what’s important to them and then “just start keeping track.” Spaulding has found that employees who are interested and engaged in sustainability efforts at the restaurant often become more passionate about their jobs. It remains a sharp learning curve, but Brewery Vivant’s staff takes a class on sustainability, and those aspects of the business are a central part of each employee’s annual performance review.
Spreading the Word
For restaurants looking to source from sustainable breweries, there is not an easy answer for how to classify a brewery as such. But that may soon change as the Brewers Association’s Sustainability Benchmarking Project is collecting operational data from hundreds of craft breweries this year and working with Antea Group, a global sustainability consulting company, to determine best practices going forward. The results of the study are expected by year-end.
“We’re trying to get as many breweries, brewpubs, etcetera, to participate and provide data,” explains John Stier, Antea senior consultant. “We’re trying to map out what’s possible.”
For the time being, breweries and restaurants are working together to emphasize sustainability efforts that are taking place throughout the beer industry. For instance, there was recently a tap takeover of environmentally minded breweries at City Tap House in Washington, D.C. Held in conjunction with Earth Day, it featured Long Trail Brewing Company, Otter Creek Brewing, and Wolaver’s Fine Organic Ales.
It was part of a much wider marketing effort from Long Trail, and it included an Earth Day–branded Long Trail pint glass plus a biodegradable seed packet, with a goal of encouraging guests to plant 10,000 trees. Long Trail has reduced water usage to such an extent that just a little over 2 gallons of water are used for every gallon of beer produced.
Other events, like an annual Eco-Friendly Food and Beer Festival held at Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen in Crystal Lake, Illinois, serve to bring together similarly minded breweries and farmers. This year’s festival featured 12 local farms and 22 breweries.