It’s often said that once you’ve seen one brewery you’ve seen them all. To some extent that’s true. Over the 8,000 years that humans have made beer, we’ve got the equipment pretty much down.
There are, of course, variations and different ideas on how certain processes should work – perhaps there’s a lauter tun not a false bottom, a whirlpool, a centrifuge, a decoction vessel, hop rockets, or horizontal tanks. But wherever you go, you can trace the route that the water, barley, hops and yeast take on their transformation and journey out of the brewery. This stainless city has only a few ways out, and so does the waste product. You know that the water and trub goes down the drain, the spent malt out to farmers, and the beer out to customers.
Or so we thought.
Our New England trip, during which we shot our first ever feature length documentary, was eye opening in so many ways – the beer, the people, the scenery. It is the home of a beer style that didn’t only launch a thousand other breweries and change our notion of the IPA, but that affect the recipe creation of lots of other styles and even led to a revival of the pilsner. But the most incredible thing we found out there was behind a door bearing the word ACID.
We were at the Alchemist in Vermont – the place where NEIPA was first brewed and still the maker of its most famous example, Heady Topper. Cofounder John Kimmich was nearing the end of the tour he has given a thousand beer geeks and industry folk, and had got to the point where most people would be wondering where the first beer as going to come from. That was my reaction when he said “I’m gonna tell you something that will end up on the cutting room floor, but I think it’s important to tell.”
We were stood near those classic giant plastic cubes (IBCs), and I presumed the normal spiel was coming – “we send our grain to local animal farmers”, “we use cans because they are easier to recycle”. And we did get that, but it was the intro, not the finale.
Most breweries have sustainable practises in place. But they rarely venture beyond the systems already set out for them. Connections with farmers, recycled materials, hot water recirculation. Kimmich has gone well beyond that in a desperate bid to have as little impact on the environment as possible. In fact, none of what comes out of an Alchemist tank – the trub, hops, grain, waste water – goes down the drain. Instead, it trickles down into giant holding tanks beneath the brewery. From there it is pumped into the room behind the ACID sign.
“If we assume all of America’s 7,000 craft breweries only brewed 5% all-malt pale ales in 2018, that means they used around 18,130,000 un-recyclable malt bags.”
Walking through that door you are hit by the smell of funky chemical reactions. Inside, a steel block the size of a shipping container hums noisily. John explains that this is an aerobic digester. All the waste liquid and semi-solid waste is pumped in, and a special bacterium eats away at it while oxygen is pumped through. The remaining solids clump together, leaving behind water suitable for treatment by the local government plant. The mulch left behind is siphoned off into blue waste barrels and sent to the University of Vermont, where they are used as biofuel. The result of this process is that The Alchemist – a large commercial craft brewery – puts out significantly less waste than a 3-bed family home.
This process can’t come cheap. In fact, it probably cost more than most of the brewhouses in action in the UK at the moment. Kimmich insists that long term it is cheaper, but it is rare to find a young business thinking that far ahead – it is a huge risk to make such a large financial outlay at the start and the ACID room isn’t the only example of this. His solar panels didn’t come cheap either – and he donates the extra power he gives back to the grid right to the local old people’s home.
John didn’t stop there either, and here is the point of our story. John and his team have identified the fact that malt bags aren’t recyclable or biodegradable. Now, just in case that hasn’t hit you like a freight train, let’s give that some context. If we crassly assume America’s 7,000 craft breweries all only brewed 5% all-malt pale ales in 2018, that means they used around 18 million malt bags. While many of the larger ones use silos, that estimate is still beyond conservative so it’s likely more. Frighteningly, all of them are still out there, piled up on top of every others year’s output. And those bags will, without intervention, keep piling up and lasting thousands of years – probably longer than the human race.
So John has decided to do something about it. He contacted a recycling plant in Texas that thinks it can recycle them, and he is going through tests right now. If successful, he hopes to persuade all malt suppliers to switch to the non-lined bags and all breweries to work with plants that can handle them. You’d have to ask him for details and how to get involved but there are things you can do today. Separate the different plastics from your malt bags (the string, straps and inner bag) and store them while we solve this; pester your supplier to stop using inner linings; and speak to your local recycling bank about finding a way to recycle them.
We’d love to hear about any other breweries doing great things in sustainability, and of any solutions you think we can pass on to breweries as we travel around the world. So get in touch, and campaign whoever you need to – your brewery or supplier – to take these issues and solutions seriously!