Zero-carbon booze: Is it all bubbles?

The alcohol industry is rife with greenwashing, but real change is brewing

Simple climate action  //   I S S U E   # 3 6    //   B O O Z E

The empty fizz of climate-conscious booze

By Cadence Bambenek

In late September of 2019, Scotch whisky-maker Old Pulteney launched a video campaign series highlighting the brand’s long-standing relationship with the ocean. The first installment of “Rise with the Tide” campaign featured cinematic shots of breathtaking Scottish sea cliffs and frolicking dolphins. Two minutes in, the distillery manager asserts that the sea is The Maritime Malt’s DNA. “The sea is absolutely a part of Old Pulteney, it is the biggest influence that we have,” he says. “Not just the maritime, but you've got the brininess, the saltiness; you've got that coastal experience. And that's all borne about by the sea.”

When a writer reached out to hear about Old Pulteney’s sustainability bonafides, the PR team seemed to be caught off guard. Beyond a recent partnership with an eco-conscious surfboard maker, they had no tangible actions to tout (though the surfboard tie-in made for some nice aerial footage of surfers off the California coast. 

Across the alcohol industry, climate consciousness is on tap. Everyone, it seems, is brewing or distilling something carbon-neutral. In 2020, Fat Tire Amber Ale, New Belgium Brewings’s flagship beer became the first carbon-neutral certified beer. Corona, part of mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, unveiled a “circular form of packaging” this March: six-pack cardboard carriers made from upcycled surplus barley straw, a byproduct of barley seeds for in its beer. Spirit-makers like Patron Tequila have touted their commitment to reforestation and highlighted the use of recycled glass.

Yet things are changing in the industry as climate change moves to the fore. Breweries and distilleries are selling their carbon credentials.

In August 2020, Fat Tire Amber Ale, New Belgium Brewing’s flagship beer became the first carbon-neutral certified beer. Corona, part of mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, unveiled “circular” packaging this March: six-pack cardboard carriers made from upcycled surplus barley straw, a byproduct of barley seeds in its beer. And spirit-makers like Patron Tequila have touted their commitment to reforestation and highlighted their use of recycled glass

But most of the efforts to date have been heavy on marketing, and light on impact. For alcohol producers, displacing emissions is a harder than appearing greener. We’ve heard this story before. When tiny craft breweries began encroaching on mega-brewers’ market share in the early 2000s, companies like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev launched faux craft beers (leaving their corporate names off the labels), prompting lawsuits.

Today, companies’ climate bonafides have become a selling point: 81% of people surveyed in a 2018 Neilsen survey say they strongly believe business are responsible for improving the environment. Customers want to make environmentally-conscious purchases. But they expect ‘green’ marketing to come with receipts.

Booze in the Anthropocene

Nearly anything can be turned into alcohol. Add a little water, a little sugar, and yeast will do the rest. Wine comes from grapes. Beer from brewed barley, wheat, and hops. Spirits from, well, practically anything with starch or sugar: corn and potatoes (vodka), sugarcane (rum), and agave (tequila). 

And all that alcohol is carbon-intensive from beginning to end. The tilling, planting, fertilizing, growing, and harvesting of the agricultural products destined for brewing, fermentation, or distillation all contribute to a hefty emissions profile, as well as its packaging in resource-intensive glass or aluminum. U.S. alcohol manufacturers alone release the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of 1.9 million households annually, according to Mother Jones.

To get a sense of where these emissions come from, take a look at a glass of Brewery Vivant’s Farm Hand French-Style Farmhouse Ale. The Grand Rapids, Michigan, company studied the lifecycle emissions from a glass of its brew. Brewery Vivant was already trying to reduce its impact by giving spent grain to a local rodeo performer, who uses it for animal feed, and sourcing a minimum percentage of ingredients grown locally in Michigan. But almost all the emissions for a bottle of its Farmhouse Ale come from just two source: energy and raw materials.

Making booze takes a lot of energy

The single biggest action alcohol makers can take to reduce their emissions, says Walker Modic, sustainability manager of Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and co-char of the Brewers Association sustainability subcommittee, is transition to clean energy. 

New Belgium was one of the first to address this. In 1999, it became the first brewery in the country to source much of its electricity needs via wind power, striking a 10-year deal with Fort Collins, Colorado, installing on-site solar energy, and study of the carbon footprint for its beer. Brewery Vivant followed suit installing a solar array in 2016 to supply at least 10% of their electricity.

But for small breweries such as Vivant, which sells around 5,000 barrels of beer a year, the initial capital investment was tough. “The payback on that for us was probably like nine years,” says Kris Spaulding, co-owner and sustainability director of Brewery Vivant. “No one speaks in terms of nine years being a good payback, right?”

Yet Brewery Vivant is among the top breweries sourcing renewable energy; most aren’t anywhere near 10% of their consumption. With the majority of breweries dependent on the local grid, explains Modic, “most brewers are going to be only as renewable as the energy delivered by their local utility.”

Finding a better bottle 

Vermont-native Ivy Mix is the co-owner of the Fiasco bottle shop in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, she recalls sipping Sprite from glass bottles during intermittent stays in Jamaica. After finishing one, the local custom was to nestle the bottles in a milk crate, put it out for collection, and have them sent back for refilling. The bottles’ labels were typically so faded and worn that the brands’ were nearly illegible. But in recent years, as global plastic production has soared globally, when Mix returns to the island she is greeted by a deluge of plastic bottles.

Mix now spends her time sourcing wines and spirits from sustainable producers and hoping to revive the practice of circulating reusable glass bottles as part of Fiasco! Wine and Spirits alongside co-owners Conor McKee and Piper Kristensen.

Good Goods, a program launched in New York City earlier this year, also works with wineries upstate to bottle wine in a circular economy. Consumers who frequent participating bottle shops (Fiasco, Henry’s Wine and Spirits, Gotham Wine and Liquor, The Gilded Grape and The Natural Wine Company) can return the designated bottles on their next visit, redeeming $2 off future purchases with each bottle returned. The Good Goods program then cycles through the shops, picking up the bottles for processing before redistribution to partner wineries to bottle the next batch off the vine. Ultimately, the start-up’s goal is to expand beyond both wine bottles and New York City. 

“We’ll focus on the wine and spirits industry for the next three to five years, and then move into other product subsets, such as grocery or cosmetic products,” Good Goods founder Zach Lawless explains. The key to the Good Goods program, and any future successful bottle reuse program, is the standardization of bottles. “That’s when costs really get efficient enough that you can beat the cost of single-use plastics.” 

Waste not, want not

Finally there’s all the crops we grow to go into a glass of alcohol. And here there’s plenty of good news here. Some 85% of the waste from the brewing lifecycle comes from spent grain. These leftover husks, which are still rich in protein and sugar following extraction of maltose and maltotriose for fermentation, are often diverted from the waste stream because they're intrinsically valuable, acknowledges New Belgium in its 2018 Business as a Force for Good report.

There’s still room for improvement for what goes into the process. Some initiatives are seeking to repurpose waste as a source for sugar. Good Vodka, launched in September 2020, is repurposing coffee bean fruit waste. This not only saves contributing greenhouse gas emissions downstream, but eliminates the need to grow a new carbon-intensive crop (most vodka is made from rows of resource-intensive corn). Some brewers are even feeding their mash with leftover bread.

Where you come in

Climate change is already reshaping the regions where vineyards can grow and pushing beer makers to rely on groundwater over river water. Groundwater means more minerals, which changes beer’s flavor profile. In the future, unstable weather conditions will yield less reliable crops of barley, wheat, and hops, ingredients key to beer. And water will only become a more scarce — and expensive — resource in many regions.

As customers come to expect transparency from their purchases, there’ll be less room left for marketing claims. The industry will need to target — and be transparent about — the actual source of their emissions. 

As individuals, there are now lots of companies to support who are lowering the climate impact of what they make. But most of the changes will have to come from the brewing vat, in the field, and with the packaging. The $1.7 trillion alcohol industry, at the end of the day, is a global industrial operation. From the seed in the field to the energy powering the walk-in cooler at your local liquor store, it embodies all the energy demands, inefficiencies, and human inputs of an industrial supply chain. All of those will need to change.


Hothouse is a weekly climate action newsletter written and edited by Jemima Kiss, Mike Coren, and Jim Giles. We rely on readers to support us, and everything we publish is free to read.