Environmental Issues. From grain to glass, all aspects of brewing and delivering beer to the marketplace are burdened with environmental issues, with water and energy consumption being the two primary natural resource considerations. Carbon emissions are primarily proportional to energy consumption. Barley farming and beer production are the largest consumers of water. In the brewery itself, water consumption is expressed as a ratio of water used to actual beer produced. All of these impacts can best be categorized in three broad areas: (a) upstream—the production and transportation of raw materials that will turn into beer and beer packaging; (b) operations—the resource consumption that can be tied directly to the brewery and the process of making beer; and (c) downstream—the transportation and refrigeration of beer after it leaves the brewery.

Glass manufacturing, barley production, and malting make up more than three-quarters of the upstream environmental impact of making beer. See bottling. Glass made with a high percentage of recycled content uses significantly less energy, reducing the glass part of the equation significantly. In countries with national bottle recycling or reusable bottle mandates, the impact of glass as a container for beer is considerably reduced. The embodied energy necessary to make aluminum cans is more than that for glass while its weight for transportation is less, making it comparable overall to glass. Stainless steel kegs make a smaller impact because of their reusable nature. A marketplace strategy using refillable containers and kegs could have terrific benefit for the environment.

Traditional growing methods for barley, which require repeated tilling of the land and application of fertilizers and pesticides, have a heavy environmental footprint. Low and no-till methods could decrease this impact, and organic malts would further reduce the overall equation as fertilizers have a heavy carbon footprint of their own. Because intensive tilling practices disrupt the normal storage of organic carbon in the soil, the assumed carbon offset from this natural process is less likely to be realized. Brewers desire a plump barley kernel, which makes irrigation a general practice although barley can be grown as a dry land crop. Barley is steeped, germinated, dried and sometimes roasted in the production of malt for brewing. Drying and roasting are the most energy-intensive parts of this process, using both electrical and heat energy.

Production of beer at the brewery is the smallest part of the environmental impact calculation. If generally accepted practices are adopted—heat exchange for cooling wort and attention to energy and water consumption and conservation—brewery operations account for less than 20% of the overall environmental impact. Electrical energy production is a significant factor in this calculation, so subscription to high-quality renewable energy programs can make a measurable decrease in overall carbon consumption and emissions. Breweries that are environmentally committed can have carbon emissions that hover around 5% of the beer’s total carbon impact.

With a generally accepted industry standard of finished beer-to-water ratio of four and a half barrels of water to one barrel of beer, any effort toward water reduction would be fruitful. Breweries use a lot of water to make beer, especially due to the rigorous and constant cleaning that is necessary during almost every part of the brewing process. A ratio of 3.25 to 1 is considered excellent throughout the world. Many international breweries have set aggressive targets around water usage. See water.

Beer is also heavy. Transportation by truck to far-away markets carries a formidable environmental cost. Given that, surprisingly, the largest single impact along the beer supply chain is refrigeration at retail, which weighs in at more than 25% of the total carbon footprint. Beer is best when stored at cool, consistent temperatures. Shelf life stability is an on-going area of concern, especially as beer travels farther away from the brewery. Brewers have two competing imperatives; the first is the need to maintain quality all the way to the beer drinker, and the other is the increasing imperative to cut back on environmental impacts. This will challenge brewers in the coming years, especially with the burgeoning demand for distinctive beers from smaller breweries around the world.