Cheers to Greener Beer

Summer is upon us, England are in the Euro finals, and with that comes more beer (no matter the weather). Unfortunately, whilst beer may not be kind to our waists, it also has an impact on our carbon footprint. Researchers and breweries are now looking at ways to help this ancient industry create greener beer.

From hops to your homes, every aspect of beer production is laden with environmental issues. Whilst your beer intake is unlikely to be a huge part of your carbon footprint, it is possible to make more informed decisions. To get a full rundown of beer science, you can read my previous post: Science Behind Beer. However, a quick overview: the main ingredients of all beers are water, malted grains, hops, and yeast. It is the combination of these ingredients, and the processes themselves, which alter the composition of beers to produce the wide range we have today. The general process is as follows: 1) milling – dried barley is added and ground, 2) mashing – water is added to produce wort (a sugar-rich liquid), 3) brewing – hops and any other ingredients are added and the mixture is boiled, 4) cooling – the mixture is cooled to 10-20oC, 5) fermenting – yeast is added, and the sugars are converted to alcohol as the mixture ferments, and 6) maturing – mixture is left to mature, then filtered and bottled. It is the chemicals produced during the brewing process which give a beer its flavour and bitterness.

What is the environmental impact of beer? In 2007, a study (referenced in this article by Imperial College London) calculated that alcoholic drinks accounted for 1.5% of the UK’s total emissions, and this can be reduced with new technologies and more informed consumerism. During the fermentation process, sugar is added and alcohol is the desired output. However, an unwanted, but seemingly unavoidable, by-product is also created during fermentation: CO2, a primary contributor to greenhouse gas. Alongside CO2 production, other factors impact the carbon footprint of beer, such as transportation (which applies to all food and drink). The researchers at Imperial measured the greenhouse gas production of international, local and home-brewed lagers and ales. Whilst international imports always performed worst (due to their longer transportation and therefore greater emissions output), locally produced drinks came second, with home-brewed outperforming both. Interestingly, in each category, ales produced less emissions than the lagers, as they did not require chilling. The team even came up with their own zero emissions beer, COBREW, which you can read more about HERE.

Whilst transportation is a problem in itself, some companies are looking for ways to offset the CO2 emitted during fermentation. Young Henrys Brewery, (Sydney, Australia) set out in 2012 to be more sustainable in their brewing. Alongside using solar power, the brewery has partnered with University of Technology Sydney for over two years to implement and research the benefit of utilising algae in the capture of CO2 from beer production. Microalgae, or phytoplankton, are naturally occurring, tiny photosynthetic plants which generate oxygen. The mircoalgae are like small biochemical factories and account for the production of half the oxygen on the planet. When used alongside brewing, algae can ingest the CO2 by-product from fermentation. The CO2 is captured at the top of the fermenting process tank, fed through a bioreactor which houses microalgae. The microalgae then use the CO2 to create more algae and oxygen. This new process can off-set the carbon emissions of the brewing process and prevent the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. Current estimates suggest the brewery’s 400L bioreactor of algae can output as much oxygen as one hectare of Australian forest, within a matter of weeks. To watch the BBC’s report, follow this LINK. Even the algae grown as a by-product of this research can go on to have a second life, with uses in bioplastics, garden products, animal and human feed etc. So, could offsetting CO2 with the use of algae be an urban environment solution to aiding the reduction of carbon emissions?

Unfortunately, the CO2 production from fermentation accounts for ~5% of a beer’s carbon footprint. Calculations suggest that if you were to drink a few bottles of internationally imported lager a day, this could add up to a tonne of CO2 emissions a year, the equivalent of ~50,000 cups of black tea. Breweries such as Carlsberg are aiming for zero carbon emissions by 2030, moving to renewable energies to aid the decarbonisation of their facilities. Other companies are considering ways to reduce emissions from transportation, which makes up more than 25% of beer’s total carbon footprint. The heavier the delivery, the more carbon emissions created, so companies are looking at innovative ways of making deliveries lighter. One suggestion is making beer more concentrated by removing water, as water makes up 90-95% of beer. The process used to make the concentrate is called “nested fermentation“. Once the standard beer is created, water is removed over a number of repetitive steps, so only the concentrate and alcohol mix is left to be transported which is just 1/6th the weight of filled bottles etc. The beer mix can then be rehydrated and carbonated before being bottled or served. These concentrates can also be frozen and therefore potentially reduce waste.

Whilst beer may make up a small percentage of the UK’s overall carbon footprint, it is an industry which can improve on almost every aspect of the process. The brewing companies must now be proactive in their changes to reduce their footprints, but we as consumers can make more informed decisions too. Buying locally made produce reduces transportation, choosing ale over larger avoids refrigeration needs and, unfortunately for the connoisseurs out there, tins are better than bottles (as long as you recycle them). So, enjoy the sun (when it appears), the football and a beer, just spend time investigating more local breweries. You never know, you may find a new favourite.

While you’re here

If you want to read my previous articles about beer, or others about coffee and tea science, use the links below.

Science Behind Beer

Despite the poor weather this bank holiday weekend in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, plenty of residents from the UK are likely looking forward to a weekend of sleep and general relaxation. It’s known that alcohol consumption increases on these longer weekends but do we understand the science behind one of our favourite pastimes?

Read more…

Coffee Chemistry

Assessments for the second year of my PhD are coming to a close and, although I don’t drink coffee, caffeine would be very much appreciated right now. As the most popular drink in the world, why not find out how it keeps us awake, and why it’s so addictive!

Read more…

The Perfect Dunk

The amazing Netflix documentary series, The Last Dance, tells of the incredible basketball career of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. If you’re looking for a dunk in basketball terms, I suggest you watch it. Here we’re going to talk about tea and biscuits, sorry basketball fans. Tea lovers, you’re going to want to fetch the biscuit tin for this one…

Read more…

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