“How to brew a greener beer”
by Jess Craig
National Geographic, October 15, 2021
I am writing to pitch a 1,200-word news feature on some of the most promising sustainable innovations in the beer, wine, and spirits industry. The piece will be solutions-focused but will shed light on the underreported environmental impact of alcohol production and distribution.
I am a freelance journalist; my work has appeared in National Geographic, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera, Newsweek, The New Humanitarian, and NPR, where I was a 2020 AAAS fellow writing for the science and global health desks.
Like many consumer supply chains, there is an environmental disaster at every step of the beer, wine, and spirits manufacturing and distribution process. Common ingredients of many alcohol products – grapes, wheat, barley, hops, and sugar – are some of the most water-intensive crops. Overall, it takes about a gallon of water to make one pint of beer and six times that amount of water to make a single five-ounce serving of wine. There’s the glass and aluminum production for alcohol containers, the plastic and cardboard for packaging, the refrigeration needs. Making tequila and rum produces toxic waste. Then there is the transportation of goods, which accounts for an estimated 30% of the industry’s greenhouse emissions. Many types of alcohol are only made in one or a few places – tequila in Mexico, scotch in Scotland, bourbon in the U.S., champagne in Champagne – which means most alcohol products travel large distances to reach consumers. Quantifying the precise environmental impact of the alcohol industry is challenging, but some scientists estimate that the food and beverage industry contributes to 60% of biodiversity loss and 30% of emissions-driven climate change worldwide.
Fortunately, there are several new innovations aimed at making the alcohol industry more sustainable. U.S.-based start-up BrewVo has developed a “nested fermentation” process that dehydrates beer for easier, cheaper, and more sustainable transportation. Scottish company Diageo, one of the largest in the industry with over 200 brands of spirits and beers, uses byproducts of the distilling and brewing processes as a renewable energy source to power its breweries and offices. Dr. Jay Keasling of UC Berkeley is altogether eliminating the need for hops by growing linalool and geraniol, the two main chemicals that give beer its “hoppy” flavor, in genetically modified yeast. Another Scottish company, Cueantec, and Jaw Brew brewery recently launched biodegradable six-pack rings made from the remains of shellfish. And it’s not just academic researchers and tech start-ups pushing sustainability in the beverage industry; larger companies from Bacardi to Heineken are shifting to more sustainable practices and have vowed to become carbon neutral in the next two decades.
Please let me know if you might be interested in the piece or have any questions. Thanks!