As breweries increasingly consider craft beer’s environmental impact, many are turning toward more sustainable ingredients to reduce their footprint. They’ve found that focusing on the earliest steps in beer making has a positive outcome potentially dozens of times greater than in-house efforts like solar or recycling.
Two of beer’s primary ingredients, hops and barley, offer the best possibilities for sustainable production. Barley in particular can be farmed in ways that support water conservation, soil preservation, and carbon reduction. Meanwhile, low-water hop varieties like Neomexicanus, a hop native to the American Southwest, also reduce a brew’s impact.
Arizona Wilderness Brewing in Phoenix, Ariz., sits in a part of the country where water scarcity has become critical. About five years ago, the outdoor-focused brewery realized that its choice of ingredients—malt in particular—could have an outsized influence on water conservation in its parched home state. As a result, the brewery became a key player in a partnership fostered by The Nature Conservancy to help preserve the Verde River.
The conservancy hoped to encourage farms to switch to early-season crops that grow when river water is more plentiful and there is less waste due to desert heat. With the growing popularity of craft beer, the conservancy hit on a solution: barley. However, to make that solution economically viable, farmers needed a market for the grain. Consequently, the conservancy supported the establishment of craft maltster Sinagua Malt to roast the raw barley and create a marketable product. At the same time, it solicited local breweries to create demand.
The concept resonated with Arizona Wilderness and the brewery has become the malthouse’s primary customer, currently buying 80 percent of Sinagua’s output. According to Zach Fowle, head of marketing for the brewery, this partnership benefits everyone from farmer to consumer. “It’s a win-win for everyone involved. It’s a market-based solution that doesn’t require any sacrifices.”
Focusing on sustainable ingredients makes a bigger difference than anything Arizona Wilderness could do in the brewhouse, insists Fowle. “Any water we save on that end will pale by comparison with the farms on the front end.” He adds, “According to the math that we’ve been able to do, every pint of beer that we sell equates to about 50 gallons of water for Arizona’s waterways.”
In 2022 the brewery added hops to its conservation efforts. It brewed a beer named This Beer Saves Water using low-water hops and Sinagua malt. The goal is to raise awareness of Arizona’s water issues among craft beer lovers. “We really wanted to drive home the point of water saving, the water crisis in Arizona, and why people should care,” says Fowle.
Arizona Wilderness sources other ingredients locally as well, particularly those grown in waterwise ways. For example, the brewery makes three different beers using drip-irrigated watermelons. Fowle contends that the brewery helps create a market for crops that wouldn’t otherwise be economically feasible. He describes the effort as “using the beers that we make to encourage responsible choices in what farmers decide to grow.”
Additionally, buying locally has a much lower transportation footprint than trans-continental or trans-oceanic shipping. “As much as we can work with Sinagua and local groups, it cuts back on the carbon footprint of that malt. Working with these local farms helps in more ways than just water,” says Fowle. Fresh Arizona produce also makes for tastier beer while keeping money in the local community.
Colorado breweries are also recognizing the benefits of sustainable, local agriculture. Root Shoot Malting in northern Colorado is a combination farm and craft malthouse that has gained popularity with breweries in Denver and across the state. The farm grows barley using sustainable and regenerative agriculture while protecting green space from suburban encroachment.
What started decades ago as a family farm expanded to include a malthouse in 2016 after owners Emily and Todd Olander observed the meteoric growth of craft beer. Along the way they realized that sustainable, and ultimately regenerative, agriculture would play a significant role in keeping Colorado agriculture viable in the face of environmental and development pressures.
While there’s a difference between sustainable and regenerative farming, Todd Olander believes that both play important roles in reducing the environmental impact of craft beer’s core ingredients. In a nutshell, sustainable farming doesn’t damage or reduce resources, while regenerative farming actually improves the quality of the land.
To support these goals, the Olanders rotate crops every year and undertake additional annual maintenance work. After the barley harvest in July, they plant cover crops, then turn cattle loose to feast. Both tasks improve soil chemistry and nutrition. It’s a more detail-oriented process than traditional farming but Olander believes it’s worth it. “If we can have healthier soil that is more resilient, we can grow a healthier and more profitable crop.”
The Olanders also believe it’s important to sustain the farming lifestyle and guarantee the food supply for future generations. To this end, the couple has worked with local nonprofit Colorado Open Lands to put conservation easements on their property. These easements allow continued farming while permanently preventing additional development. Future farmers will have available land and the community will enjoy the views and environmental benefits of green space.
The Olanders’ ultimate goal is to use fewer scarce resources and artificial chemical inputs like pesticides and fertilizers while crafting high-quality barley and malt. The approach is clearly working, as Root Shoot won medals in every category at the 2023 Malt Cup.
A Positive Impact
Bruz Beers in Denver is one of dozens of local breweries brewing with Root Shoot. The brewery relies on the craft maltster for over 90 percent of its malt. Co-founder Ryan Evans and head brewer Dave Olson buy from Root Shoot because of its positive impact on the local environment and because of the quality.
Olson explains that Root Shoot can and must be more thoughtful about resource usage due to its size. “As a small family farm, they’re going to use less water, they’re going to use less pesticides, they’re going to use less of everything. Everything is going to be less because they can’t afford to just sweep everything (with chemicals).”
In addition to less-impactful farming, Bruz values Root Shoot’s proximity to the brewery because it limits the malt’s transportation footprint. Explains Olson, “I either drive up there or they bring it to us. One forklift, one truck. That’s significantly more sustainable.” Additionally, Root Shoot can supply multiple breweries with a single trip of its truck.
Even the farm’s layout reduces the grain’s carbon footprint because the farthest field is only 10 miles from the malthouse. “A huge step toward sustainability is shortening the supply chain,” Olander says. “My goal is to be carbon-negative or carbon-neutral.”
For Olson, the quality of the ingredients and the beers they let him create more than offset the increased costs that come with buying from small growers. “I’m the brewer and to me what’s in your glass is the same as what’s hanging on the brewery’s walls. It’s the art and it wouldn’t feel as artistic to me if I bought industrial.”
Bruz makes several 100-percent- Colorado brews using locally grown ingredients like cantaloupes, peaches, and chiles. It also contracts with Colorado’s award-winning Billy Goat Farms for hops and buys from a local yeast propagator.
Doing the Right Thing
Ultimately, craft beer drinkers come out winners through better beers and a more sustainable local environment, whether they know it or not. Most customers are unaware of the environmental ramifications of the pint they’re drinking. Fortunately, breweries understand the underlying value and benefits of sustainability.
Says Olson, “I think the average consumer doesn’t inherently care,” explaining that Bruz’s choice of ingredients is driven by the brewery’s own values. “It’s really more about what we want. I’m not doing it for the customer. I’m doing it for me and the guys that I’m buying it from.”
Adds Evans, “It’s about doing the right thing.”
Fowle recognizes the same challenges but sees cause for optimism. “It’s a difficult story to tell,” he says, but adds, “Over time I think the consumers are understanding, especially as the water crisis in Arizona becomes more severe people are open to learning more. We’re seeing more and more that the people who are coming to our brewery are aware of those messages and making the choice.”
Ultimately, brewers care about the long-term impact they can have on their customers, communities, and the environment. “Buying sustainably is going to be better in the long run for our customers, their housing, their state, and what they get out of living in this area,” says Olson.
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