One man's adventure in life!

Sierra Nevada Brewing

Time to kick-off a series I've been thinking about for awhile now, exploring the broad concept of sustainability through the lens of alcohol production and consumption. This will span the whole system, including brewing itself, upstream and downstream supply chains, marketing and public perception etc. To begin with, I'm going to look at the example of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.

I have a soft spot for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, one of the beers that started the American craft beer revolution four decades ago now. Back in 2005 during my PhD I was fortunate enough to spend a month working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. In the evenings I'd find myself at the hotel bar drinking cold bottles of Pale Ale, pleasantly surprised by the flavoursome brew, hoppier than anything in the UK. This was before American craft beer started influencing the UK scene in a major way.

Back home, I managed to find not only the Pale but also the Porter, Stout and Bigfoot Barleywine. Then sometime later, when I was living in the Bay Area, I had the pleasure of popping into the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Room in Berkeley. I never made it to their original brewery in Chico though, which is a shame, as it provides multiple examples of embedding sustainability into the brewing process. The newer brewery in Mills River, North Carolina has even more – being built later it was possible to design extra features in at the start.

One of the things I like is that the sustainability features make sense from a long-term business perspective as well as environmental. Sure there's the extra capital investment at the start but eventually one would think the savings start to mount up. For example, there's a pleasing circularity to capturing the carbon dioxide from the fermentation process, scrubbing it and then using it to force carbonate the beer when packaged to the desired level. Similarly, anaerobic digestion of the organic-rich wastewater creates biomethane which is then used to generate electricity, complementing the solar panels also present. Of course, at the Chico brewery, generated electricity can also be stored using giant Tesla batteries!

Some of the features can be found in other alcohol producers too. For example, every whisky distillery I've visited disposes of the spent grain as feed for local farmers. Re-using hot water and heat exchangers are also common but the Mills River brewery goes one step further with heat recovery from air compressors. Growing barley and hops on site to make the Sierra Nevada Estate Ale reminds me of 100% Islay provenance whiskies produced by Kilchoman and Bruichladdich – worthy pursuits, no doubt, but also highly marketable in an age when “local”, “organic”, “sustainable”, “limited release/quantity” all chime with consumers.

Transport is also covered. Grain comes in via rail, there are electric vehicle charging points, refrigerated trailers are kept that way by electricity rather than diesel but when diesel is needed for the fleet of local and long-haul trucks, used fryer oil from the cafeteria is turned into biodiesel.

I particularly like the way that each brewery has been integrated into their specific biome. In dry California, the Chico brewery has planted drought resistant landscaping alongside their emphasis on water efficiency/conservation. Meanwhile, the Mills River brewery is located in a forested area. Wood from the trees cleared away has been used in the visitor centre, and the brewery is actively managing and restoring the forest onsite to improve its biodiversity. With the wetter climate a network of permeable parking lots, bioswales and cisterns collect stormwater, filtering it before it recharges to the groundwater or before the excess is channelled via an engineered stream with settling ponds to slow down its release to the nearby river.

All of this good work has the requisite array of certifications: LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum for Mills River, Platinum TRUE Zero Waste facility for recycling at both, organic certification by Oregon Tilth for the produce grown at each site for the cafeterias.

Sierra Nevada go further still, in keeping with the root of the name of the brewery they launched “Take back our trails” with a range of partners “to uphold our trails and rivers through action and advocacy”.

So, that's all for now. Next time you enjoy a cold Sierra Nevada beer, you can do so in the knowledge that they are committed to sustainability as well as great tasting beer! If you have the time while drinking that beer, why not also take a look at the interactive brewery maps on their website to find out more.

Entry 86 of my participation in the “100 Days to Offload” challenge – find out more and join in!

2021-05-08 #100DaysToOffload #beer #sustainability #SustainableAlcohol

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