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An Adventure In Sustainability – Challenges in Microbrewing

Sustainability Challenges in Microbrewing

Windswept has always had sustainability at the heart of its values and we are thrilled to see the movement gaining popularity. The last few years have seen sustainability buzzwords such as energy efficiency, net zero, zero waste and so on thrown around and we thought you may be interested in how that applies to microbrewing.

In 2019, The Scottish Government’s Climate Change bill set an ambitious target to achieve Net Zero in 2045. This will require a collective effort from businesses of all sizes to focus on improving their energy efficiency and reducing their carbon footprint and waste.

At Windswept, we have dived headfirst into the challenge, looking for effective ways of tackling sustainability challenges in the sector and reducing our impact on the environment. The first step is to identify process areas and business activities that generate or contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

In this blog, we’ll explore what sustainability issues are associated with three different phases of microbrewery operations:

The Upstream Phase
The Beer Production Phase
The Downstream Phase

If you want to learn more about the partnerships we’re undertaking as part of our sustainability efforts, check out our first post in our sustainability series here.


What is it?

The Upstream Phase of brewing refers to everything that happens before brewing, from growing the ingredients to transporting supplies and sourcing packaging materials.

What are the challenges?

The main environmental issue in the upstream phase of brewing is the raw materials that are used in beer production. Based on a life cycle assessment study conducted on our brewery site, beer packaging materials have the largest impact on emissions in the upstream phase. Whether the beer is bottled or canned, the manufacture and transport of these packaging materials is a significant source of emissions. However, there are a few ways to reduce the emissions contribution of packaging such as comparing the impact of different packaging types. Look out for future posts, where we will go into further detail.

Another contributor in the upstream phase is the environmental impact arising from barley production and malting. This ranges from the emissions from the use of chemicals in large-scale barley cultivation to the high-energy requirement of milling and malting barley. To avoid the financial and process complexities of growing and malting barley, most microbreweries purchase already malted barley for use in beer production. Although this simplifies the brewing process, they are still left with a share of the responsibility for emissions generated from barley production. This responsibility is another example of a significant upstream environmental burden.

The purchase of malted barley and raw materials comes with attendant transport emissions. Typically transport emissions are the least significant in the upstream phase of microbrewing. However, over long-distance supply chains, they could present more environmental impact than normal.

Even though the emissions of the upstream phase are not directly linked to onsite brewing activities, it allows us to identify business activities that impact the carbon footprint of beer production.

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What is it?

The beer production phase is everything that happens in the brewhouse. This includes mashing, boiling, wort transfer, fermentation, and packaging.

What are the challenges?

Beer production is a process that requires a lot of energy and resources and is inherently environmentally costly, no matter the scale. The energy required in this phase is mostly for heat and hot water production or cooling applications.

Aside from the brewing itself, a reasonable amount of energy is still required to perform other functions in the brewery, such as cleaning, water circulation, air compression, etc.

Energy consumption is unavoidable in brewing. However, we would still like to do everything we can to improve our energy performance wherever possible. Windswept is exploring energy efficiency measures that will help reduce energy use in our day-to-day operations.

A major emission source that has received very little attention is the fermentation process of brewing. During fermentation, sugars in the barley are broken down by yeast to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2). Due to scale and cost, the recovery and capture of CO2 have generally not been appealing to brewers and are even less likely to be achievable for micro brewers.

Watch this space for upcoming blogs about our energy efficiency measures and plans for CO2 recovery.

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What is it?

The downstream phase of microbrewing operations refers to activities that follow beer production, mostly storage and transportation.

What are the challenges?

The sustainability concerns in this phase are product refrigeration and the carbon footprint of transporting beer.

Energy from refrigeration is consumed at both the brewhouse storage and at the retailer’s shop. The amount of energy required for cooling at this phase depends on the shelf life of beer before it is purchased.

Similar to the upstream phase, transport emissions have a large environmental impact on the downstream phase. Growing customer reach for microbreweries means serving markets other than local markets. Consequently, transport emissions increase as the beer travels further distances.

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As you can see, there are quite a few challenges facing microbreweries as they work towards net zero. At Windswept, we’re doing our best to tackle some of these hurdles so that we can do our part to help. Stay tuned for future blogs that will go into what we are currently doing and the future sustainability plans we have.
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