Object of Concern: Beer
By James Stivers
Let’s all pretend we are just finishing our work in the garden and it is a hot summers day. You go inside and decide that dinner tonight is going to be burgers and French fries. After all you deserve a nice dinner after spending all day working in the hot sun and those fresh picked onions, tomatoes, and head of lettuce will make the perfect accoutrement for your burger. To wash down the extremely American meal is a cold beer. You would not be alone in your choice of refreshment, according to Samuel Stebbins and USA Today, the average American over the drinking age of course, drinks just a little over twenty-six gallons of beer every year (Stebbins). Something light and crisp with that perfect citrusy bite of the hops. Your day is complete, but because you have just finished a course if global awareness, your mind starts to consider the process it took to make this tasty beverage in your hand and whether or not your consumption choices are causing harm to the world around you.
I chose this topic while brewing my latest beer. It is a hazy IPA, (or New England IPA depending on where you are from) that I named the Hazy Jane, after our new baby Hazel Jane. I have been brewing for several years, and until now never put much thought into whether or not it was bad for the environment. Also, after reading the amount of beer that the average American drinks a year, I realized that my friends and I are above average Americans. Oh, wait that is not a good thing. Anyway, the only thing that I have really done in a conservation sense is, that I built a recirculation system in order to conserve water, and I switched to an all-electric system that doesn’t have the harmful emissions from burning propane as well as having the added benefit that the electric setup heats more efficiently. This project intends to show the effects of brewing on the world around us and what some are doing in an effort to mitigate any harm that is caused.
A Short History of Beer
Beer has been around for a very long time and it has not always been the way that we are used to drinking it today by a long shot. The first beer that we have found is dated back over five-thousand years and was located in Mesopotamia (Andrews). I am sure that it dates back much earlier than that because those vessels were marked in a way that would make them suitable for trade or sale. I am sure people were consuming it much before that in its porridge like rye bread concoction that it was. Evan Andrews, a writer from History.com tells us that people did not only like beer in ancient times, but they actually had a goddess of beer (Andrews). However, we did not start to get our hoppy goodness until somewhere around 822 AD where we found beer recipes in a French Monastery which had rules for how to run the abbey including adding wild hops in the beer making process (Dogfish Head).
Through the years beer has progressed from country to country and with each move has changed a little, which is why we have the great number of beer styles today. With that increase in global consumption, there would have to be an increase in farming and infrastructure in order to keep up with the demand. Barley is the main ingredient in beer making and it migrated to our home state of California from Mexico sometime in the early seventeen-seventies says one study by the University of California at Davis (UC Davis), (Lazicki). This is where we will start our exploration into what this migration of a simple grain and a love of beer has done.
Lens/Framework 1 – Population – Growth and Demand
When we think about when beer was invented, production to meet the demand of the population would not have been a big deal. To get a better understanding of how much this has changed, I went back to the beginning of our textbook where our author teaches us that, “at the time of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago contained only 300 million people, today it holds more than 7 billion, more than a 20-fold increase” (Robbins). Now being a math major, I had to do a few calculations. First off, I am going to, for the sake of a never-ending hole, use the data that we found for America and use that as a guideline for the world. I am doing so because most countries have a much lower drinking age, if they have one at all, and some countries have a much lower consumption rate for obvious reasons than the United States. If we assume that sixty percent of the world’s population is of drinking age and even if we say that sixty percent of them drink, with the average annual consumption of twenty-six gallons, that come to roughly, sixty-five billion gallons of beer.
I wanted to see if this number was at all reasonable, and I found that Kirin, a well-known beer producer, does a yearly report of approximate global beer production. In 2019 the estimated production was 1.91 billion hectoliters which is about 50.5 billion gallons (Kirin). The company continued by telling us that this is a 0.6% increase in production, which is a number that has remained unchanged for five years. Looking back at the exponential model that Robbins gave us, this is not too hard to imagine. If the population is increasing exponentially, then everything on the consumption side has to follow in suit. To put that number into perspective we are talking about an increase to over 55 billion gallons in ten years and over 60 billion gallons in twenty years. In order to see what this population growth will really do, we must look at what goes into making beer.
What’s in a Beer
Would a beer by any other name taste so sweet? Well sure as long as we continue to use malts, water, hops, and yeast, I am sure the end product will be fine. The real question is how much of each thing is needed and what is it doing to our landscape. The main thing that we will focus on here is the largest player in the game which is the base malts. They make up the body of the beer. They are what gives a beer it color, some of its taste, and once mashed, a process of heating grain in water and holding it at specific temperatures to convert starch to sugar, allows the yeast to work its magic and turn the sugar into alcohol.
Kim Jordan, a writer for Craft Beer and Brewing, a well know beer publication, states that traditional methods for growing grain has a huge impact on the soil in the area in which it is grown (Jordan). The soil needs to be tilled multiple times which can lead to erosion and disturbance to the ecosystem that is supporting animals in the area, as well as the extreme amount of pesticides which are sprayed on which can kill off entire species of insects and harm animals that eat the grain as its growing. Here in California we hit a peak in the 1950’s at around 2 million acres of barley being grown and this number has since decreased drastically to around 80,000 acres being harvested in California in 2013 (Lazicki). As much acreage as this is, it is important to remember that only about forty-five percent of the barley that is grown in the United States is of the 2-row variety and goes to malting. In fact, the majority of the barley that is grown in the United States and specifically California is of the 6-row variety and is grown for animal feed, but that is for another day.
The thing that is most interesting about this particular area is that this does not really follow the same population growth model that the consumption has. The only explanation that I have been able to find is that we import a large amount of our grain that we use for brewing. Globalization has allowed us to let other countries produce the grain we need at a much cheaper rate and we let the other countries ruin their soil and natural habitats for our habits.
Lens/Framework 2 – Environmental Ethics – A waste of water
Anyone who has ever brewed beer know that it takes a lot of water. We use water to soak the grain. Then we pour more water through the grain to rinse off any excess sugars. Then we boil off a large percentage of the water right before we use cold water run through a coil in order to rapidly cool the wort, which is the beer before the yeast converts it, so that we do not kill the yeast. Just when you think you are done using this massive amount of water, you remember the mess you just made and have to wash everything. I have done what I can in my own brewing but have not perfected it yet. I keep a few milk jugs full of water in my freezer so that I can recirculate the cooling water instead of letting it pour out. I also use the water that is now hot to wash all of my equipment with a special food grade cleaner that is safe for consumption. After cleaning, I use the waste water to water any plants around the house and the spent grain gets taken to my in-law’s chickens. The chickens love me as you can imagine. That is all small scale though. I needed to look at what the big breweries are doing and was interested to see if any of them are making an effort to lessen the impact that they have on the environment.
Michael Agnew, a writer for The Growler, showed me just how much water is used in commercial breweries is his article from 2016. Agnew says that on average a brewery will use approximately seven gallons of water to produce one gallon of beer and the less efficient breweries will use up to ten gallons of beer to produce a single gallon (Agnew). He goes on to list the same things that I did, and it seemed as though there was no end in sight. If we use our calculations from above, we could see that globally, and we are using the seven gallons out of sheer horror, we use about 353.5 billion gallons of water to produce our beer every year. With the limited resource that our water is, we must find a way to save some. Obviously, the money involved with the sale of beer is going to mean that we will never stop producing, but if we do not find some more efficient ways to use water, we are going to run out. And just food for thought, I only mentioned the water used in the brewery. This does not account for the water used to grow the barley and the hops. That number would be exponentially larger.
When I felt slightly ashamed at what we were doing to our world all for a beverage I remembered something positive. A year or so ago I had an opportunity to attend a homebrew event in Reno/Sparks area of Nevada. One of our own California breweries was assisting in the event and they are Seismic Brewing Company from Sonoma California. I talked with the brewers for an hour or so and they were on of the reasons I started trying to conserve while brewing. On their website they say, “Our Seismic Mission is to brew uniquely flavorful, outstanding craft beer, while re-writing the books on sustainable brewing” (Seismic Brewing Company). In their brewery that have many cutting-edge technologies which use waste heat for heating the next batch. They have condensers so that the steam that we normally boil away is collected for the next batch. And they use glycol cooling so that no water is wasted for the cooling process. Anything they can do from their packaging to energy use is done in the most environmentally friendly way possible. If we could just get a small percentage of breweries to follow this model, the result would be an amazing amount of water and energy being saved as well as an increase in their profits due to lower overhead costs from water and electricity which at that level must be staggering.
In the United States and around the world, the population is growing at an exponential rate and with that growth follows a growing demand for beer and other products. Due to Globalization, we here in the United States however, have not seen an exponential explosion of growth in the agricultural footprint for the ingredients it takes to make this item. We as a global community waste an incredible amount of our precious water to produce our beer but luckily there are some breweries out there like our own California grown brewery Seismic that are doing everything they can to produce a great product while also lessening the impact made on our planet.
We all want to leave our children a better home than what we grew up in. With that, we also love to pass down traditions and past times as well. If we want to achieve this goal, we need to start now with finding new sustainable ways to grow our barley and hops. We need to find better ways to package product. But most of all, we need desperately to find ways to conserve water than is currently being wasted. I am sure that the ancient Mesopotamians could not have possibly imagined what beer would become and how much would be produced, but I am sure they would not condone the great waste that is created in its wake.
Agnew, Michael. The thirsty business of beer: How breweries are confronting the industry’s water problem. Prod. The Growler. 02 March 2016. Article.
Andrews, Evan. Who Invented Beer? History.com. 07 September 2018. Article.
House, Dogfish Ale. The History of Hops. 16 June 2015. Article.
Jackson, Christopher. Seismic Brewing Company. n.d. 05 December 2020. <https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=seismi+brewing&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8>.
Jordan, Kim. "The Oxford Companion to Beer definition of environmental issues." Craft Beer and Brewing. July 2010. Article.
Kirin. Kirin Beer University Report Global Beer Production by Country in 2018. Prod. kirin.co.jp/entertainment/daigaku/. 03 October 2019. Article.
Patricia Lazicki, Daniel Geisseler and William R. Horwath. Barley Production in California. University of California Davis. June 2016.
Robbins, Paul. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction. Wiley, 2014.
Stebbins, Samuel. How much beer does your state drink? In the thirstiest, about 40 gallons a year per person . Prod. USA Today. 19 September 2019. Article.