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Toward an Ecology of Beer
by Christopher Mark O'Brien
Earlier, I promised that despite the sorry state of the planet, this book would be optimistic. Why optimism when we are all headed to hell in a handbasket?
Better we were headed to ale in a handcart, no? Well yes, actually. Beer is the wellspring of my hope. It's not that I am simply drunk on the fleeting kind of optimism that comes from imbibing good beer. I am optimistic because the craft–brewing movement is steering society towards sustainability. Brewers are perfecting solutions to the global social and environmental problems we face today. The act itself, of drinking good beer, does contribute to my generally cheerful outlook, but it is the accomplishments of dedicated beer activists that give me hope for an enduring shift to sustainability.
"Sustainability" encompasses everything needed to provide circumstances conducive to life on earth, both now and into the indefinite future. Implementing sustainable practices is the central prerequisite for saving the world from long–term social and environmental catastrophes. Currently, the global economy is the dominant force influencing our progress toward sustainability, but unfortunately its present form is underpinned by the decidedly unsustainable principles of over–consumption and infinite growth. Corporations are the foremost operators in the unsustainable global economy, and consumption of a finite supply of fossil fuels is one of their most defining practices. Global brewing corporations, for example, rely on cheap access to petroleum products to produce, package, and transport their industrial beers.
But the new wave of small, local breweries and brewpubs is innovating closed–loop systems that shift society away from wasteful, polluting, oil–dependent business practices. Brewers are using small–scale technologies, developing local markets, reducing packaging and shipping requirements, making use of locally available materials, and radically reducing overall waste. The craft beer movement is, in short, putting into practice a sustainability model called "bioregionalism." Bioregionalism is the idea that we can adjust human activities to be sustainable by adapting our activities to a bioregion a geographically distinct area of land, water, and other natural resources. Beeroregionalism is this author's term for how the craft–brewing renaissance is putting this concept into action.
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By definition, small-scale, local brewing is more bioregional than industrial brewing. But craft brewers are also very intentionally innovating sustainable practices and working hard to build strong local communities. Here are just a few of the countless examples. Fish Brewing produces organic beers and works to save salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest. New Belgium Brewing runs entirely on wind power. Crannog Ales closes the loop by integrating brewing operations with on–site farm production. Great Lakes Brewing Company (GLBC) has a stated mission aim of creating a zero-waste operation. In fact, this company serves as a great overall case study of a beeroregional brewery.
Let's look at their impressive list of achievements. Of course, they have fully covered the easy stuff like recycling. By recycling cardboard, glass, and paper they reduced their trash removal fees by 40 percent. They also purchase recycled products, which is a necessary part of the recycling equation — diverting recyclables from the landfill is one thing, but without a market at the other end of the process, there is no recycling loop. That's why GLBC newsletters, menus, napkins, and promotional items are all printed on 100 percent recycled paper. Six–pack carriers are made of 100 percent recycled fibers, including 50 percent post–consumer waste, and their unbleached "eco–carton" uses 100 percent recycled materials to hold a case of beer.
Although situated in downtown Cleveland, not on a farm, Great Lakes strives to achieve a deeply integrated natural farming–brewing system, turning brewery waste streams into new product lines and making money in the process. It is common for craft brewers to give spent brewing grains to local farmers for cattle feed, and some even make a small profit from the sale. But GLBC takes additional steps to incorporate by-products into value-added cycles. Zoss, a local Swiss baker, uses spent brewery grain to produce cracked barley beer bread and pretzels that appear on the Great Lakes restaurant menu. Another local partner, Killbuck Farms, combines spent brewing grains with sawdust and discarded paper to create a substrate for growing organic shitake and oyster mushrooms that are featured in restaurant entrees. Dean McIlvaine, of Twin Parks Organic Farm, raises livestock on spent grain and provides the all-natural beef and pork, and organic cheeses for the restaurant.
Erich Hetzel recycles some of Great Lakes' office paper by feeding it to worms, which produce high quality organic fertilizer that is then used to fertilize the plants, herbs, and vegetables grown in a community garden just a few blocks from the brewery, and which also end up on the menu. At the packaging plant, some bottles accidentally get "low–filled" and can't be sold, so that beer is used in menu items such as salad dressings and Stilton Cheddar Cheese Soup. Nearby Mitchell's Ice Cream uses Great Lakes Porter from some of the "low–fills" for their exclusive Edmund Fitzgerald Porter Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream.
Beer aficionados will be delighted to learn that sustainable practices go hand in hand with great beer. Great Lakes' Dortmunder Gold Lager has won the Great American Beer Festival's gold medal seven times. Many other small breweries are also implementing innovative, sustainable practices. A list of the Best Brews for a Better World is included at the end of the book.
Chapter Ten from the book Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World, Beeroregionalism: Think Globally, Drink Locally
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