Homebrewing is an excellent way for beer drinkers to help save our planet. Compared to commercial beer, homebrew conserves energy (transporting liquid-filled glass bottles burns lots of fossil fuels), and homebrewers use fewer raw materials for packaging because we reuse bottles and don’t have to pack them into brand new cardboard carriers and cases.
But despite the hobby’s comparatively small footprint, we can always do more. As we become more conscious of energy use in our daily lives, it’s only natural to try to reduce our environmental footprint. Fortunately, there are many other simple ways to brew more ecologically and economically by choosing the right equipment, techniques and ingredients.
Optimize Your Brewing Process
Eco-friendly brewing practices are usually efficient because you use fewer supplies and materials, which benefits both the wallet and the world. So first and foremost, make sure your homebrew tastes good. After you’ve put so much time and energy into your beer, it can feel extraordinarily wasteful and heartbreaking to have to dump it down the drain.
Avoid bad batches by following standard cleaning and sanitation practices, storing your ingredients properly and maintaining a suitable fermentation environment. And even if you think your beer is sewer-worthy, you might just be too self-critical. Offer it to a friend or two before you dump it. Who knows? They might like it.
Some beer is, however, truly not worth saving. If a batch is that unbearable, spread it over a flowerbed or the lawn rather than turn it over to the municipal water authority for cleaning—the nutrients in beer are good for plant growth.
Reduce Your Water Usage
Water is a priority in brewing because beer is about 95 percent water. It’s essential that the water you use is high quality, but it’s also important not to waste our primary brewing resource. As we deplete our water resources, brewing could become more expensive. Thus, our goal is to achieve zero waste, which means that all of the water used to make beer leaves the process as clean as it entered it.
Between cleaning, sanitation and losses to mashing and racking, it can take five to 10 gallons of water to produce one gallon of beer. But limiting water usage isn’t hard, and finding ways to reuse wastewater is easy.
For example, most of the water needed for brewing is used for cleaning and sanitation, not brewing beer. The water we use for cleaning doesn’t need to be the same quality as that we use in the beer itself. Because rainwater runoff in urban areas is a major environmental problem, a rainwater catchment system is a great way to reduce runoff and conserve water. Place a large, empty trash barrel under your downspout and let it fill with rainwater, let it sit for a couple of weeks to clarify, and then use it to clean your brewing equipment.
But don’t just pour that used cleaning water down the drain. Do your cleaning in the same barrel that you used to collect the water. When you’re done, you can use it to water your garden or lawn. If you use a wort chiller, keep the spent hot water and use it to clean your kettles, or direct the outflow into the washing machine for a load of laundry.
If you use ice to chill your wort, stop making a trip to the store to buy bags of ice. Fill some empty plastic water bottles with rainwater and store them in the freezer until you need them again. Fixing leaks and turning the tap off when you’re not using the water are obvious and easy water-saving practices for eco-friendly brewing, too.
Make Smart Use of Ingredients
Use local, fresh and organic raw materials whenever possible reduce transportation and storage costs, as well as toxic chemicals. And it doesn’t get more local than growing your own hops. Nurturing a home hop garden helps you reduce transportation and packaging costs and is a fun and rewarding activity to boot. Other ingredients like herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables are all easy to grow at home, or you can source then locally and organically.
Once your wort is safely in the fermenter, you can do something with the leftover ingredients. Brewing uses less than 10 percent of your grain, so take the remaining 90 percent and make spent grain flour or spent grain pizza dough. You can also use it as compost for your yard—spent grain qualifies as a brown contributor to the compost bin—and create nutrient-rich soil for growing your hops, spices, fruits and vegetables.
Likewise, culturing yeast at home can be easy and cheap. Plus, it reduces shipping and packaging and leaves a few more dollars in your wallet. You can save yourself a lot of time and eliminate some cleaning by racking or kegging on the same day you brew. Just pour fresh wort right on top of the healthy yeast cake that sits on the bottom of your primary fermenter.
Another tip for ingredients and other supplies is to buy in bulk. You’ll reduce the shipping and packaging costs that come with purchasing smaller quantities, and it’ll be much cheaper in the long run. Picking up large quantities reduces the number of trips to the homebrew store, too, saving you time, money and fuel.
Save on Energy
Whether you brew with gas or electricity, it takes a lot of heat to bring several gallons of water to a boil. Water is an unusually energy-dense liquid—it takes much more energy to raise its temperature than it does to heat other liquids like cooking oil. And once you finally get water to the boiling point, even more heat is needed to overcome the “latent hat of vaporization” and finally start boiling.
What determines the energy it takes to bring a batch of wort to boiling? The most important factor is the amount of water you boil. Brewing and boiling smaller batches helps reduce the amount of energy you use.
The key with brewing equipment is to salvage used pieces and always consider durability. You can acquire many important pieces for free or for very cheap from people who no longer need them. For example, five- or six-gallon plastic buckets are in abundance at restaurants. Since restaurants have so many of them, you can usually find one or two that are clean and free of abrasions (a breeding ground for spoiling microbes).
Aluminum and stainless steel products, such as brew kettles, are safe, durable, long-lasting and ultimately recyclable. The disadvantage of aluminum and steel is the price tag, but don’t sacrifice quality for price: it could cost you in the end. Check the classifieds in homebrew magazines, websites (Craigslist is a great resource), and homebrew clubs.
Tips for Eco-Friendly Brewing
- Brew smaller batches: Brew three-gallon batches instead of 10-gallon batches, or make two recipes from a six-gallon batch. This will reduce the energy you use on brew day.
- Grown your own hops: Hops can be grown in almost any climate and can be ordered online, or they may be available at your local homebrew supply shop when in season. A mature, healthy bine will produce half a pound to two pounds of dried flowers per plant.
- Use spent grain and reuse yeast: Wash and reuse yeast cakes for future batches. Spent grain can be used to make dog treats, cookies, brownies and bread. Spent grain and other organic materials used for homebrewing can also be composted.
- Brew in groups: By brewing in a group, you use fewer materials while promoting community and the joy of homebrewing. A group brew is also a great way to learn techniques and tricks from other homebrewers. Find a homebrew club to brew with!
- Recycle materials: Reuse bottles or switch to swing top bottles to reduce the waste of bottle caps. Learn to keg your homebrew and phase out bottles completely!
- Transform would-be waste-water into a useful byproduct. For example, reuse effluent from the wort chiller to water the lawn (but let it cool down first!) or to clean your brewing equipment.
- Clean consciously: Use biodegradable cleaning supplies available at your local homebrew supply shop and monitor how much water you use during cleanup. Your cleaning water can be reused to wash your dog, water your plants, do some laundry and even fill your toilet bowl.
- Reduce what you take by only taking what you need. Use renewable resources that minimize impact to the environment and all of the life that inhabits it.
John Moorhead is AHA Project Coordinator/National Homebrew Competition Director.