A more efficient beer: Metro Detroit's greenest breweries

What goes into your favorite pint of Southeast Michigan craft beer? Hops, sure. Malt, yep. Yeast. Maybe some honey or coffee or a local fruit, depending on the variety? How about several gallons of water, piles of spent grain and numerous kilowatt hours of energy? 

Kind of takes some of the fun out of happy hour, doesn't it?

Fortunately for Michigan beer lovers, a movement to reduce the energy-intensive process of brewing craft beers is afoot. Dark Horse Brewery in Marshall is a leader in the sustainable brewery space. Grand Rapids' Brewery Vivant aims to produce 10 percent of their energy on site. Southeast Michigan breweries are getting in on the sustainability game as well — which is appropriate, considering it's also the home of the unique Green Brewery Project, a sustainability consultant specifically targeting craft brewers. 

"Breweries are using tremendous amounts of energy and water for an industrial process," says Jarett Diamond, director of The Green Brewery Project, which sprang from his University of Michigan research project on brewery sustainability. "In some ways, small breweries have it harder than the big ones because they're less able to take advantage of the economies of scale."

Triple Bottom Line

Though Diamond has worked with breweries all over the nation, it all began with Arbor Brewing Company's Microbrewery in Ypsilanti, (aka, Corner Brewery) which Diamond consulted with when his business was still just a research project. According to ABC owner Rene Greff, the impetus to create a more sustainable business comes from the same place as the desire to have a community brewery.

"Sustainability is important to our business because it's important to my husband and I," she says. "It's a value that we have in our personal life and, as much as possible, we want our business to reflect our values."

Those values are about more than reducing a carbon footprint. As Diamond explains, a truly sustainable brewery is one that reaches toward a triple bottom line: profit, reducing environmental impact and being a positive, contributing member of their community. The ABC Microbrewery does the latter by opening their space to non-profits for events and fundraisers, as well as more behind-the-scenes activism, as a vocal supporter of clean water and other sustainability efforts. 

"As members of the business community who are interested in sustainability, we have an obligation to have our voices heard. Usually the only voices you hear form the business community are against regulation," Greff says. "There is only so much we can do on our little footprint, but where you can have an impact moving decision makers to make a difference."

The challenge

Of course, energy use is still at the core of breweries' sustainability challenges. Brewing beer doesn't just require a lot of water; that water must be heated and remain hot. Locally-sourced hops aren't easy to come by. Ingredients used to make beer remain as tons of spent grain after the process is complete. Refrigeration, packaging, storage and transportation all add up as well. And unlike other, more routine businesses, these all spike and fall intermittently. 

"Every time they brew there will be a huge spike in demand for electricity and gas and there's going to be these spikes in waste associated with that," Diamond says. "It's more challenging to deal with these fluctuating demands."

To Greff, however, these challenges are actually what make craft brewers the perfect businesses to engage in sustainable practices. 

"I don't think there are any more obstacles for breweries," she says. "I think there are a lot more opportunities. Because it's so much more energy intensive and water intensive, you can make bigger gains by making sometimes simple measures." 

Overcoming the power struggle

Those measures can indeed sometimes be simpler than most people even know. While solar, wind and geothermal are more common solutions employed by sustainable brewers, the brewers at Windmill Pointe Brewing are aiming for a net zero operation using, in part, power generated by community cycling. 

"I'm an ex-science teacher, so my mind had been expanded to the possibilities," says Shawn Grose, who is launching Windmill Pointe with his brother, Aaron Grose. "We wanted to, as brewery owners, push ourselves a little bit more and tread lightly on our community."

Though technically operating out of Grose's garage currently, the pedal-powered brewery has been on demonstrations throughout Detroit and the metro area. They are looking for a permanent location in Wayne County, and will pair wind and solar power with in-house stationary bikes to reach toward their net-zero goal. 

"If we do fall short, we'll pull from the grid and the system will show us we're in a deficiency," says Grose. "Hopefully, we'll ride ourselves out of it."

There's plenty of innovation happening in more conventional energy savers as well. ABC Microbrewery invested in solar thermal panels from Detroit-based Power Panel that both generate electricity and heat water. Griffin Claw Brewing Company in Birmingham recently sourced a custom-built and largest-in-the-nation DynaClean food processing conveyor from Muskegon to more efficiently process their mash. After processing, their spent grain goes back to the agricultural community as feed, rather than into landfills. 

Even major projects like these can be easier achieved than many brewers realize, says Diamond. Checking with local utilities can reveal incentives for efficiency investments, and real impact can be made with simple steps like switching to high efficiency lighting. 

"If you're not recycling, start recycling," says Greff. "Don't feel like if you don't have a roof to install solar panels, you can't do anything. Even starting small is a great place to start." 

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.

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