Dear Pablo: What's the greenest kind of booze we can drink this holiday season?
We can assume that this question is not in reference to the artificially green-colored beer served for St. Patrick's day in the US.
Well, What Is The Greenest Adult Beverage?There has been a lot written about environmental efforts by wineries, breweries, and distilleries, including their work to reduce transportation emissions, sourcing organic ingredients, and using more sustainable packaging.
However, all of these are efforts to minimize or mitigate impacts. What about a beverage that has an inherently low impact, even without these greening efforts. That beverage is mead. Mead is more commonly known as honey wine and evidence of its consumption dates back as far as 7,000 BCE in China.
The reason for my choice is based in the fact that mead is made simply from honey, water, and yeast. These ingredients are available almost anywhere in the inhabited world (for example, visit Celestial Meads in Anchorage Alaska), eliminating many of the impacts that we see in the production and supply chain of many other alcoholic beverages. Lets take a look at each of these impacts to see how mead is environmentally superior.
Transportation ImpactsMead can be produced anywhere honey is produced without requiring the long-distance transportation of ingredients as we find with beer.
In the case of wine, there is typically little incoming transportation of ingredients because most wineries are located at or near their vineyards, but wines are often shipped very far to their various markets.
Whether using a lot of inbound shipping, outbound shipping, or both, most alcoholic beverages have quite a transportation footprint.
The Observer writer Lucy Siegle has even coopted the term food miles in an article discussing booze miles. Austrian brewery Trumer has decided to solve part of the problem by opening a second brewery halfway around the world, in Berkeley, California. Rather than shipping heavy bottles of beer (mostly water) to West Coast markets, they are now incurring only a fraction of the environmental impact from inbound ingredient shipments.
Despite the innovative efforts of suppliers, producers, and distributors to cut transportation emissions and costs, no other alcoholic beverage can claim to source local ingredients to serve a local market in almost any location in the world. The only limiting factor is the availability of honey and water. Sure, some mead brands export to a global market, but most meaderies are distributed within their immediate region. This may change as mead becomes more popular. Currently there are only 60 meaderies in North America and according to a report by the Canadian government "in many international markets, mead continues to be a cottage industry or a homebrew product" and "the mere
existence of [its] strong grassroots following demonstrates potential for mead to capture some market share from people familiar with the product."
The Impact of PackagingIn a 2009 article about La Delizia winery I wrote about how their wine is shipped to California via the Panama Canal in bulk to be filled in bag-in-box packaging closer to the California markets. Due to the reduction in shipping weight, I found that it was more sustainable to ship it to California for packaging and then shipping it to the East Coast in bag-in-box packaging than it would be to ship the wine straight across the Atlantic in heavy glass bottles (1171 grams vs.1672 grams of CO2).
While Tetrapak packaging and other non-glass alternatives have a lower environmental impact in general, glass can be a good choice when reuse is an option. In the case of mead, where the product can be produced close to where it is consumed, it is possible to foster a local bottle reuse program for local customers, similar to what many craft breweries have done with refillable growlers and Strauss Family Creamery has done with its glass milk bottles. Nani Moon Mead, for example, accepts bottle returns in exchange for a discount on your next purchase.
With regard to packaging, mead wins not because its packaging is more sustainable, but because its packaging is not generally transported as far. This not only reduces the impact and cost of outbound shipping but also makes it much more feasible to collect and refill empty bottles.
The Impact of IngredientsThe ingredients for mead can hardly be more simple; honey, water, and yeast.
Yeast is generally cultivated by each meadery and water is either filtered tap water or well water, both having a minimal impact. Honey, which makes up 15-20% of mead, is a byproduct of natural pollination services performed by the honeybee. Unlike other sugar sources used in making wine and beer like grapes, barley, and hops, honey does not require fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides (true, beekeepers must sometimes use tiny amounts of these to treat common beehive diseases), and the combustion emissions are limited to the beekeeper's smoker and perhaps his/her truck.
Meads are not always limited to the basic three ingredients. Stephanie Krieger of Nani Moon Mead in Kapa'a, Kauai has gotten creative by adding local flavor, using 100% Kauai-grown ingredients like 'ohi'a 'ai (mountain apple), starfruit, guava, pineapple, cacao, and ginger from independent growers. Other meaderies add different ingredients as well, but rather than being transported from around the world, most of them choose to showcase local produce, such as apples and raspberries like Rabbits Foot Meadery, or agave nectar like Mountain Meadows Mead.
The Benefits of Supporting BeekeepingMead has the added benefit of supporting beekeeping by monetizing the honey byproduct of bees' pollination services. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has decimated a significant number of bee colonies, leading to worries about the future of agriculture, because approximately one third of global agricultural production is dependent on bees for pollination. Supporting beekeepers by purchasing products made with honey encourages beekeepers to expand their number of colonies or discourages them from leaving their profession for more profitable work.
More colonies and more beekeepers improves the diversity of bee colonies out there, contributing to the species' resilience to diseases and CCD. According to Nani Moon Mead's Stephanie Krieger honeybees, although not native to Hawaii, "have picked up pollination duties of many native plants that were once pollinated by endangered and extinct native insects and birds."
Krieger told me that "the legend of the 'honeymoon' stems from a couple drinking mead, honey wine, during and for one moon cycle after to promote fertility and prosperity" but today mead is perfect for any occasion, making it the most sustainable adult beverage to enjoy with friends and family during this holiday season.
Remember that mead's local nature is a big part of what makes it so sustainable, so be sure to identify and support a meadery close to your home. Cheers!