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Dear Pablo: When asked if I prefer beer or wine I am neutral. To help me get off the fence I am wondering: Is beer or wine better for the environment?
Like car commercials claiming that 2000 pounds of metal and plastic are "good for the environment" because it has a trunk full of batteries, the choice between beer and wine for environmental reasons is a false one. Hardly anything that we humans do on this planet can be considered good for it. The best we can hope for are varying degrees of badness. So in this case let us rephrase the question to "Which is less bad for the environment: wine or beer?"A Closer Look At Beer
Beer is made mainly from grains which are rarely grown by the brewery (unlike wine grapes). These grains are processed and shipped, incurring some greenhouse gas emissions, but the beer is usually consumed within a reasonably close radius, keeping the outbound shipping emissions low. The American Industry Standard Bottle (ISB, a.k.a. "longneck bottle") holds 341 ml (~12 ounces) of beer and is made of thick glass that can withstand the pressures of a carbonated beverage. This packaging weight contributes a lot to the overall shipping weight of the finished product and therefore to its greenhouse gas emissions. While typically associated with "cheaper" beers, aluminum cans can reduce the overall environmental impact of beer, especially when it is to be transported over longer distances.
A Closer Look At Wine
Wine is made from grapes that are typically grown on-site, so the emissions from incoming shipping is limited to the oak wine barrels, usually from France and usually used only once or twice. Wine bottles, which hold 750 ml are generally thinner and lighter than beer bottles although they still represent a significant contribution to shipping emissions. Since wine is transported to markets around the world some innovative wineries have switched from their traditional glass bottles to TetraPak or Bag-In-Box.
Like so many decisions, this one is full of variables. If you compare local wine with imported beer, the wine wins. If you compare your local microbrew to a bottle of red flown from around the world, the beer wins. In the most general terms a bottle of wine has around four times the impact of a bottle of beer, but the bottle of wine contains four servings while the bottle of beer contains only one. Unfortunately this does not answer the question definitively but I will leave you with some guidelines:
- Buy local! The local microbrewery or winery whether it is Cape Ann Brewing in Gloucester, MA, Henry of Pelham in St. Catherines, Ontario, or Moylans in Novato, CA will not disappoint you.
- Buy Light No, I am not advocating for light beer. When selecting your beer or wine, look for companies that are breaking the mold and pushing into more innovative forms of packaging that reduce material intensity and shipping emissions.
- Buy Organic When I wrote a study on the greenhouse gas emissions from the production and distribution of wine I was surprised that there was not much difference between organic and non-organic wines in terms or greenhouse gas emissions. However, greenhouse gas emissions are only one of many environmental issues to consider and the use of pesticides is reason enough to buy organic.
- Look for higher percentages. If your taste in beer allows it, I suggest sampling something like a craft brewed Belgian Tripel. Not only does the higher percentage means that you get more alcohol ounce-for-ounce, but you will also need fewer bottles to serve your guests.
- Be Responsible This has nothing to do with the environmental impact of beer or wine but is important nonetheless. Don't drink and drive, don't drink while pregnant, listen to your mother and don't forget your sunscreen.
Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for TreeHugger.com, an experienced greenhouse gas engineer and the Senior Environmental Program Manager at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.
More TreeHugger Articles On Beer and Wine:
How Green Is Your Beer
Eat Local, Drink Local Beer
Wine In A Box: The Greenest Way To Drink?