Eat Local, Drink Local Beer

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Dear Pablo: My favorite beer comes from Germany and I am concerned about the environmental impact. Am I an eco-villain or does "eat local" not apply to beer?
While "beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy" (often attributed to Benjamin Franklin) it is sadly not exempt from having an environmental impact. The average greenhouse gas emissions from a six-pack is about 7 pounds, but of course that can vary greatly by the distance between the brewery and you.

What is the impact of non-local beer?

Unlike wine, the ingredients used in beer are typically not grown at the brewery. Wheat and rye may come from the world's breadbasket regions and hops may come from the Pacific Northwest, Southern Germany, or England. This means that, except for breweries located in those regions, the ingredients need to be transported over, oftentimes, long distances. In the case of most German beers the ingredients are grown relatively close by, but some breweries, such as those in Alaska or Hawaii may rely on imported ingredients.Like wine, beer is almost always transported in heavy glass bottles. I am sad to say that there have been many more innovations in reducing the packaging weight of wine than beer. Fortunately it is safe to say that beer is never transported by overnight air, like many boutique wines are sent to their wine club members. Air cargo is pretty much the worst transportation mode from an environmental perspective. Truck and rail are more efficient, with container ships having the lowest emissions.

But what are the numbers?

If we assume a 0.5 liter German Hefeweizen from Munich in a bottle that weighs 0.25 kg we are looking at roughly 0.75 kg of shipping weight. The beer is trucked from Munich to Hamburg, or about 775 km, then shipped 5,300 km to New York. All of this results in 82 grams of greenhouse gas emissions per bottle. If you live in San Francisco and the container ship has to steam through the Panama Canal to the Port of Oakland (13,000 km) the emissions climb to 140 grams of greenhouse gases per bottle. Of course, if you live in the center of the country, the added emissions from trucking to your city could add up to 28 grams per bottle. These emissions are low compared to those of a bottle of wine, but keep in mind that a bottle of wine contains around 4 servings, while a bottle of beer contains only one.

How can I minimize my impact on the environment and still enjoy beer?

The best solution for keeping your eco-impact low is to drink local beer. Not only does this support your local economy, and support the art of craft beer making, but it is also a great way to enjoy creative and innovative new recipes and techniques. Whether it is Iron Springs Brewery in Fairfax California, or Fisherman's Brew in Gloucester Massachusetts, you will not be disappointed by the unique flavors and complex aromas of local brews. An added benefit of supporting microbreweries is that many of them, especially the medium sized ones, have impressive environmental efforts underway. Whether it's the solar powered brewery of Anderson Valley Brewing Company, the fuel cell at Sierra Nevada Brewing, or the wind-powered brewery of New Belgium, it is clear that brewers of beer are also lovers of the environment.Of course, for the ultimate in local brew, you can always brew your own.Disclosure: No product samples were provided to the author, but if you would like to send me a case, please contact me at the e-mail address below.
Ask Pablo is a weekly column that aims to answer your pressing eco-quandries. Want to ask Pablo a question? Simply email Pablo(at)treehugger(dot)com. Wondering why Pablo's qualified to answer? As the Vice President of Greenhouse Gas Management at ClimateCHECK, he helps major corporations measure and manage their greenhouse gas emissions.
Additional Resources on Drinking Green
Top Green Beer Drinking Tips
How to Go Green: Beers
Wine Carbon Study Says East Coasters Should Drink French
Microbreweries Hopping Mad About Biofuels

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