How to Go Green: Beers

beer green glass mug photo

Photo: Getty Images/Ryan McVay

Beer isn't just the poster beverage for college parties, your after-work wind down, and lazy Sunday afternoons everywhere--no, beer is also a key player in a multi-billion dollar industry that reaches into the far corners of the world. Everyone loves beer--even environmentalists--and that might be why there's been a recent boom in green, organic spirits, sustainable and renewable energy-powered breweries, and environmentally conscious, discerning drinkers.

That's why it's as pertinent time as ever to think about what we all can do to green our beer drinking--and there's more to do than you might think. From supporting sustainable, even solar powered breweries, to drinking organic, pesticide-free beers, to steering clear of excessive packaging in cans and bottles, this in-depth guide to environmentally conscious imbibing dives into the wild, burgeoning world of green beer. You may never think of boozing the same way.

Or, more likely, you might think of boozing much the same way, but you might reach for an organic ale instead of a Bud. Which is just as well--if there's one thing that should come across in this guide, it's that green and organic beer is good. It really just tastes as good--some will even say better--than the beers from other craft and major breweries you no doubt enjoy. And if you love beer, it shouldn't take much coercion to get you to try an intriguing new lager--as long as you make it a green one.

We'll get you started on green beer basics, and show you: how to pick out organic and vegan beers, why drinking draught is better than the bottle, what the hell a growler is (and why you should use one), and how to avoid drinking beers made with fish bladder parts--sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you've imbibed plenty of them.

You'll learn why the a six pack's carbon footprint is heavier than the six pack itself, why most beers aren't organic, and why it's best to steer clear of the admittedly cheaper domestic beer brands.

Also, if you had to guess, how many breweries in the U.S. are running mostly on solar power right now? How big is the organic beer industry? The answers to both questions are good indicators of the innovation and evolving nature of the current beer industry--and good examples of how it's taken a turn for the greener.

So gear up, fellow lovers of libations. We're all going to have to start saving the world--one beer at a time.

What are the best local brews in your area? How do you make your own beer? We've got the answers and lots more questions about beer in our quiz: Do You Know Your Green Brew? Click on over to get started and learn tons of great green knowledge along the way.

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Top Green Beer Drinking Tips

  1. Drink organic brews
    Organic beer is a growing force in the industry, with dozens of brands and even more brews to choose from. If a beer carries an organic label, that means it's been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as adhering to strict, legally binding farming regulations. It means you can expect the barley and hops to be organically grown: no toxic pesticides, no artificial fertilizers, no chemical preservatives; just fresh, non-toxic ingredients. Drinking organic (and buying organic) is also a good way to support more sustainable agriculture, and even to combat global warming.

  2. Support green beer companies
    Keep an eye out for beer companies that are going the extra mile to achieve environmental responsibility--some companies are truly making a noble effort towards sustainability. The purveyors of the well known Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada, which powers its brewery with solar power. Another solar powered, sustainability proponent is Anderson Brewery in Chico, which may be the first truly 100 percent sustainable brewery. Or check out Cascade Green, an Antipodean beer company that offsets its emissions by 100 percent. All truly organic beers are worth your time too, as mentioned above--just look for the label.

  3. Drink beer from draught instead of from bottles
    The keg-inclined out there among us have reason to celebrate, greenly-drinking the draught is greener than downing the bottles. It only takes some simple visualization to understand why this is so: the kegs you'd buy for your college parties, and those that sit 'neath the counter at your favorite bar--how many beers does each hold? Depending on the size, it could be hundreds. That's hundreds of saved cans or bottles, provided you're reusing your cup (see below). Due to the resource savings from the packaging differences, draught beer has been found to have a 68 percent lower impact than bottled beer (according to a Life Cycle Assessment done on both).

  4. Recycle your bottles, cans, and other packaging
    If you've just finished off a 12 pack of Silver Bullets (and you're still conscious) make sure to get those cans into the recycling bin--an aluminum can will likely be recycled and back on the shelves within 60 days . Aluminum is a sustainable metal and can be recycled ad infinitum (well, almost). If it's bottles you've got, make sure those get recycled too--most curbside programs will take both. For a little perspective on the bottle, "1 ton of recycled glass saves 1,300 pounds of sand, 410 pounds of soda ash and 380 pounds of limestone," according to Earth911. And don't forget that cardboard box casing--unless it's drenched in beer and ruined, that's some perfectly good fodder for the paper section of your recycling bin.

  5. Reuse the bottle caps
    Those dastardly caps are the thorn in the side of the bottle recycling process--many programs won't accept them. So, you'll have to get creative in order to prevent undue waste. Keep them on hand for makeshift game pieces, make fishing lures out of them, undertake a quirky decorating project, make little refrigerator magnets, or make a belt with them. Or, if you're especially ardent, try saving them up in a bag and dropping them buy a metal recycler when it's finally worth your while.

  6. Try vegan beers
    Vegans (and vegetarians) may be dismayed to learn that plenty of beers they've drank have contained traces of animal products. Both gelatin, made from animal tissue, or something called isinglass--a collagen made from fish bladders--are used as an agent to clarify beers without putting them through a filtration process which could potentially lessen the flavor. So if you'd rather drink an animal-gut free beer, try a vegan brew like the Green Man Beer from New Zealand.

  7. Drink local, and use a growler
    Support your local breweries, and help cut emissions caused by the expansive shipping of imported beers. Ideally, frequent the bar that's in walking distance, to prevent both generating emissions from your own car, and the temptation to drive back from the bar. Even breweries want you to walk to the pub. Also, consider bringing a growler to your local brewery and filling it up with fresh draught beer to cut out bottle waste and recycling hassles--it may be the greenest way to drink at home.

  8. Opt for paper free bottles
    If you do buy a bottle, buy one without paper labels and adornments. Go for those that have the labeling printed right on the bottle. These are fewer and further between, but if you're going to buy conventional beer, both Budweiser and Coors have certain brands they sell paperless. Why bother, you ask? Consider that 52 percent of all the alcoholic beverages purchased in the U.S. are beers. Let's assume that 1/3 of those are bottles. Each one of those bottles typically has not one, but two paper labels (one around the body, one around the neck) slapped on it. So next to that pile of bottles imagine what the paper stripped off each would look like. And this is paper that doesn't get recycled--even if we wanted to, it gets wet, soggy, shredded and largely unrecyclable. What ends up happening is the paper is burned off in the recycling process, creating loads of unnecessary emissions. So go paperless.

  9. Don't use disposable cups when serving beer
    Sure, sure, those red plastic cups make for that totally classic party vibe, but it might be a classic whose time has past. Most--even those made from recycled plastic--are unrecyclable, meaning they head to the landfill when they're emptied of their sudsy cargo. There are more than enough reusable cups already in existence. Encourage your guests to bring them. And as for that whole reusable vs. disposable debate some feel rages on, the bottom line is really quite simple to comprehend--yes, it takes a minor amount of resources to clean your cups. No, that doesn't make it okay to use disposable cups, which will almost certainly hit the landfill, where they'll stay, for a long, long time.

  10. Avoid Big Beer
    Okay, so that doesn't sound as menacing as Big Oil. And the major beer corporations aren't as sinister in their environmental practices either-they're just not great. Conventional brewers like Anheuser Busch and Coors Brewing Company are less than ideal for a number of reasons-first, the crops from which they get their primary ingredients (barley and hops) are massive (they are massive companies after all, with massive demand to meet) and they use toxic pesticides to on all of them. Now, they're of course using EPA approved pesticides (we hope), but small, toxic traces nonetheless remain in the ingredients right up until bottling. Also, pesticides can find their way into habitats surrounding the crops and cause damage to the local animal life. According to the American Bird Conservancy, "approximately 670 million birds are exposed to the pesticides used in farming annually, and 10 percent of these birds die as a result." Additionally, their factories and worldwide shipping efforts are far from sustainable. In other words, stick to local breweries and craft breweries, and you'll be supporting the green guys.

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Green Beers: By the Numbers

  • 5.9: The average percent of alcohol by volume of the world's beers, according to Beer Advocate ABV.

  • 4: The number of solar powered breweries in the U.S.

  • 25,000,000: Organic beer sales in U.S. dollars in 2007.

  • 1978: The year home brewing beer was made legal by President Jimmy Carter.

  • 400: The number of breweries that survived prohibition.

  • 13: Rank of the U.S. in annual per capita beer consumption in the world--the States are topped by the Czech Republic (#1), Ireland (#2), and even Finland (#9).

  • 85: Percent of all alcohol consumed by the gallon in the U.S. is beer.

  • 95: Percentage of ingredients that need to be certified organic to earn the beer an organic certification by the USDA.

  • 2: Number of organic beers made by Anheuser Busch, the biggest beer company in the U.S.

Sources: The Beer Advocate, Wikipedia, Bnet, MSNBC, Swivel, Progressive Grocer, USDA, Anheuser-Busch.

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Green Beers: Getting Techie

The carbon footprint of beer
So how much does beer really stand to be greened? According to the Wall Street Journal the carbon footprint of a six pack of beer is about seven pounds?probably around 5 pounds heavier than the actual six pack. And you might be surprised where the most of that comes from: the number one contributor to the pack's carbon output is the refrigeration it takes to keep the beer cool at stores. The next largest contributor is the manufacturing process of the glass bottles, then barley and malt production, and finally, the transportation and shipment. All reasons why it's important to drink local, imbibe organic, and down draught beer over bottled.

How is beer organic?
As briefly touched on before, there is a very real, very distinct difference between organic and non-organic beer. It's not some new age-y term environmentalists thought up to give themselves a false sense of superiority at the grocery store, either. No, organic beer is the result of the meticulous farming and treatment of the barley and hops that go into a given beer. Specifically, 95 percent of the ingredients used in the creation of beer must be grown in soil that has been free of pesticides and artificial fertilizers for 3 years in order to be certified by the US Department of Agriculture. If 70-95 percent of the hops and barley used are organic, the beer gets a sort of runner-up "Made With Organic Ingredients" labeling. Oh, and absolutely no genetically modified seeds can be used for planting under the organic banner. It can take years and an extensive series of inspections for a farm to obtain an organic certification from the USDA. Hops, a member of the hemp family, are grown in areas called hop yards?and these must be tended to under these organic-certified ordinances (though watch as the Big Beer companies try to whittle away at the USDA standards by excluding hops from the equation), as must the barley. Organic farming also uses 37 percent less fossil fuels than standard farming.

Taming the growler
A growler is a glass jug, sometimes with a top that clamps down to seal, that lets you easily (and classily) transport beer from a local brewery or brewpub on home. Most brewpubs have growlers in stock for sale. Using the growler cuts beer can/bottle waste, and boasts the added bonus of cementing your status as a true beer aficionado. Just make sure to drink that beer (hardly a difficult charge) before it expires--if refrigerated, the beer will stay good for 7-10 days, then 2-3 more once opened.

What're fish bladders doing in my beer?
The simple answer is they're speeding up the clarification process. The collagen from fish bladders, usually from cod, is used to create isinglass. And isinglass is a fining substance put into beers near the ending stages of production in order to remove unseemly organic compounds like sulfides, copper ions, and proteins (gelatin is often used for the same purpose). The isinglass finings flocculate (turn solid) the live yeast in the beer into a sort of jelly, which settles at the bottom and can be removed with ease. If left alone this would happen naturally--isinglass just speeds up the process. And mind you, this is done mostly to cask beers--beer heading into bottles and cans is most often pasteurized or filtered, though some major breweries still use isinglass. And don't think you can escape isinglass by switching beverages altogether--there's something fishy about wine too.

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Where to Buy Green Beer

Brewer Directories

Look for these excellent green beers at a retailer near you.

Western U.S.
Anderson Valley Brewery
Butte Creek Brewing
Deschutes Brewery
Eel River Brewing Co.
Fish Brewing Co.
Full Sail Brewing
Laurelwood Brewing Co.
New Belgium Brewing Co.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Eastern U.S.
New Grist (Gluten-free)
Peak Organic Brewing
Stone Mill
Wolaver's Organic Beer
Cascade Green
Green Man Brewery
Samuel Smith Brewery
Organic Direct
Shopper's Vineyard
Support your local brewery
Find craft breweries near you
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Green Beers: From the Archives

Dig deeper into green beers with these articles from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.

For some suggestions for great American organic brews, check out our handy Buy Green: East Coast Beer guide.

Consult this quick guide if someone ever asks you, "How Green is Your Beer?"

Check the most creative way to recycle we've ever seen--an entire Buddhist temple built from beer bottles.

Put your green drinking principles into action with this guide on how to throw an organic beer tasting party.

If you're getting festive (and literal) with green beer for a St. Patty's day, think about what makes that beer green before you drink it.

To learn more about organic practices in general, this in-depth guide should do the trick--organic food is a green basic, after all.

Remember how we said draught beer beats bottled? Here's the proof.

The jury's still out on whether or not it's green to make beer from global warming-induced melting icecaps. You make the call.

There's more than one way to pedal your way to a cold beer. Leave it to Austrian scientists to discover the strangest.

Another reason to drink green: global warming is causing a looming worldwide beer shortage.

Recycled beer makes cows happy, as long as they don't have to drink it.

Find out how sixty-six bottles of beer on the wall provide hot water to this innovative family man.

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Further Reading on Green Beers

How Stuff works has an in-depth look at the beer brewing process and what, exactly, makes up a beer battery.

Find out some pros and cons of reusing bottles versus recycling them.

For a ridiculously in-depth guide, check out Green Your...'s organic beer article.

Got more questions about beer? Whether it's organic or not, Beer Advocate's massive archives will likely have you covered.

The relationship between beer and climate change is intelligently discussed in this fascinating article by the American Brewer's Chris O'Brien.

All you grain supply chain enthusiasts rejoice! Here's an enlightening 18 page treatise called the Application of Life Cycle Assessment to Enhance Eco-Efficiency of Grains Supply Chains. It really is worth a read if you're interested in the changing landscape of the organic beer industry.

Here's National Geographic's take on organic beer.

In the market for a growler? Peruse some online shopping results for growlers to see what's out there.

Lastly, from the "We can't make this stuff up" file: there's actually a mathematical equation for the "beer goggles" effect.

How to Go Green: Beers
Beer isn't just the poster beverage for college parties, your after-work wind down, and lazy Sunday afternoons everywhere--no, beer is also a key player in a multi-billion dollar industry that reaches into the far corners

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