What's Brewing at CBC
Much has been said these days about the advantages of eating local. Supporting local farms, enrolling in a CSA, seeking out local fisherman and sourcing local meats are all the rage. The reasons for doing so are numerous. Chief among them are the increased freshness of local foodstuffs due to shorter transit time, the decrease in CO2 emissions from transportation and the increase in the financial viability of farming closer to population centers. Couldn’t and shouldn’t the same be said for beer?
The fact is, beer is heavy! Beer weighs about 8 lbs per gallon and roughly 92% of that is water. Now I know many breweries will go on and on about the specialness of their water and to a degree that may be true. The fact is, almost all brewers can adjust their water to have the mineral content most advantageous to a particular style of beer. So that raises the question, should we really be drinking so many beers from faraway places?
Roughly 10% of beer consumed in the US is imported. That amounts to about 20 Million barrels of beer (one barrel = 31 US gallons) annually. If we assume that the average distance travelled by this beer is about as far away as Europe a few quick calculations can give us a sense of the environmental impact of transporting this beer. Another point to consider is that with packaged beer, that is beer in bottles packed in four six packs per case, about half the weight of that beer is in the packaging. Pretty much all beer imported from overseas is transported on cargo ships. Cargo ships burn an extremely dirty type of fuel called bunker oil. You can fit about 1200 cases of packaged beer into one 40 foot container. Twenty million barrels of beer would then take up about 225,000 containers. Each transoceanic freighter can carry about 10,000 containers so that amount of beer would take 22.5 ships to transport. If each ship uses about 255,000 gallons of high sulfur and particulate bunker oil per trip, that is 5.8 million gallons of fuel burned. At 26 pounds of CO2 per gallon that amounts to an extraordinary 150 million pounds of CO2 released into the atmosphere to import the beer.
That’s the environmental price of imported beer. What about the impact of beer produce domestically but moved great distances across this country? What if we only consider the craft beer segment? Craft beer accounts for about 5% of the beer consumed in the US, or 10 million barrels. For simplicity‘s sake, let’s assume that 20% of that is produced on the West Coast and consumed on the East Coast. Beer is typically transported long distances by truck. Using the same space and weight estimates from above it would require 22,500 truck trips averaging 6 miles per gallon of diesel fuel. At approximately 3000 miles coast to coast that would be about 11.2 million gallons of diesel which converts to 248 million pounds of CO2, an amount comparatively 10 times worse than the container ships. Simply stated, that 12 ounce bottle of West Coast I.P.A. took about 3 ounces of diesel to get to you on the East Coast. And that was simply the 20% coming this way, the other 80% is traveling as well!
Unlike when the craft beer movement started, today’s brewers have at their disposal the technology to brew any style of beer they choose. The wealth of brewing information that has been generated over the last 25 years is unprecedented and accessible to our brewers, and is generously shared among them. There really is no reason a particular beer or style can’t be brewed by a local brewery. And, according to the Brewers Association, the average American lives within 10 miles of a brewery.
So, the next time you are at your local liquor store or favorite bar or restaurant, consider the “beer miles” in your glass. We all like to try the next best thing and I’m not curmudgeonly enough to suggest you shouldn’t. But when it comes to regular purchases I think the environment and the detrimental effect of transport time should be an integral part of your decision. That way your beer is fresh, your local brewery is prosperous, your dollars stay more with your neighbors and yet another supply chain is shortened.
Here’s to local, fresh, craft beer!
Phil Bannatyne, Owner, Cambridge Brewing Company
Thanks and a tip of the hat to brewer, friend and beer writer Horst Dornbusch for the majority of the research used for the figures above!