Brewing Better Local Economies with American Craft Beer

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Image by GRACE staff.

Listen to Kai and other notables talk about local beer, sustainability in the brewing industry and more this on this Beer Sessions Radio episode (February 21st, 2012). Beer Sessions Radio airs every Tuesday from 5-6 pm.

We're in the midst of the holiday season, which is also the height of community spirit, family gatherings and, of course, gift-giving. A few months ago my wife gave me a home brewing kit. Home brewing is a fun activity and something I've done with greater (and lesser) success over the years. While I do enjoy it, I also drink more beer than I brew, so I tend to sample my share of beers made by others.

And there’s a lot of different beer being brewed, as other Ecocentric bloggers have explained (here and here). Domestically-produced American beers, called craft beer or microbrews, have started a revolution in terms of quality, variety and flavor. Art, science and the marketplace have combined to make better beers blissfully commonplace on store shelves around the country. And the proof is showing up in bottom lines—in spite of the overall shrinking of the beer market, the craft beer segment has thrived. What’s more, this better beer movement challenges decades of perception (and reality) of the lowly American beer.

And this change in American beer starts at home, or nearly so, as craft beer really is a “local beer” phenomenon. This shift in consumer preferences and support for local craft beer is perfectly representing in a nanobrewery start-up called Community Beer Works (CBW) in Buffalo, NY. The CBW founders are using Kickstarter, social media and other fund raising techniques to make their brewery

an integral part of our city and the neighborhood our brewery is located in. We are planning partnerships with local urban farmers and gardeners to create a network of hop gardens that can be used in specialty beers as well as to dispose of our grain in ecologically friendly, mutually beneficial manner. Our goal is to foster a sense of community and place, enriching our hometown through the production of damn good beer.

What is “new to us” about this project is the clear articulation of its goal – strengthening local community through microbrewing. And CBW is not alone. This powerful message is resonant with the good food movement and underscores the values that foodies and craft beer adherents share, especially over the return to local. Below are some characteristics (most of which also apply to the good food movement) of the better beer movement, particularly as it concerns local production and consumption.

Ingredients

One of beer’s greatest attributes is the amazing variety of flavor that can be derived from four ingredients: grain malt (typically barley), hops, yeast and water. Even given this simplicity, microbrewers and enthusiasts – like their locavore cousins – are eager to have locally-sourced ingredients in the product. Such is the case for the recently released BSA Harvest from Notch Sessions Brewery, which features New England-raised grains. The same is true further south in Durham, NC, where Fullsteam puts out a seasonal craft beer employing many local ingredients, from persimmons to sweet potatoes. In Fullsteam’s endeavor to promote “radical, farm-focused brewing,” a nearby farmer has set aside one acre dedicated to hop cultivation.

Owing to my environmental specialty, I can’t resist pointing out that virtually all brewers, large to small, use one local ingredient: water. The importance of water is openly acknowledged by Cathy Erway, Communications Director for Brooklyn-based, Sixpoint Craft Ales.

New York City tap water is among the best drinking water in the country, and we proudly use it in our beer. It’s one of the reasons we chose this city to open the brewery in.

Clean water that is not inundated with chemicals and has a balanced level of TDS that provide good texture and taste is equally as important as the other flashier ingredients. So the next time you tip one back, don’t forget a toast to your local water provider and watershed manager for a (hopefully) job well done. (And for you hopheads out there, don’t hesitate to quaff my favorite Sixpointer, the Bengali Tiger.)

Sustainability

In many cases, microbrewers are eco-leaders in their communities, proving that sustainability is more a matter of practice than a trendy buzzword. The list of breweries that incorporate sustainability into their products and operations is long and getting longer.

Many craft brewers and drinkers are strong supporters of sustainable and organic farming practices and reflect that in their beer. Organic beer, still a small segment of the market, got a shot in the arm when the USDA required organic hops in order to label a brew organic (this seems obvious, but let’s just move on). This requirement, coupled with growing demand for organic beer, means that organic hops farming is expanding in the United States, potentially overtaking New Zealand as the world’s leading grower.

Beyond ingredients, craft breweries are demonstrating sustainable business practices in other aspects of production, too. Alaskan Brewing Company’s was the first craft brewery to recycle naturally occurring CO2 from the fermentation process, offsetting 1.5 millions gallons of fuel-oil with spent grain heating, and using proceeds to found an ocean health nonprofit organization, Coastal Code, among other activities. For another sustainable use of spent brewing grain (not to mention farm-to-table menus), look no further than Triumph Brewing and its three PA and NJ locations, where they share the spent grain with local farmers for livestock feed. And California’s well known Sierra Nevada Brewery has an entire sustainability program complete with real-time power generation reporting for their large solar power arrays, and natural/biogas fuel cells. And big ups to Central Waters Brewing Company in Amherst, WI for maintaining the state’s first solar-hot water system complete with radiant floor heating, estimated to save $1.4 to $1.5 million in energy costs over its lifetime.

Tradition and innovation

As defined by the Brewers Association, the foremost microbrew experts, an “American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional.” Under this definition, almost 98 percent of the over 1,700 breweries in the United States meet that criteria, although craft breweries have captured less than seven percent of total market sales. Still, the sheer number of smaller-sized breweries not owned by Industro-Brewers is impressive. It also means that the brewing techniques used to brew the flagship beers are “malt-based” and don’t contain as many “adjuncts” (added rice, corn, etc.) as their industrial counterparts do, which often result in weak-tasting beer. (To sip a pint of tradition, head to Circle Brewing Company in Austin, TX for beer that conforms to the German purity code dating from 1516 that permits only the customary foursome of malt, hops, yeast and water.)

While craft brewing stays committed to traditional artisanship, innovation is strongly encouraged. Many never-before-experienced flavor profiles have been created using different ingredients from varietal malt to chocolate to chilies, not to mention the most common method: adding tons of hops. (Take a look at the unique selections that Clipper City Brewing Co. is producing in Baltimore.) Innovation extends outside of unusual taste sensations to unusual business models. For Northern California’s Bison Brewery, the formation of a streamlined, vertically-integrated farm-to-brewery structure guarantees the flow of organic ingredients from local and regional farmers, thereby lowering the cost of their organic beers to the cost of most non-organic craft beers.

Culture and community

In the beginning there was beer. Rather, there was beer as soon as there was agriculture, as evidenced by ancient Sumerian brewing that occurred about 6,000 years ago. Over the centuries and across many cultures, beer was almost literally considered to be daily bread. Skip several thousand years to pre-Colonial America and you'll find that the Pilgrims craved beer so much that the Mayflower was outfitted to carry a precious supply of suds. George Washington was a noted beer lover and home brewer (check out his recipe). In America, the flow of beer and the flow of immigration took the same multitude of routes, with small breweries springing up everywhere linking new homesteads with old, culturally-distinctive styles.

Then Prohibition struck. America’s post-Prohibition brewing culture and history is sadly fallow not only because of Prohibition, but what happened after. Just as with Big Ag, Industro-Brew companies wiped out smaller, domestic beer competition through consolidation and turned the beer industry into a monoculture of taste and culture. The last remnants of beer diversity in the late 20th century were the regional breweries that provided a sense of cultural identity and independence apart from the homogenized. With people proudly rallying around them, regional brewers like Washington State’s Olympia and Baltimore’s National Bohemian fought to survive, but eventually were gulped up by the Pabst/Metropoulos Co., which is actually an equity firm. Even though the two beers are brewed far away, they remain “community symbols” bound up in local identity. Witness the 2011 marriage of long-time National Bohemian mascot, Natty Boh boy, to another Mid-Atlantic cultural icon, the Utz potato chip girl.

Like any product, beer consumers want quality, choice and the opportunity to connect with local communities, making the better beer movement both similar and complementary to the food movement. As Sixpoint’s Cathy Erway states:

We appreciate craft beer and the important role it’s played in numerous societies throughout time, as well as new waves in the last few decades in the U.S. What we're doing is an example of what brewers did in cities and towns all over, which is use the best of our creativity, resources and community to create great beers – and continue to innovate with new techniques and ingredients.

Being informed by the past and innovating for the future, all while drawing on the local character and flavors, are major reasons for craft beer’s success. No doubt the Community Beer Works crew has figured this out and hopes to promote not only their local brews, but also the distinctive character of their city, with their conscious attention to local ringing true for many other microbrewers around the country. And just like with food, conscientious consumers are willing to pay a little more for better quality and for the local connection. Microbrewers use these advantageous attributes to encourage strong and vibrant communities, keeping customers coming back for more. In fact, it seems that in today’s uncertain and flagging America, one sign of community prosperity and revitalization is a microbrewery or brewpub in town. So one small way to encourage an economic recovery while holding to your values is to say cheers to local, sustainable beers!

Responses to "Brewing Better Local Economies with American Craft Beer"

  1. Kai Olson-Sawyer

    Thanks, Chris. Some beer recommendations from breweries above: Alaskan Brewing - Amber Ale; Triumph Brewing - Jewish Rye Ale for a nice, dry finish; Clipper City/Heavy Seas - Black Cannon black IPA - brewery has a lot of varieties; Sierra Nevada Brewing - Celebration Ale seasonal IPA available now. Recommendations aside, I’m always eager to try new craft beer including those I haven’t yet tasted from the breweries mentioned above. This may require a Ecocentric brewery tour!

  2. Chris Hunt

    Great post, Kai. Have you sampled beers from the breweries you mention above? Other than the Bengali Tiger, do you have any recommendations?

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