5 environmentally friendly North Carolina beers to try this Earth Day

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Five North Carolina breweries that are working to be environmentally friendly. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Five North Carolina breweries that are working to be environmentally friendly. (Port City Daily photo/BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

As Earth Day approaches, it seems an appropriate time to consider the environmental impact of the way we live our lives. Craft beer – which is certainly a big part of Wilmington life – uses a lot of energy to boil water, cool beer and ship it around the country; it also takes a lot of water to grow barley and hops and, of course, water is the main ingredient in beer. Giving up beer for Earth Day sounds drastic, but what about choosing an environmentally friendly beer?

An easy start to reducing your carbon footprint is to drink local: beer served on tap reduces the impact of packaging and transportation (and many of them offer refillable growlers). But, if you’re looking for something in the local grocery store, here are five brewers taking extra measures to make environmentally friendly (or friendlier) beer.

Mother Earth Brewing

Mother Earth Spirits' solar still. (Port City Daily photo / MOTHER EARTH SPIRITS)
Mother Earth Spirits’ solar still. (Port City Daily photo / MOTHER EARTH SPIRITS)

In 2013, Mother Earth was the first brewery in the country to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s Gold award (LEED’s second-highest level of environmentally-friendly building certification).

A six-kilowatt solar and battery system powers the Mother Earth brewery and taproom year-round. The Mother Earth brewery and taproom are the result of a renovation project that saved 95 percent of the initial building; the structure is insulated with recycled denim and fitted with use-reducing feature on sinks and toilets.

A 2,500 gallon cistern at the brewery catches rainwater to water the garden and provide grey-water for toilets. And, when the brewing is done, Mother Earth sends their spent grain to local farms.

Mother Earth also runs a distillery that uses a solar power still. Mother Earth’s still can heat 60 gallons of wash by 20 degrees Fahrenheit per hour (the distillery has released batches of Carolina whiskey and gin, and are currently experimenting with rum).

Highlands Brewing Company

Founded in 1994, Highlands is one of North Carolina’s older craft breweries, and has increasingly focused on environmental sustainability and stewardship. The brewery partners with the Southern Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and RiverLink’s Adopt-a-Stream program, focused on environmental efforts in the Asheville area.

A little over two years ago, Highlands Brewery went solar, installing a massive array of over one thousand panels; the solar system was, at the time, the third largest solar system used by a craft brewery in the nation. The system generates more power than the brewery can use and allows the brewers – and skeptics – to check in on the power generation in real time.

Highland’s has a long list of sustainability measures, from reusing dairy tanks in the brewing process to returning spent grain to dairy farms and a dozen different recycling and reusing programs. it also has more programs planned, including methane-from-compost and CO2 recapture programs.

Appalachian Mountain Brewery

AMB has donated about $86,000 to local non-profits working to protect the rivers and mountains around Boone, N.C. It has also worked to reduce its carbon footprint, including installing a solar-power system to offset reliance on the local grid (you can actually track the solar power generation here)

As with the company’s solar power usage, AMB has made this process transparent; through a partnership with the Appalachian State University, the AMB started releasing sustainability reports last year. The report details water and power usage, as well as the ecological concerns of packing and shipping AMB beer around the North Carolina area.

The reports are as notable for AMB’s successes – the company’s malt is sourced locally from small farms – as for its shortcomings – they have so far been able to generate only 1 percent of their energy needs from solar power. But, as AMB’s report puts it, these efforts to “increase transparency” will “serve as benchmarks for future performance.”

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Sierra Nevada's Chico solar farm. The brewery is working to expand it's NC efforts to catch up with the wide range of sustainability efforts in their original California location. (Port City Daily photo / SIERRA NEVADA)
Sierra Nevada’s Chico solar farm. The brewery is working to expand it’s NC efforts to catch up with the wide range of sustainability efforts in their original California location. (Port City Daily photo / SIERRA NEVADA)

Sierra Nevada has LEED’s platinum certification – the highest level awarded – at its Mills River facility in North Carolina. The brewery pioneered many environmentally-minded practices at their Northern California location and continues to upgrade their North Carolina facility.

At its Chico, California, brewery, Sierra Nevada generates about 20 percent of its electricity from a massive solar farm that covers nearly four football fields; its Mills River, North Carolina, plant has only a fraction of the same number of panels, thought the facility is equipped with a variety of heat-recovery and motion and ambient light detectors to minimize electricity use.

A major innovation at Sierra Nevada is its use of carbon dioxide recapture; at its Chico brewery, Sierra uses only a dozen CO2 tanks per year, as opposed to as many as four truckloads per week. The Mills River location is currently scheduled to have similar technology installed.

The Mills River brewery is also the nexus of Sierra Nevada’s efforts to reduce the transportation impact of shipping beer; the brewery receives grain – and ships beer – by rail, partners with a local bio-diesel firm and modifies its trucks for maximum fuel-efficiency.

New Belgium Brewery

After opening its Asheville location, New Belgium is in the midst of self-imposed company-wide audit, even though the company’s two locations collective divert about 99.8% of its waste away from landfills.

New Belgium has also been actively transparent about its water-use ratio (the amount of water needed in everything from growing barley to soaking hops to cooking grains, compared to the end volume of beer). Opening its new location has caused this ratio to rise to about 4:1, but New Belgium aims to lower that rate to 3.5 by 2020.

Craft beer takes considerably more water than domestic beers – they use grain to generate higher ABVs and more hops to create “hoppier” beer. Nevertheless, New Belgium has set its sights on water use close to MillerCoors 2020 goal of a 3:0 ratio, though MillerCoors makes much lighter beers.

Another facet of New Belgium’s self-imposed environmental regulation is its “internal electricity tax.” The brewery taxes itself, based on its electricity usage and dedicates the money to renewable energy projects.