Brewers big and small are turning to sustainable solutions to help save money and conserve resources.
WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick

No one would ever confuse Guinness with Sierra Nevada. Guinness, of course, is famous for its dark ruby red (verging on black) stout and cheeky, vintage “My Goodness My Guinness” posters, while Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is likely best known for its pale ale. Guinness has been brewing in Dublin for more than 250 years, while Sierra Nevada set up shop in Chico, California, in 1980. Guinness is now owned by the multinational beverage company Diageo. Sierra Nevada, meanwhile, is independently owned and is the third-largest craft beer producer in the United States.

The two companies have something in common, however: Both want to brew the highest-quality beer, and they want to do it while using as few resources as possible.


Brewing is a resource-intensive process for obvious reasons, creating mammoth demands for water usage, wastewater treatment, power and cooling, and transportation. Like companies across many industries, brewers—including both small craft brewers and large multinational producers—are looking to cut costs, boost their reputations, and simply create positive change by reducing the environmental impact of their operations.


Diageo is committed to minimizing their environmental impact across the full range of their operations and to extending environmental standards further through their supply chain.

Diageo is committed to minimizing their environmental impact across the full range of their operations and to extending environmental standards further through their supply chain.

Guinness and Sierra Nevada have been particularly active in this arena, not only tweaking their operations to conserve resources, but also pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification on recent major building projects. Guinness’s Brewhouse No. 4 at the company’s iconic St. James’s Gate location in Dublin, Ireland, opened in 2014 and was certified LEED Platinum in 2015. Sierra Nevada’s new brewery in Mills River, North Carolina, also opened in 2014 and achieved LEED Platinum certification in early 2016. The facilities are, respectively, the first major brewery in the world, and the first in the United States, to receive the highest LEED designation.


“This is the fourth [Guinness] brewhouse since 1759,” says Michael Wilson, global environmental sustainability director for Diageo. “As a brewing business, a lot of our facilities were built in the last century, or even the 1800s. This was an opportunity, with a new build, to implement new practices, rather than trying to retrofit an older building. It’s not easy to retrofit with modern technology and design techniques.” This new build from a brownfield site was an opportunity for Diageo to incorporate some of those best sustainable practices.


“[Sierra Nevada’s headquarters facility in] Chico has been under construction pretty much continuously since the mid-1980s,” says Cheri Chastain, sustainability manager for the craft brewer. “There’s always an expansion happening here. With Mills River, we were coming into a new community. Chico knows us, and they know how we do things. We wanted to set the stage to show [that] this is how Sierra Nevada does business. We made the decision that we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do it right, and we’re going to get that third-party validation that tells us that we did it right.”

At Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., sustainability means recognizing the impacts associated with our operations and making a conscious effort to reduce them.

Sierra Nevada’s water consumption methods include using non-water-based lubricants, converting to drip irrigation for landscaping, and recovering pipe cool-down water for other uses.

Sierra Nevada’s water consumption methods include using non-water-based lubricants, converting to drip irrigation for landscaping, and recovering pipe cool-down water for other uses.

Sierra Nevada’s Sustainable Beginnings

In 1980, when Ken Grossman founded Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., there were only around 40 commercial beer brewers in the entire United States (compared to more than several thousand today). Although “sustainability” was in its infancy as a conscious business practice, Grossman largely found himself following sustainable practices out of sheer necessity. The equipment he needed to brew beer on a small scale simply didn’t exist, and Grossman was forced to scrape together and repurpose used materials, rather than buying new. Also, as a small brewer struggling to compete with large corporations, he could hardly afford to waste resources.


“He didn’t have boatloads of capital to waste,” says Chastain. “He would sell bottles, and then go out and collect those bottles and refill them. Electricity and water were closely monitored, because those were expenses. It was partly being a small business and being careful with your resources, but also, the equipment didn’t exist, so he had to be creative and inventive with it.”


That ethic of sustainability, Chastain says, continues to be central to the company’s identity even as it has grown over time. “It’s been a core value for Sierra Nevada for as long as we’ve had core values,” she says.


Chastain, hired in 2006, was the first Sierra Nevada employee with an official sustainability role. The brewer now employs four people on its sustainability team, but Chastain says that the company’s goal is for everybody, in some sense, to be working in a sustainability role.


“The idea of sustainability has morphed into environmentalism, but they’re not the same thing,” Chastain says. “Sustainability is the ability to sustain something, whether it’s a lifestyle or a business. That’s where Sierra Nevada excels. Every project that we decide to do or every change in operations has an economic, environmental, and social benefit. We’re trying to get people to shift away from thinking that sustainability is synonymous with environmentalism. Really, it’s everything that impacts our business and the resources that we’re using.”


Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada founder

Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada founder

The Goodness of Guinness

While the taste of the beer undoubtedly stands alone as the first, second, and third factors contributing to the enjoyment of a glass of Guinness, the venerable brand of the company also has a role to play. In fact, when visitors tour the Guinness Storehouse and take a class on how to pour the perfect pint, they are instructed to serve it with the Guinness logo facing outward “because we eat and drink with our eyes, not only our mouths.”


The Guinness brand, Wilson says, is synonymous in the minds of consumers with “quality, provenance, and tradition.” When people in the future see the company’s famous golden harp set against a black backdrop, he hopes they will think of another word, too: “sustainability.”


Cheri Chastain, sustainability manager

Cheri Chastain, sustainability manager

Diageo first adopted sustainability goals in 2008 and has continued to revise them over time. “Climate change was becoming more and more of a prevalent issue, and there was more media attention, and I think that was a driving force,” says Wilson. “Other large-scale multinational companies were beginning to play their part as well.”


“It’s not a short-term agenda,” he adds. “This is something that we see continuing for an extended period. We’re not immune to climate change. We believe that we actually have a role to play in obviating the risks around climate change.” This commitment led USGBC to award Diageo the 2016 Ray Anderson Radical Industrialism Award at Greenbuild in Los Angeles.


Wilson says there’s not much strong evidence to suggest that consumers are currently choosing beers or changing buying habits based on brewers’ sustainability track records. However, he thinks that is likely to change with social media and other sources giving consumers easy access to information about what companies are doing to preserve the planet.


“Looking forward, the consumer of the future will be much more in tune with brands and products that demonstrate responsibility toward the environment,” Wilson says. “It makes good business sense [to pursue a sustainability strategy], as well as us playing our role as good corporate citizens.”

At Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., sustainability means recognizing the impacts associated with our operations and making a conscious effort to reduce them.

ichael Wilson, global environmental sustainability director for Diageo

Michael Wilson, global environmental sustainability director for Diageo

A Changing Industry

Craft brewers and large producers compete for market share, and as a consequence, they don’t always have nice things to say about each other’s practices or products. In a 2015 Super Bowl ad, Budweiser showed the words “It’s not brewed to be fussed over” on top of a shot of a mustachioed hipster sniffing at his glass, which spurred backlash from craft brewers and hobbyists who were all too happy to respond with withering critiques of the taste and quality of the “King of Beers.” But sustainability is one area where large and small companies have found common ground.


“Sustainability is something that has been ingrained in the thought processes of a lot of craft brewers for a long time,” says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a craft beer industry group based in Boulder, Colorado. “I think the primary driver is it’s the right thing to do. I think there is a belief that when you operate in a sustainable manner, it’s actually cheaper in the long run—if not for your own company, then for society.”


At the same time, Gatza says, it is also in the best interests of larger producers to conserve resources.


“They’re really focused on water, trying to reduce the amount of water it takes to make a certain amount of beer,” he says. “From their standpoint, everything they do has an impact on the bottom line, and their corporate structure is such that they are beholden to deliver returns for stockholders. By reducing the amount of water or figuring out how to conserve energy, that helps deliver profits.”


“It’s an area where I have a lot of respect for the big brewers,” says Chastain. “As a craft brewer, we can’t impact the supply chain to the level that a large brewer can. Craft beer is only 15 percent of beer market. Four or five companies own 85 percent of market. That buying power and that influence on the supply chain is starting to be used for a lot of good. Also, when you’re brewing at that size, you can be incredibly efficient with energy and water use.”


“Sustainability is not just this hippy thing,” she adds. “These big brewers are recognizing that, by being more efficient with energy or water, they’re reducing their operating expenses.”


In an illustration of just how much things have changed over the past few decades, it’s now possible for students at at least one college to major in sustainable brewing. Western Michigan University launched a sustainable brewing program in 2015, and while “majoring in beer” may sound like the giddy fantasy of a freshman, the school started the program specifically because local craft beer producers were having trouble filling jobs and told the school that sustainability would be a major focus in the immediate future.


“These companies are hiring,” says Ed Martini, an associate dean at Western Michigan, who helped to create the sustainable brewing program. “Our advisory board [of craft brewers]—they’re telling us, if students come out and can do these kinds of things, they’ll absolutely snatch them up.”


The program includes courses like “Holy Waters: Spirits and Spirituality,” and has convinced at least one student to switch his major from chemical engineering to focus on brewing. The school expects to have around 40 students enrolled in the program this fall.


“You’ve got people talking about beer as the new automobile industry,” Martini says. “Right now, it’s an easy case to make, because there’s so much opportunity and so much continued growth in the industry.”


Diageo’s Wilson says that he doesn’t necessarily see a link between the size of brewers and their emphasis on sustainability, although he notes that changes in practices can have a greater impact when adopted by larger companies. “I think it comes down to the specific commitment of the company,” he says. “There is more opportunity and a substantially bigger impact on obviating climate change when larger breweries switch to sustainable practices.”

At Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., sustainability means recognizing the impacts associated with our operations and making a conscious effort to reduce them.

Sierra Nevada has extended the “zero waste” concept to also encompass energy, water, packaging materials, and even employee time.

Sierra Nevada has extended the “zero waste” concept to also encompass energy, water, packaging materials, and even employee time.

The Push to Platinum

Initially, Chastain says, Sierra Nevada planned to build its Mills River facility to achieve LEED Silver certification at a minimum. “As the project started moving forward,” she recalls, “It was looking like a pretty solid Gold. Ken Grossman saw that opportunity to be better, and he wanted to go for it. He pushed everybody to get there. We flirted with Platinum, and he pushed the whole team, and there was a lot of work that went into it, a lot of stress. You need 80 points to achieve Platinum, and we were awarded [exactly] 80 points.”


The Mills River brewery includes nearly 2,200 photovoltaic solar panels and uses microturbine technology to convert methane biogas captured from an onsite wastewater treatment plant into electricity. The site was also designed to collect rainwater runoff, which is used for irrigation and other purposes, and parking areas at the facility were constructed with permeable surfaces to allow rainwater to be absorbed by the ground, rather than carrying sediment into a nearby waterway. During construction, 81 percent of waste was diverted from landfills, and the facility’s walls, insulation, and windows were designed to keep temperatures stable and maximize natural light.



Sierra Nevada recovers heat from several sources within its breweries, including brew kettles, fuel cells and boilers, and air compressors.

Guinness’s LEED Platinum Brewhouse No. 4 facility in Dublin features an energy recovery system that reduces the need for steam heating, and a hybrid refrigeration system that operates at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (up from the previous system’s temperature of 25 degrees Fahrenheit). Low-flow water fixtures were installed throughout the building, along with a rainwater capture system on site. The facility also includes a combined heat and power plant (CHP), a low-energy heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, and ample parking for bicycles and fuel-efficient vehicles. As a result of the changes, the new facility has cut thermal energy needs by 33 percent and water needs by 14 percent. Although some of the changes—particularly the water conservation efforts—have a longer financial payback period, Diageo decided, “it makes sense to take that longer term view,” Wilson says.


“From the conception phase, it was determined that environmental concerns would be considered in the design and build, and in the ultimate operation,” Wilson says. “With an old facility, they’re much more susceptible to leaks, and overuse of water in certain areas of the brewhouse. That will drive up your water consumption. There was a clear benefit to implementing the best [sustainable] practices.”

Sierra Nevada: Sustainability Highlights

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s sustainability efforts extend far beyond the company’s new LEED Platinum facility. Other programs include:

Waste Reduction  

Through reuse, recycling, and composting, the company diverts 99.8 percent of its solid waste from landfills.

Energy Conservation  

In 2014, Sierra Nevada generated more than 10 million kWh of electricity on site—nearly enough to power 1,000 American households for an entire year.

Water Efficiency

Since 2007, the company has reduced the amount of water required to produce a barrel of beer by 25 percent.


In 2012, Sierra Nevada introduced a new twelve-pack that eliminated the need for cardboard dividers, resulting in a weight loss of 243 pounds per truckload.

SOURCE: Sierra Nevada Co. Biennial Sustainability Report, 2015.

Diageo plans to improve energy efficiency in its operations through insulating and installing low-energy lighting systems,  generating renewable energy on site, and sourcing renewable energy from wind and solar sources, among others.

Diageo plans to improve energy efficiency in its operations through insulating and installing low-energy lighting systems, generating renewable energy on site, and sourcing renewable energy from wind and solar sources, among others.

Head of the Glass

Both Diageo and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. are members of the U.S. Glass Recycling Coalition, an industry partnership launched in the spring of 2016 with the aim of improving the glass recycling process and increasing the frequency of glass recycling.


The coalition, which was organized by the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI) and also includes brewers like Allagash Brewing Company, Heineken USA, and New Belgium Brewing, seeks to “help build a foundation to make glass recycling a successful industry, and an efficient, high-quality, and convenient service consumers want and expect,” according to a GPI statement.


The GPI notes that, while glass containers for food and beverages are 100 percent recyclable, economic forces have led many of these containers to end up in landfills. Glass recycling, the group says, can create challenges for recycling infrastructure if not planned for and executed correctly, and some communities have removed glass from their curbside recycling programs entirely. As a result, large brewers often have difficulty procuring enough recycled glass to meet their manufacturing needs.


The coalition met for the first time in Washington, D.C., in April of 2016, and members hope to develop strategies to assist cities and towns with glass recycling decisions, as well as to establish a network of “glass recycling resources and champions.”


In a sense, sustainable practices have always been a part of brewing beer; it’s always been in the best interests of beer producers to use less water and energy to create their product if they could do it. What’s changed is the environment in which beer producers are operating. While the language of sustainability wasn’t widely spoken in decades past, today brewers can swap stories with one another at conferences about stormwater reclamation and zero-waste efforts. And the incentives for implementing green practices are only becoming stronger, with heightened attention paid to how companies utilize their resources.


While Guinness and Sierra Nevada can boast two of the first LEED Platinum breweries in the world, they surely won’t be the last.

Diageo: Sustainability Highlights

Diageo’s sustainability and corporate responsibility efforts extend across the company’s brands—which include Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Baileys, and Smirnoff —and encompass not just environmental practices, but also things like alcohol in society, governance and ethics, and reporting and transparency. The company’s efforts include:

Energy Reduction

Diageo’s direct consumption of energy from nonrenewable sources has decreased by around 25 percent since 2007.

Sustainable Packaging

In 2015, 39 percent of the input materials for Diageo packaging came from recycled content.

Water Stewardship

By 2020, Diageo wants to return 100 percent of wastewater to the environment safely, and replenish the water used in its products made in water-stressed areas.

Emissions Management 

Diageo aims to cut its carbon dioxide emissions in half (from a 2007 baseline) by 2020.

SOURCE: Diageo Sustainability & Responsibility Performance Addendum to the Annual Report, 2015.