Beers, bars and business: The importance of sustainable brewing

The importance of sustainable brewing

By Roland Pahl, Beer Market Manager, Pall Corp

Consumers’ purchasing decisions are increasingly influenced by perceptions of sustainability – choosing products based not just on traditional factors like taste, price and availability, but on whether the development of that product has a negative impact on the environment and the world around us.

The sustainability factors that get the most attention are packaging (namely whether the materials used are low impact and recyclable) and ingredients (whether they are locally and sustainably sourced). But the whole value chain plays a part in defining the sustainability of the final product, from the growth or extraction of raw materials to the manufacturing process used, to how it is packed and transported.

Manufacturing is often the forgotten element of this sustainability mix, and filtration – a crucial part of the beer production process – receives far less attention than it should when it comes to ensuring the beer we drink is sustainable. Traditionally, brewers filter beer using diatomaceous earth (DE) – fossilized algae that has ground to form a powder. This sits on a frame filter or in a cylinder and traps particles as the beer passes through.

Diatomaceous earth poses many environmental challenges, ranging from a high carbon footprint to the volume of water used and the generation of waste sludge. It also has economic and regulatory implications for brewers. High operational costs of using DE can create a real drag on profitability. Globally the regulatory and social landscape is also becoming increasingly hostile to environmentally unfriendly production methods. The United Nations has urged for international efforts to reduce the ecological footprint in the food and beverage industries via one of its Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 which focuses on sustainable consumption and production [1]. Continuous use of DE has also been linked to health issues and is an additional driver for change in the industry.

The environmental and economic impact of traditional filtration

Breweries that use DE may need to transport hundreds of tonnes of the fresh powder to their facilities. However, as there are only a few DE mines, globally – in the US, Mexico, Chile, Peru, France, Spain and China – the carbon footprint of transportation is significant.

After brewing, DE forms a sludge with the sediment of organic matter that has been filtered from the beer and water trapped in its porous structure. Every kilogram of dry DE creates 3-4 kg of waste sludge. For large breweries, this can amount to thousands of tonnes of waste each year, which is transported from the brewery and disposed of in landfill sites, adding to the producer’s carbon footprint. Some city and regional authorities are now restricting the ability of brewers to dump their waste, creating additional challenges in the whole production process. Sterilisation of beer with DE also requires high heat and a high volume of water, which requires a higher energy usage. According to a study by the Brewer’s Association [2], it takes 50-60 kWh to produce one barrel of beer.

In beer filtration, many of the environmental issues of using DE translate to economic challenges. DE is a single-use substance, meaning that fresh batches of the powder must be purchased over the entire service life of the frame or cylinder filter. This adds to the running costs of both the purchase and disposal of the used DE, as well as the transportation of the material. Furthermore, as dry DE can cause respiratory issues, eye and skin problems, and is potentially carcinogenic, operational costs are further increased by the need to implement the necessary health and safety protection for employees. Food safety standards also require analyses of both the dry DE powder and the beer after filtration.

The changing regulatory and social landscape

There are now many policies and practices sweeping the globe which incorporate the concept of best available techniques (BAT) to establish evidence-based environmental permit conditions for industrial installations. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) lists key criteria for determination of BAT [3], such as the use of low waste technology and less hazardous substances, the consumption of raw materials (e.g. water) and the volume of emissions.

The use of DE does not align with these criteria so brewers who use it must brace themselves for more stringent regulations in the future. Several governments are already showing intent when it comes to cracking down on unsustainable practices. The EU’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) will require companies across Europe to identify ‘adverse environmental impacts’ along their supply chain and work with suppliers to reduce their environmental impact. If adopted, member states are expected to have until 2026 to implement the directive into national legislation. Companies that fail to comply could face penalty charges and reputational damage.

Companies around the world will also come under greater regulatory scrutiny when it comes to reporting emissions. In the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is set to finalize climate-related disclosure rules which would require US companies to provide an assessment and plan to address climate-related risks, and report their greenhouse gas emission data.

All of these regulations are creating a global setting where unsustainable practices carry increasing financial and reputational risk.

Changing consumer habits also pose an economic risk for brewers who continue to deploy processes that damage the environment or are unsustainable. A survey [4] of more than 1000 respondents revealed that 72% felt sustainability was a very or somewhat important purchase consideration. As consumers start to delve deeper into the environmental footprint of the food and drink they buy at the supermarket or in bars and restaurants, brewers who are lacking in green credentials are likely to see consumers switch to more environmentally-friendly products. Conversely, brewers who embrace more sustainable production methods may find it easier to attract more sustainably conscious consumers.

More sustainable solutions

Crossflow membrane filtration is a viable, healthier and more sustainable alternative to using DE. The beer is passed at a tangent across the membrane, which traps the sediment without the need for DE. This method greatly reduces the carbon footprint of the beer as there is no requirement to mine the substance, dispose of the waste or transport both the dry and wet materials to and from the brewery. Leveraging membrane filtration [5] for microbiological stabilization compared to thermal installations is a good first step to help achieve sustainability goals by reducing energy, as flash pasteurizers consume up to 80% more energy on the thermal and electric side compared to beer final filtration with membranes.

By omitting the need for pre and post runs, crossflow membrane filtration also has the potential to significantly reduce water consumption and product loss.

Many of the environmental benefits of crossflow membrane filtration translate to economic advantages. Unlike DE, which relies on batch operation, crossflow membranes can be operated continuously.

Brewers must adapt to ensure longevity

Industries are facing increasing pressure from multiple stakeholders to strengthen green credentials and the brewing industry is no exception. Embracing modern, sustainable production techniques such as cross-flow membrane filters is pivotal if brewers are to navigate the environmental-related risks that lie ahead, whether this is from the rise of sustainability-conscious consumers or the threat of reputational damage and penalty charges from new international regulations. Those who invest in reducing their environmental impact now are likely to encourage consumer loyalty and reduce their operational costs, giving theses brewers an edge over their competitors.