OREGON MICROBREWING MAKES STRIDES TOWARD SUSTAINABILITY
by Sophia McDonald Bennett

Locally-brewed beer is a defining industry for Oregon, generating billions of dollars a year and employing thousands of people.  But does it live up to an important Oregon ideal: environmental sustainability?   

            The craft beer industry is a notable part of Oregon’s economy and culture.  According to the Oregon Brewers Guild, the Beaver State is home to over 100 microbreweries that employ 4,900 people and have an economic impact of $2.44 billion annually.  Oregon is the second largest craft beer producer in the country, and much of it stays in local communities, where it’s guzzled by some of the choosiest and best-educated beer connoisseurs anywhere.

            Microbreweries have weathered the economic downturn and proven they’re an economically sustainable industry.  But how are they doing in terms of environmental sustainability?  The answer is, not too shabby.  There is some room for improvement, especially in the production of 100 percent organic beer.  But every microbrewery interviewed for this article has adopted sustainable business practices in one form or another, and all of them place an emphasis on a key component of being green: buying and selling locally. 

Planet, People Important to Local Brewers

Most southern Willamette Valley microbrewers aren’t marketing themselves as eco-friendly businesses, but a look at their efforts to reduce waste, protect natural resources, and keep a low carbon footprint reveals beverages with a green hue that would rival a beer garden on St. Patrick’s Day. 

Jim Wills, owner of Oregon Trail Brewery in Corvallis, sets a good example on the waste reduction side.  Wills is a big proponent of using reusable containers.  “Glass bottles just get crushed and made into new ones,” he says, which isn’t as energy efficient as using them in their current form.  Most of the beer sold outside his brewery comes in Party Pigs, a type of mini-keg that can be used indefinitely.  Wills is also working on a plan to wash and reuse bottles, something that Captured by Porches, a microbrewery in St. Helens, is already piloting successfully.

Several breweries, including Oakshire Brewing and Ninkasi Brewing Company in Eugene and Hop Valley Brewing Company in Springfield, send their spent grain to beef producers like Oregon Natural Meats.  The grain still has plenty of nutritional value at the end of the brewing process and makes great feed for cattle.  “Upcycling” the grain also keeps it out of local landfills. 

Protecting natural resources, particularly the water used in making their beer, is also an area of focus for Oregon breweries.  Water is the main ingredient in beer, and the northwest’s clean, pure watersheds are essential for making high-quality products.  In 2011 Ninkasi and Oakshire partnered with their water provider, the Eugene Water and Electric Board, and produced four beers to celebrate the utility company’s centennial.  Proceeds from the sale of Conservation Ale (Ninkasi) and Green Power Pale Ale, LandTrust Lager, and Skookumchuck Wild Ale (Oakshire) went to the McKenzie River Trust, a nonprofit that protects land and other natural resources around the McKenzie and several other waterways in western Oregon.

“Clean water is so important – not just for making beer, but for life in general,” Ninkasi Marketing Director James Book was quoted as saying in an August 5, 2011 article in the Eugene Register-Guard.  “It’s worth protecting.” 

To further conserve resources Ninkasi has made investments in green technology in recent years.  They installed a system to recycle all their wastewater and they power a portion of their tasting room with solar panels mounted on the roof. 

            One area where breweries really shine is their use of local ingredients.  (Of course, the northwest has an ideal climate for growing the main agricultural products used in beer, which makes it that much easier.)  Many brewers source their malted barley from Great Western Malting Company in Vancouver, Washington, which has organic and conventional grain.  The hops used by local brewers typically come from the Willamette Valley or Washington, where 92 percent of U.S. commercial hops production occurs.

Brewers searching for an extra punch of flavor need to look no further than Eugene-based Mountain Rose Herbs, which specializes in organic herbs and spices.  The company works with over 100 breweries across the country to provide the ingredients that give unique flavor to seasonal ales.  Orange peel and cinnamon are favorites for winter ales, says company Vice-President Shawn Donnille, but Mountain Rose also works to source unusual ingredients for breweries who want to think outside the box.  For example, New Belgium Brewing’s Springboard Ale features a combination of goji berries, wormwood and schisandra (a Chinese herb).  

Organic Label Can Be Misleading

Mountain Rose also carries organic hops, which have a number of medicinal uses, but they’ve only recently started selling them to microbreweries.  Part of the reason is that their hops are dried for teas and other products, while most brewers are looking for fresh cones.  The other reason is that demand for organic hops is low, even among organic producers.

            A curious trait of beer labeled “organic” is that it doesn’t have to contain organic hops.  Hops are on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, a document which lists non-organic ingredients that can be included in organic products without affecting the labeling.  The goal of the National List is to give organic producers access to ingredients they might not be able to find in certified organic form. 

It used to be that organic hops were hard to get.  According to the American Organic Hop Grower Association (AOHGA), the plant is tough to grow organically.  It has high nitrogen requirements and is quite susceptible to disease and insects.  As a result, few people in the United States were growing organic hops, and brewers typically had to look to New Zealand to source them.

However, production is on the rise.  Washington has expanded its organic hop fields from 1.6 hectares in 2004 to 26 hectares in 2010.  With this growth the AOHGA felt they could make the case that organic hops were more readily available, so they petitioned the Department of Agriculture and asked that hops be taken off the National List. 

They were successful, and as of 2013 brewers will have to use organic hops in any beers labeled “organic.”  Donnille, a tireless advocate for organic agriculture, applauds that change and hopes it will inspire more brewers to make 100 percent organic beers.  But he fears it will also mean that brewers will drop organic products from their lines due to the increased cost.  That would mean missing out on an opportunity – both in terms of doing the right thing for the planet and finding new markets. 

“Consumer demand for organic products is growing by 18 to 20 percent every year,” Donnille says.  “There’s no reason that interest doesn’t apply to beer.”

Festival Highlights Organic Production

            Oregon’s best showcase for environmentally sustainable beer is the North American Organic Brewers Festival, an annual event that takes place in Portland in the early summer.  The festival got its start in 2002, when brewery owner-turned-consultant Craig Nicholls hosted a symposium on organic brewing at the Lucky Labrador Brewing Company in Portland.  It was supposed to be a small gathering for locals, but it grew into a standing room only event that attracted people from several states and Canada.  

Nicholls instantly knew he was onto something.  His next event, in 2003, made a variety of organic beers available to the public.  Nicholls took a year off to regroup, then re-launched the festival in 2005. 

This year’s event in north Portland’s Overlook Park is expected to draw more than 18,000 people.  Beer lovers can spend three days sampling 60 beers and hard ciders from 39 breweries based as far away as The Netherlands.  Many of the brewers, like Nicholls’s Roots Organic Brewing Company in Portland, produce organic beer exclusively.  Others, like Oakshire, prepare one or two special-edition beverages just for the festival.  “We like doing it,” says Matt Van Wyk, the company’s brewmaster.  “Organic beer is a bit of a niche, but I think there’s a market for it.”

The festival also includes organic food vendors, music from local bands, a root beer garden, and a children’s area with face painting and crafts.  To keep the event’s carbon footprint low, people receive a discounted entrance fee if they take public transportation (the park is right next to a Portland light rail line) or arrive by bicycle.  Last year the festival recycled 90 percent of its waste, and this year they’re aiming for zero waste. 

Nicholls says he tacks the words “sustainable living” onto the festival’s name whenever he talks about it in public.  The event has a whole section devoted to educational displays and nonprofit vendors, and he hopes to inspire attendees to stay focused on sustainability long after they’ve left. 

“Our event isn’t just about showcasing kick-ass beer from around the world,” Nicholls says.  “It’s about teaching people about sustainable agriculture and recycling and composting.  We hope people learn that their actions at home can make a big impact on the earth.”

The festival still hosts a meeting every year where brewers talk about how to make the industry more sustainable.  People are very open to swapping ideas and resources, Nicholls says.  “There’s very much a team focus among brewers in Oregon.  We’re all working together.”

            Nicholls believes Oregon’s focus on sustainable brewing has a lot to do with the people who live here.  “Oregonians can see the interconnectedness of everything from keeping our beautiful forests to air quality to protecting watersheds,” he says.  “People care about their natural environment and want to protect it.  In Portland we have a nice circle of business and caring.  Everyone pushes everyone else to do the right thing and it has a domino effect.” 

            What’s the best thing an individual can do to support businesses that are doing the right thing?  Vote with their dollars.  With so many great microbreweries located right in the Willamette Valley, it just doesn’t make sense to buy beer from anywhere else. 

Sophia McDonald Bennett is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon. 

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