Sustainability & the Craft Beer Industry Series
By Sara H Harper, Director of Sustainable Solutions for K·Coe Isom
“You get infected with the entrepreneurial spirit working here.”
So starts off my conversation with Mike Utz, Director of Engineering at Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City. As with my other interviews of craft brewers, the themes of avoided waste, dedication to quality and a strong industry camaraderie that defies traditional competition models are all well-represented here too. Yet, each craft brewery is unique – much like the products they create. Boulevard Brewing Company has made a big impact well beyond its neighborhood and beyond mitigating its own impact in the area of recycling glass – the project, called Ripple Glass (more on this below) is a fantastic example of using business acumen to solve an environmental problem that in turn becomes a new input resource. It is called the circular economy – and it was great to learn about it up close.
Q: What does sustainability mean to you?
A: If a thing is sustainable, that means it lasts. How do you put that into action? Resource management and efficiency – making sure we get the most out of the inputs we buy and the people that we employ.
Q: Do you see the craft brewing industry as having a special connection to sustainability?
A: Most craft breweries are small businesses like us – so resource efficiency is almost a requirement because you can’t survive by having a lot of waste. It’s not as if big companies like wasting resources, but there tends to be less urgency around finding and reducing it – so, waste can get hidden and lost track of. If you are not wasting resources, there’s less trash, less impact, less cost. Craft beer is local, so reducing these impacts has an affect you can see.
Q: Why does this industry have such a strong connection to “local”?
A: There are regional taste profiles and preferences that local craft breweries are in tune with and able to take advantage of. For us, wheat beer is one of our #1 sellers – and we are located right here in the middle of wheat country so it makes sense.
Julie Weeks, Marketing Communications Manager: From a marketing standpoint, our first focus is local – but we are finding that not only are there craft beer lovers that want to try different beers from all over the country, there is also a phenomenon where people are exposed to something that they experienced as local for part of their life when they lived in the area and then have a nostalgic affect when the beer comes to their market after moving away – so there’s both a local and regional effect.
One of the challenges for beer is that it is a perishable product. Shipping long distances is hard on the product and expensive. We are uniquely positioned in the middle of the country, so it is easier for our beer to go toward both coasts.
Boulevard Brewing is currently being sold in 31 states and Washington DC.
Q: Adaptive re-use of buildings and materials seems to be common in this industry. Have you engaged in these activities?
A: We are sitting in adaptive re-use right now. This building dates back to the early 1900s and was used as the laundry facility for the railroad across the street. Then it became several other businesses before the brewery. John McDonald, Boulevard’s founder, owned the building and started brewing in it. The building’s iconic smokestack was original to the laundry facility.
Most recently, we had to tear down buildings nearby to expand – but we didn’t throw the material away – we reclaimed all the lumber. We created beer flight paddleboards out of the old lumber as well as using it in other parts of the buildings. We like to re-use everything. It also fits with our zero landfill policy.
Q: You have a zero-waste policy – tell me how you do that?
A: We went to a zero landfill policy in 2010. It was not hard to get people to adopt.
The policy has been successful beyond our wildest dreams. We hoped it wouldn’t cost us more to do the right thing – we just hoped to break even. But actually, we flipped the whole model around. Instead of spending $20k to deal with waste, we were making $20k selling it as recycled material.
We have tours that show other businesses how to go zero waste. One recent example is a company called Faultless Starch. Six months ago, we gave them a presentation about what we did and how we did it. I just talked to them a few days ago and they are taking on this policy as well. It has changed their culture and moved it in a positive direction.
Our zero landfill policy here at the brewery often filters back to how employees act at home – bringing in waste here when they can’t easily recycle it at home.
Q: What are some of the other things you are doing on the environmental side of sustainability?
A: There are a number of things we do that provide a double benefit to the environment and the company’s bottom line – including:
-- Energy Efficiency. We have waste heat recovery on all our boilers and steam generators, wort kettles and brewing vessels – so you don’t see the big plume of steam coming out of the brewery because we are capturing most of that heat. We worked with a German brewhouse to really focus on thermal design.
-- Spent Grain. We are in cattle country, so after we use our grain for brewing, the residue goes to a cattle operation about 30 miles from here. All of our spent products go there. We are working on a project now to recover spent yeast as well.
-- Wastewater. We worked with the city to create a plan that helps them use our wastewater to help treat the overall wastewater of the city more efficiently – since our water contains a lot of sugar in it that feeds the bugs that help break down bad stuff. We are also putting in a new system that will hold the brewery’s entire discharge during the day and only send it out at night. This will greatly help the city to balance what they get during the day and expand their capacity to address wastewater.
-- Lighting. We take advantage of natural light, efficient light fixtures, solar panels that provide 20kw of power and utilizes a space we had identified as ideal for it.
Q: Then of course, there is the very impressive work you have done on glass recycling. Tell me about the Ripple Glass project – what was your inspiration and what has the impact been so far?
A: Since I started in 1998, John has always been focused on resource efficiency. We started meeting with a local non-profit group called Bridging the Gap collecting cardboard and doing all we could do to recycle internally. However, we also recognized that glass was a thing we couldn’t find a system for – there wasn’t a good way to recycle glass at the time – there were only three places to recycle in a city of 2 million people.
In the mid-2000s, we said, something’s wrong here – other mid-size cities have glass recycling, why can’t we have that as a city? We knew that millions of pounds of glass were going into the waste stream through our products – and we wanted to find a way to turn that around.
I got a grant from the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) to study this problem and find a solution. At the end of that one year study, we said we believe KC could support a glass recycling system because the city has companies like Owens Corning who utilize glass for fiberglass.
After deciding there was a business model to help solve this problem, we partnered with a number of other companies and groups in the city and in 2009, we created a glass collection system and processing plant which together are called Ripple Glass. Some key attributes include:
-- Used glass is processed to made furnace ready
-- 75% of the output from Ripple Glass goes into Owens Corning fiberglass insulation
-- 25% of the output goes to the Ardagh Group, which manufactures glass bottles among other materials and in turn, becomes glass bottles again purchased by Boulevard Brewing Company for their beer. Three thousand tons of recycled glass are used to make 30-40% of all the glass that Boulevard consumes
-- Takes in all glass, regardless of color – and is able to use clear and green glass for insulation and brown glass for becoming glass bottles again
-- 600 lbs of CO2, a major Greenhouse Gas, is avoided by every ton we recycle
-- Last year, 32,000 tons of glass were recycled
-- This year, the program is projected to recycle over 36 thousand tons of glass
For Boulevard, Ripple Glass closes the loop of a key resource because our bottles become our bottles.
Q: Is recycling glass energy efficient given the heat needed to break it down and the abundance of raw materials like sand?
A: The melting of virgin raw materials to make glass is where the higher energy comes from as recycled glass melts at a lower temperature. Also, every time a bottle gets recycled it takes less energy to do turn it around. It takes a lot less energy to recycle it nearby than to haul it to a landfill and bury it forever.
And keep in mind, that 75% of this material is becoming insulation that goes into a wall cavity and stays there until a house is demolished, making the building it is in more energy efficient in the process.
Q: So, Ripple Glass is a business unto itself then?
A: Ideally Ripple Glass is a for profit venture to be sustainable in the long-run. We are at the point of it being a sustainable business to handle a waste problem.
The name Ripple Glass came from the idea of a ripple effect. We know this problem exists in many mid-size cities and other regions, so we provide recycling services to KS, MO, NE, IA, OK, AR – much like our original business sales pathway.
Q: Does it continue to ripple across the country?
A: That’s a goal. And, there’s more we can do right here. The glass recycling rate in KC is still only 20%, so we still have a ways to go to maximize our market here.
Q: Tell me about the social side of sustainability – what are you doing for your employees and the community?
A: For our Employees – We have a tradition called Wednesday Lunches – where at least once a week, everyone that works for John (the founder) gets a good meal for free. John has partnered with a local individual that makes it for us every Wednesday – which gives us all a chance to connect over food. You get to have a beer after work. We also do different anniversary honors – when you’ve been here for a year you get a Boulevard jacket, 5 years beautiful hand-made beer glasses, and after 10 years you get a trip to any beer producing country in the world.
When we became part of the Duvel Moortgat, John negotiated to keep these elements.
In the Community – we host a lot of people for tours every day, week, year – and sustainability is a part of that discussion – it is about who we are and what we do. I’m in front of groups all the time explaining what we are doing and sharing our story.
We just got an environmental leadership award for community outreach on how to do better.
We host events here – there is something going on every night of the week – and those events also have to comply with our 100% avoided landfill policy – caterers have to bring in things that are recyclable or compostable.
Q:How has the Duvel Moortgat ownership affected the company?
It brings a new set of resources -- the merged sales resources, for example.They’ve been brewing beer for over 140 years, so there’s a lot of knowledge they have shared with us, but they have not changed our management or our market choices at all. The interaction with them has been “What are you doing, how can we help you?” They continue to invest in expanding the brewery in KC