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The Rise of the Sustainable Craft Brewery

Good news for brew-lovers: most Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewery, and the number of craft breweries in America is on a steep rise post-2009. The total count as of 2020 was 8,884 and peaked at a national high as of 2015 with 4,847. The growth between 2015 and the present day is over 80%. Prior to that marker, the most breweries America ever held was in 1873, with 4,131. With these numbers continuing to grow, craft breweries are expanding the way that they promote environmentalism, without compromising their products. 

Data courtesy of Brewers Association

The term “craft brewery” refers to “a small and independent brewer” in the United States, with “an annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less,” according to the Brewers Association – one of America’s preeminent authorities on beer production (more on nuances of this definition later).

Similarly, craft breweries tend to be laser-focused on innovation in both product and experience. These locally owned small businesses strive to create a communal space for local residents where flavorful and creative flavor profiles outshine major corporations’ offerings. Much of the beer world in the United States is dominated by mega-producers like AB InBev, the merged entity of Anheuser-Busch (brewer of Budweiser and Michelob) and InBev (producer of Stella Artois).  

However, what was once a marginal market for eclectic libations has taken off in recent years, and its exponential growth shows no trends of leveling off. 

Within the realm of craft breweries, there are subcategories, whose continued growth has also been tracked by the Brewers Association. These include microbreweries, the small location where the beer is actually made and serves only its own product and produces on average between 15,000 and 30,000 barrels of beer per year, depending on local regulations; taprooms, while similar to microbreweries, only require 25% of beer to be made by the company itself (and also may offer food); and brewpubs, a bar or restaurant where the fruits of the microbrewery are served (these frequently are on-site at the microbrewery). 

Data courtesy of Brewers Association 

Sustainable breweries are woven throughout these categories as well, and evidently, it is a category that consumers are interested in. In 2015, 78 craft breweries across America voluntarily enrolled in a Sustainability Benchmarking Report led by the Brewers Association. Enrollment for that same study has increased 50% as of 2020. 

Although the numbers are on the rise, experts do not anticipate the saturation of breweries across America to curb the growth. Mainly, because those growth numbers are seen in brewpubs, taprooms, and microbreweries (not regional or national breweries) that offer a unique, local experience. 

Photo courtesy of Merritt Thomas

Craft beer is labor-intensive, local ingredient-dependent, and can have high levels of resource consumption. As such, small breweries – who tend to think locally, not nationally – are particularly sensitive to the environmental impact their company is having on the surrounding residents, and how they can make their business more sustainable. 

“It is our responsibility to constantly evolve our practices to reduce our environmental impact and offset where we can,” Jason Perkins, a brewmaster at Maine’s Allagash Brewing Company said in an interview. Allagash has made commitments to sustainability themselves, reducing water usage Throughout America, breweries are employing sustainable production practices and environmental conservation measures in a variety of ways: installing solar panels, improving water use, and donating unused or already-processed grain to local farms for feed. 

Photo courtesy of Allagash Brewing Company

As breweries tend to demand warehouse-like spaces, a number of producers are finding solar arrays as a sustainable addition to their business by adding photovoltaic panels to the sprawling roofs. Highland Brewery of Asheville, NC has the U.S.’s sixth-largest solar array of all craft breweries, generating 324 kW DC. They receive tax credits for the installation and are credited for the unused electricity they return to the regional power grid. The installation has reduced the company’s energy cost by over $1200 a month. 

Sustainability within the already niche market of craft breweries (and its respective subcategories) hasn’t been around quite long enough for statistically significant data sets just yet. However, anecdotal successes of individual small craft breweries, combined with their ever-expanding volume, suggests that the keg isn’t running low on sustainable opportunities for these businesses any time soon.  

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