SOUTHWOLD, England -- A small English traditional brewer is taking giant steps in its own private battle with human-induced climate change, not only greening its beer but saving water and making biogas out of its wastes. It plans to use it to feed part of the nation's electrical system and to fuel its fleet of beer trucks.
To Adnams Southwold, in business since 1872 on the east coast of England, climate change is not small beer. Its campaign began several years ago -- well ahead of the rest of the brewing industry, much of which is doing little or nothing.
"I am not a climate campaigner; I am a businessman. Climate change is an unreasonable risk on which we have to take action," CEO Andy Wood told ClimateWire on a cold and rainy day at the brewery this week.
"And if we have got it wrong, and there is no danger in what have we done except make our business and our surroundings more sustainable," he added with a shrug and a quizzical raise of an eyebrow.
The company's latest venture is groundbreaking. Together with a renewable energy company, the Bio Group, it has formed the Adnams Bio Energy Ltd. joint venture. It will take its own brewing waste and food waste from the local area to produce biomethane using anaerobic digestion -- a new take on getting gas from beer.
The plant, currently undergoing testing before coming online later this month, is on a piece of vacant land next to the brewer's state-of-the-climate-art distribution center. That was built just four years ago on a former disused gravel pit just outside Southwold, about 120 miles northeast of London.
"Right now, all our liquid waste is being diluted and dumped down the drain -- about 40 tonnes of water a day. When the plant is fully operational, not only will we be using the waste to make energy, we will be saving tonnes of water a day, too," said Wood.
At the same time, some of the waste grain from the brewing process, much of which currently goes to animal feed, will be diverted to the plant, combined with local food waste, pulped and fed into the giant digesters to generate the gas.
Seeing beyond the local landfill
Once it is running at capacity, the plant will start injecting enough gas into the pipeline system to produce up to 4.8 million kilowatt-hours of energy a year -- enough, the company says, to heat 235 homes a year or power an average family car for 4 million miles.
At the same time as generating the gas, solid waste left over from the process will go back onto the local barley fields as fertilizer to help grow the grain that will go back into the brewing process once more.
Not only will the plant be the first to pump biomethane to utilities, but starting next year, Adnams will begin to convert its truck fleet to dual fuel, making its vehicles able to run on the brewer's own output as well as on diesel fuel.
The reason for the dual fuel option? "We cannot be sure to be able to find biomethane a couple of hundred miles away at the end of a delivery run. That is a very long way to push, and those lorries are very heavy," said Wood.
According to a study by National Grid, the United Kingdom's electrical system, biomethane could account for 15 percent of domestic gas consumption in the United Kingdom by 2020.
"In our view, the price of fossil fuels is only going one way -- up," said Wood. "At the same time, the cost of landfill is also going up -- and that is where most of this food waste currently goes and from where it releases methane to the atmosphere. Our move is killing several birds with one stone."
Methane, while being far less in quantity than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is said by climate scientists to be 20 times worse for climate change.
Green beer fattens bottom line
The plant is the latest in a series of moves by Adnams to cut its carbon footprint, reduce its waste, lower running costs and green its products as well as its image, at the same time as raising its profits, which doubled to £3.2 million ($5.05 million) last year.
In 2005, faced with the need for a larger distribution center in Southwold, which is a conservation area, the company decided to build on the gravel pit, and instead of choosing a standard steel-and-concrete box construction, the board of directors opted for a green, state-of-the-art building.
Opened in 2006, the eco-building has a 2-acre living roof -- which does require occasional weeding. Supported by massive wooden beams, the roof cuts heat loss as well as limits heat penetration during summer days. The building has lime and hemp walls that do likewise. There is also a form of airlock so that outside air never directly mixes with inside.
This means the temperature inside, where the casks of beer are held before distribution, stays at a constant 12 to 15 degrees Celsius, using 54 percent less gas and 67 percent electricity than a conventionally designed warehouse.
While the eco-building cost 15 percent more to build than a conventional one, the company says it has already more than paid back the premium through vastly lower operating costs.
In addition to this, the facility harvests rainwater -- important in what is already a water-stressed environment. Solar thermal and photovoltaic panels complete the eco-picture on the site.
A truly light beer begins with the bottles
A year later, Adnams moved again, reducing the weight of glass in its its 500-milliliter beer bottles to 299 grams from 455 grams -- something the rest of the beer industry is now picking up on. And in 2008, the company opened its high-tech, automated, energy-efficient upgraded brewery in the same town center premises where beer making has been traced back to a prosecution for illegal brewing in 1345.
This plant uses far less water than the industry average, at 3.2 pints per pint of beer against 5 per pint, as well as using the heated waste water to help heat the next batch of beer rather than pouring it down the drain.
It still does not do anything with the carbon dioxide that comes off the beer as it ferments, but ideas and techniques are constantly being tried and who know what may come next, the company says.
And it is not just an internal process. Also in 2008, Adnams produced East Green, a bottled brew it says is the first carbon-neutral beer and that caused a stir with the public, for giant supermarket chain Tesco.
"Our customers have reacted positively to what we are doing, as have our shareholders," said Wood. "We are reducing our waste and our reliance on outside power sources, as well as improving our sustainability. There is also a marketing benefit."
And while the U.K. beer market, which amounts to about 30 million barrels or 8.6 billion pints a year, has been in steady decline for several years, the so-called real or cask ale sector of the market where Adnams sits in a small niche, and which sells about 3 million barrels a year in total, has been rising.
So why have others in the industry, especially the giant brewers, been slow to make a move?
"A lot of the brewing industry is very conservative. They are followers rather than leaders," said Wood. "In fact, many are more like property companies with a brewery attached than brewers with pubs attached."
"We, too, have some pubs and a handful of hotels, but we will always be a brewer first and foremost," he added. "The question is how we take that out to our customers."