Carbonation is part of the delicate process of brewing a balanced beer, but startup companies riding the popular explosion of craft brewing are working on a carbon problem that is taking some of the fizz out of their profits.
Kegs are among the more sustainable packaging devices on the planet because they can be used over and over again by breweries. But many breweries incur a larger carbon footprint by shipping empty kegs back to the brewery from different parts of the country and even the world.
"The kegs kind of become a hot potato. You want to move your keg as quickly as possible so you can get your deposit back," said Dan Vorlage, the vice president of marketing and business development with MicroStar Keg Management LLC. "It's a complicated, headache-prone business."
But some new companies are employing strategies like one-use, recyclable containers and keg-sharing logistics systems to solve these problems and reduce costs for breweries.
Tony Formby, the CEO of 2x4 Brewing & Imports LLC, knows exactly what it's like to deal with these kinds of problems. His company, which was founded this year, specializes in part in delivering Canadian craft brews from the Vancouver, British Columbia, area to U.S. locations from California to Washington, D.C.
While they do a lot of their business in supplying stores with bottles and cans of western Canadian craft brew, kegs serve as a powerful marketing device as they allow people to try the beer at their local pub.
"If you don't have a draft program, you really have to spend a lot of time and money getting your draft established," he said.
His company ships beer from Canadian breweries like Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Co. and Parallel 49 Brewing to 17 U.S. states. But brewers pay a big price for steel kegs -- enough that they usually will often pay to ship them back to the brewery so they can be used again.
Formby said it costs around $15 to ship one keg back from California to British Columbia. But trucks won't move to ship a small number of kegs, so they often sit around empty waiting for larger deliveries to accumulate.
"They basically sit in places for months," Formby said. "You've got to have a huge supply of kegs."
What do you do with the empties?
"A lot of brewers have focused on the CO2 release of their brewing operations, which is kind of the low-hanging fruit," Vorlage said. But he hopes that brewers begin to look at their carbon footprint holistically -- including the entire delivery system.
MicroStar is a company that essentially rents kegs out to a number of breweries based on a pay-per-one-use system.
It cuts down on the transportation costs and related carbon footprint in complex logistics system by routing the empty kegs to the nearest brewery for reuse.
"We're effectively taking empty kegs off the road," Vorlage said.
For example, San Diego-based Stone Brewing could rent a keg from MicroStar, fill it with its famous Arrogant Bastard Ale and ship it to a pub in Colorado.
"If they owned those kegs, they would have to kind of herd those kegs back to San Diego," Vorlage said.
But with MicroStar's system, once the Arrogant Bastard is drunk, MicroStar may then rent the empty keg to Denver-based Great Divide Brewing Co., who will fill it with its Yeti Imperial Stout and ship it elsewhere in the country.
"We're like match.com, really. We're matching up distributors who have our kegs and breweries that want them," he said. "It represents really what's great about craft beer -- collaboration."
MicroStar uses a pool of 2 million kegs to supply companies like Stone, Great Divide, Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewery and Brooklyn Brewery.
"There's value created because there's money saved, but there's emissions that are saved because those empty kegs travel shorter distances," Vorlage said.
And now for a really light beer
He said the amount of beer that MicroStar moves around the country also gives it leverage to lobby freight companies that do the actual shipping to improve their sustainability through the use of items like trailer skirts and speedometers that let drivers know the optimal speed for fuel efficiency.
This is important, he said, because some of the breweries want to reduce their carbon footprint while shipping.
"You're dealing with people that bring their values so directly into the way they run their business," Vorlage said.
But while keg sharing is a great option between populated areas that all have their own breweries, it may not be the easy solution for longer-distance shipping, or overseas exports.
"For people who own their own keg fleet, filling line, ship shorter distances, cycle kegs multiple times per year and never lose them, then steel kegs will always be the best solution," said Andy Carter, the sales director of the petainerKeg.
But his company looks to fill a hole in the market "where it is difficult, expensive or impossible to get steel kegs returned from."
The petainerKeg is a recyclable plastic keg designed for one-way shipping. The plastic keg is surrounded by an outer layer that stops oxygen from getting absorbed through the plastic and into the beer and has a valve that operates well with conventional pub taps.
"These kegs for us are really critical for the program because they allow us to get into all these markets in the United States," Formby said of the petainerKegs. "We have shipped beer, unrefrigerated, across the country, no problem."
Carter also said that the petainerKeg has other elements that add to its sustainability. He said that the plastic kegs are much lighter, allowing some brewer clients to ship 20 to 30 percent more product in trucks.
"There's been this sort of attempt over the last five years to perfect this one-way keg concept for beer," Formby said. "It appears now that they've got this thing nailed down."
Carter said that other advantages of the petainerKegs include the lack of water and chemicals needed for cleaning steel kegs.
Also, "customers don't have to invest in large keg fleets, 20 percent of which are only used at seasonal peaks," he added. "They don't have to invest in keg cleaning and sterilizing machinery, and people required to run that. They don't have to find huge warehouses for empty kegs.
"A good analogy is to compare kegs to diapers. That isn't something people often do, but it is a similar equation. What is more sustainable -- disposable or reusable diapers? Similar arguments, but no one uses reusable diapers anymore," Carter said.
John Heckman, a principal consultant with PE International -- a company that focuses on sustainability -- calculated that it would cost Formby roughly 4 metric tons of CO2 to drive a truck the nearly 3,000 miles from Vancouver to D.C.
The numbers he used are based on conservative estimates on the amount of diesel it would take to drive a full truck as well as emissions factors released by U.S. EPA.
As a result, he said that if the keg stayed in Washington, as would be the case with a petainerKeg, you wouldn't be burdened with the extra 4 metric tons of CO2 for the return trip.
The petainerKeg would only cost the amount of carbon it took to manufacture it, as well as the associated landfill impacts, though Carter said that the kegs are easy to crush down and dispose of through the recycling programs available in most developed countries.
But then if the MicroStar system were used, the 4 metric tons of CO2 per truckload would also be significantly reduced because the kegs wouldn't likely be traveling all the way back to Vancouver, but only to the nearest brewery for refilling.
"This would be something substantially less than 2,883 miles (and 4 tons CO2), but like the petainerKeg, it isn't totally carbon free," Heckman said.
Heckman said that it was great to see the craft brewing industry mature to the point of developing "innovative supply chain solutions that drive both an economic and an environmental benefit."
"Examples like these show how far sustainability has come in becoming an integral part of our economy."
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