Ever wondered how much energy it takes to make beer? According to a 2012 worldwide survey, it takes about 0.2 kilowatt-hours per bottle. That translates into enough energy to run a 40-inch TV for 3 hours and 20 minutes per six-pack. In addition to being bad for the environment, this energy usage represents real costs for breweries. Now, many companies in the field are taking significant steps to green their energy production and usage as well as their packaging.

Alaskan Brewing Co., located in Juneau, Alaska, was founded by Marcy and Geoff Larson. It's the 22nd largest American craft brewery, producing 161,000 barrels of beer each year. Their mission? "To have a zero-net negative effect upon our environment by reclaiming and reusing at least as much waste and emissions as we produce." Their innovative solution is to use the 6-8 million pounds of "spent grain sawdust" that the brewery produces each year to power a steam boiler that, in turn, fuels the brewery itself. The process that they are calling Beer Powered Beer ® is projected to save the company about $450,000 this year.

The Decision to Go Green

In most cases, spent grain from the brewing process is used as animal feed or compost. However, these options were not viable in the isolated location of Juneau, Alaska with its very short growing season and extreme weather conditions. "There isn't access to local composting programs or large farms or even cattle operations, for that matter," the Larsons explain. "The amount of spent grain byproduct that the brewery produces each year would also overwhelm the local landfill." Shipping spent grain to the lower 48 was costly -- and occasionally the grain would sour before it could reach its final destination. To prevent the souring, the brewery installed a grain dryer in 1995, which stabilizes grain long enough to keep it from souring during shipping to dairy farmers in Washington State. Still, the shipping costs were prohibitively expensive. As the company grew, the problem only became bigger; they needed to find new solution.

How the Technology Works

The company now uses a three-part system to reclaim and reuse their grain. First, the spent grain is processed through the mash filter press, which reduces the moisture content in the spent grain. Then, it is tumbled dry in the grain dryer. The grain comes out of the dryer looking like sawdust.

Next, the spent grain 'sawdust' is burned as fuel in their steam boiler to make steam. The spent grain boiler system allows the brewery to re-use 100% of its spent grain waste as a renewable energy source. This system dries the grain as well as providing energy to the brewhouse for making beer.

Finally, a CO2 reclamation system closes the loop on the process, because the CO2 produced through the brewing process is re-captured and used for bottling operations.

A video, showing the process, is available here: https://alaskanbeer.com/beerpoweredbeer/

The Environmental Savings

When asked about the savings this system provides, the Larsons were more than happy to share their numbers. "The C02 reclamation system alone saves more than 900,000 lbs. of C02 from being released into the atmosphere every year. The Mash Filter Press saved over 1 million gallons of water in its first year alone. The spent grain boiler saves approximately 83,000 gallons of No.2 diesel fuel per year and converts 1150 lbs of dried spent grain per hour, converting it into steam at 125 psig." (Note: PSIG is the measurement of pressure relative to ambient atmospheric pressure and is quantified in pounds per square inch gauge.)

First to Market

In addition to the large economic savings their new system provides, the company has picked up bragging rights from this inventive installation. "Alaskan Brewery is the first U.S. craft brewer to install a CO2 reclamation system, the first U.S. craft brewer to install a mash filter press, and the only brewery in the world that uses spent grain as its sole source of fuel." Certainly, their "Beer Powered Beer" is a brand with a message. However, the Larsons' real hope is that their success will inspire other breweries to go green too. "We haven't seen anything like it on this scale before. We are hoping our story will inspire and influence other breweries to sustainably handle its beer byproduct."