Drink local (and choose your container carefully)

Here’s the third installment in my Michigan Beer Guide series focusing on great beer and living sustainably. This piece is reprinted with the permission of the Michigan Beer Guide. Cheers!

By now, we’ve all heard the call to “eat local.” But what about making the choice to “drink local?” As with the choices we make about the foods eat, the decisions we reach concerning which beer to drink can have an immense effect on the health of our planet.

The “eat local” call to action is based on the ideas that locally-sourced food is fresher, and it promotes better air quality by eliminating the need for long-distance air or ground transportation. Although it’s a hotly debated topic, eating local may even be better for air quality and reducing pollution than eating organic. Also, choosing local foods strengthens local economies by keeping money in the community.

We reap similar benefits when we make the choice to drink local. But, this may be easier said than done. Most beers, whether microbrewed or mass-produced, are not made with ingredients grown on the brewery’s doorstep. Grains are usually transported in, and although local hops are catching on, the majority must still be sourced from the Pacific Northwest or European countries such as Germany or England. There are exceptions in the world of brewing; for example, many German beers are made with relatively local ingredients. That’s great for Germans, but this local advantage is lost when German beers are shipped over the ocean.

Clearly, there are several aspects to consider in the quest to drink local. Ingredients are one of these, and transportation is another. With trucks and vehicles spewing greenhouse gasses as they bring us food and drink, transportation is a major environmental concern, and the container holding your beer is one part of this puzzle.

Glass, the material preferred by many fine breweries to hold their wares, is heavy. The heavier the cargo load, the more fuel is required for transport, resulting in more greenhouse gas emissions. A May 2009 article on Treehugger.com, “Eat Local, Drink Local Beer,” shares the following numbers: A 0.5 liter of German Hefeweizen from Munich in a glass bottle weighs roughly 0.75 kg. Trucking this beer from Munich to Hamburg, then shipping it to New York, results in 82 grams of greenhouse gas emissions per bottle. Transporting the beer to the center of the country could add up to 28 grams of gas emissions per bottle.

While an empty glass bottle tips the scale at about 6 ounces, an empty beer can weighs less than an ounce, which amounts to a great weight difference when considering a whole shipment of beer. From this perspective, if you choose to purchase a beer that was created any significant distance from where you eventually consume it, aluminum is the preferable container.

To evaluate the greater environmental picture, step back from the local issue and the weight question to judge the materials themselves.

As a raw material, glass wins out over aluminum. Glass is made from silica, which is relatively accessible, while the bauxite required to make aluminum is mined at high environmental costs.

But that’s not the end of the story, or at least it shouldn’t be. Recycling is a crucial part of “drinking green,” so please recycle, regardless of whether or not a 10-cent deposit was involved. In the aluminum versus glass debate, the former gains a clear advantage in the recycling arena.

Overall, Americans recycled over 54 percent of their aluminum cans in 2008, according to the Aluminum Association. In states like Michigan, where a deposit is required on bottles and cans, up to 97 percent of empties are returned.

As a result, most beer cans contain 40 percent recycled aluminum, which is great news considering the fact that a can made from recycled aluminum requires 95 percent less energy to manufacture than one made from virgin materials.

American beer bottles, on the other hand, typically contain only 20 to 30 percent recycled glass, and the energy savings for creating a bottle from recycled glass as compared to a bottle from virgin materials are only about 26 percent. But recycling glass still has enormous merit. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, over a ton of natural resources are conserved for every ton of glass that’s recycled, and for every six tons of recycled container glass used, a ton of carbon dioxide is reduced.

Taking weight and material production into account, aluminum is the better container choice for non-local beers. The problem is, only a small percentage of craft beers are available in cans. In Michigan, Keweenaw Brewing Company currently bucks the bottle trend. But to enjoy most craft brews, glass is the sole option lining the shelves. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Americans got our act together and rediscovered reusable glass bottle programs? For now, that may be wishful thinking. The best choice for minimal environmental consequence, then, is to just drink beer locally.

Drinking beer at the location it’s actually made is ideal. This eliminates the transportation dilemma, and of course ensures you the freshest beer possible.

But if you’re thirsting for craft brews from across the state or halfway around the world, you can enjoy these with less environmental impact by making a few easy choices.

First, frequent a pub that’s nearby. You can completely negate any environmental benefits of drinking local if you drive a significant distance to enjoy a particular brew. A bar within walking or biking distance is best, but even if you have the drive, the closer, the better.

Second, sample those coveted beers on draught. Although kegs are indeed heavy, a 15.5-gallon keg actually averages out to about 3 ounces of packaging per 12-ounce serving, about half the weight of one glass bottle. And, filling reusable glasses from a keg precludes the use of dozens of bottles or cans. Kegs are also reusable and refillable, lasting up to 20 years. When it’s time to return home, simply fill up a reusable growler.

One useful, though potentially difficult, way to determine your beverage’s eco-friendly status (or lack thereof) is to consider its life cycle, or all the environmental impacts produced by or required for its existence. A March 2008 article in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment focused the life cycle of an Italian lager. According to this assessment, drinking beer on draught instead of from a bottle lowers the environmental impact by 68 percent.

Of course, for the ultimate in local brew, brew your own. Purchase ingredients locally if possible, keg your beer or reuse your glass bottles, and enjoy great beer without ever leaving home.

Homebrew is likely the best “drink local” option, with draught beer brewed onsite at a local brewery coming in a close second. Locally-brewed draught beer at a nearby pub ranks next, followed by any draught choice enjoyed at a neighborhood establishment. Beer from afar in aluminum cans places after that, and sadly, non-local beer in glass bottles finishes off the list as the least environmentally friendly choice.

You may not be ready to swear off all Belgian beers, but you can make a commitment to make a difference in the New Year by making more choices to drink local. You’ll support your local economy, support creative local brewmasters, and enjoy a uniquely local experience.