A brewery for Jackson (again)

Since moving south of Jackson, Michigan about two years ago, I’ve direly missed easy access to the craft beer scene. OK, so I was completely spoiled in Grand Rapids. Although I despaired when I first moved to West Michigan in 1995, I’m amazed to reflect on how cool, hip and desirable this region now is, due in large part (for me) to the booming brewing scene there. There’s my “brewery home,” the Hideout, where I also worked; Founders, with great beer, food, music, parties and atmosphere; and Grand Rapids Brewing Company, where I’m a “lifetime” mug member. HopCat (where I also worked) draws beer aficionados from all over, and the BOB also has a brewery. New Holland recently opened Brewery Vivant near Eastown, where I used to live, and Schmohz holds down the eastern fringe. More breweries are less than a 45 minute drive away from the city center, and Grand Rapids itself holds other establishments that don’t brew but that are outstanding places to enjoy craft beers from Michigan and across the world.

And then, there’s Jackson. Jackson’s got … bars. Sure, Ann Arbor (and her beer scene) is just down I-94, but it’s a full hour from my house. Not very feasible for a pint after work or a nightcap after dinner. Some joints here serve a seasonal Bell’s, if I’m lucky (and more often than not, servers will tell me they’ve got “Bell’s” on tap; when asked what kind, they give me a quizzical look, as if I’d asked them which kind of Bud Lite they carry). I’m just stating the facts here, and I understand why all this is. The social atmosphere in Jackson just doesn’t nurture or attract lovers of craft beer. This is the land of NASCAR and Budweiser — not that I’m knocking these things, and not to say these are mutually exclusive with microbrews, but there are definite, demonstrable demographic trends behind these generalizations.

However, microbrew lovers do exist here, just not in critical mass. Proving this point is the fact that a brewery’s been tried before: There is a brewery building that’s languished just east of downtown Jackson, the gleaming brewing equipment it contains earning an almost fabled spot within the brewing culture of Michigan. This is the site of at least two former breweries, but the darkened edifice has taunted local lovers of local beer for seven years now.

Wilcox's homebrew club: they brew to escape

Enter Phil Wilcox, a founding member of Jackson’s homebrew club, Prison City Brewers. Thanks to him, we have some good news: this building will soon open its doors once again. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Jackson’s Citizen Patriot ran an article on this budding business; the comments posted by local readers reveal the overall current in Jackson, which is not overwhelmingly positive. This proves my former point, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Breweries are big business these days, and many Michiganders are willing to travel a bit for good craft beer. So, although the new brewery may be called “The Local Pub & Brewery,” if this venture succeeds, my guess is that it won’t be thanks to local patrons. It will be the craft beer lovers from Dexter, Chelsea, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Kalamazoo, or from even farther away, who will keep this dream alive. Or maybe I’m wrong; prove me wrong, Jacksonians! Hey, I’m local, and I’ll be there.

*UPDATE: Brewery is currently set to open in June!*

Love your planet. Drink beer.

In honor of Earth Day, the following is a sort of condensed version of the various topics I’ve been fleshing out recently in different articles. Cheers!

It’s that time of year again, when the impending arrival of Earth Day focuses media attention on the environment and how to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Thankfully, in recent years, social consciousness of environmental issues and living “green” has grown tremendously, and as our impact on this fragile planet becomes more apparent each day, people are regularly making choices that support a healthy planet.

These choices are closely tied not only to what we eat, but also to what we drink. And with all the options available today, it’s easier than ever to honor the Earth while enjoying a delicious beer.

From the boiling of the wort to the disposal of wastewater, the brewing process itself requires a lot of energy. Many responsible breweries have taken bold steps toward reducing their impact on the environment; the wind-powered New Belgium Brewing Company in Colorado is a great example. Also running on wind-generated electricity, New York’s Brooklyn Brewery prevents hundreds of thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide from entering earth’s atmosphere each year. Great Lakes Brewing Company in Ohio incorporates “zero waste initiatives” into their daily operations, striving to make full use of the by-products of the brewing process. Right here in Michigan, the Michigan Brewing Company powers their steam generator with biodiesel fuel created from used vegetable oil. They brewed their first batch of “bio-beer” late in 2007, and plan to install electrical generators that run on biodiesel to gain even greater self-sufficiency

These are only a few examples of breweries that make environmentalism part of their business plan. A little research into a brewery’s philosophies and practices can help you select beer produced in a manner that respects that earth. In addition to the breweries themselves, there’s also the issue of the ingredients. Today, beer brewed with organic ingredients is quite easy to find. From craft brewers to giants like Anheuser-Busch, organic beers offer eco-conscious drinkers a chance to feel good in more ways than one.

Yet the question of the container that so loving holds your bubbly beverage must also be addressed. Silica, the substance used to create glass, requires less environmental upheaval to produce than bauxite, the raw material needed to create aluminum. So drinking beer from glass bottles is a great choice if the beer is produced locally. However, if that beer was shipped over vast distances, lightweight aluminum is probably a better choice than glass, which requires more fuel for transportation. To end this headache, bike, walk or take the bus to your favorite bar and enjoy a draught beer! They’re held in kegs that may last up to two decades. When you’ve finished your last pint, fill up a growler, then go home and bask in your virtuous drinking habits.

Perhaps the most important eco-friendly beer-related choice you can make may surprise you: drink local. Since many food items travel up to 1,500 miles before reaching our fridges or pantries, choosing locally produced food and beverages saves massive amounts of fuel. The concept of food miles refers to the distance any given food item travels via truck, ship, train or plane from the field to your plate. In general, the greater the distance traveled, the more severe the toll on the environment. In addition to promoting better air quality and reducing pollution, drinking local beer has the added benefits of supporting our local economy and guaranteeing freshness.

With all the options there are to weigh, just remember that making a positive step in any direction is better than none at all. And once you’re happily enjoying the fruits of your informed decision, perhaps you’d like to toy with the notion of making your own brew. Homebrewed beer may just be the “greenest” beer you can drink, especially if you incorporate locally purchased, perhaps locally grown, organic ingredients.

Every lifestyle choice you make has the potential to either harm or benefit the environment, especially choices that you make repeatedly — week in and week out, or day in and day out, as the case may be. You can make a difference while you enjoy a delicious brew. Doesn’t sound like such a bad combination, does it?

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Revue magazine in honor of Earth Day, written by me, Brenda Cooke.

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.