A New Look at Brewing and Ecology


St. Francis Meets St. Louis

by Alan Moen (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 5, No.2)

A progressive business venture seeks to make “waste-free” brewing a reality.

A painting hanging in the The Frick Collection in New York City stopped me in my tracks the first time I saw it. It's an oil-on-panel painted in 1485 by the Italian Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini, titled “St. Francis in Ecstasy.” It is a remarkable work for many reasons. One of the first real landscape paintings in the canon of Western art, the painting depicts the Christian saint in a moment of rapture as he emerges from his rocky hermitage among the hills. Warm countryside details surround him: domestic and wild animals, carefully rendered trees and shrubs, fertile fields, a castle on a distant promontory.

The artist’s handling of the effect of light and the illusion of form and space is masterly, but to me it is the mood captured in the work that is so extraordinary. St. Francis is the major figure, but he seems almost incidental in the scene; even the stigmata (miraculous marks identical to those suffered by Christ on the cross) on his hands are barely visible. He is clearly experiencing the joy and wonder of the physical universe around him.

This earthy rapture represented a radical breakthrough in European thought at the time — it was the first expression of the idea that the world was not simply a sinful substitute for paradise or a bleak background for human salvation. Man himself is shown as part of a vast and beneficent creation, as one of God’s many creatures. Bellini’s saint discovers that the Earth he stands on is truly holy ground.

What does this have to do with beer? (After all, St. Francis was no Trappist monk.) Few of us may know much about St. Francis, but his view of the universe profoundly affects brewing today. The 15th century appreciation for the intrinsic value of Nature was largely cast aside during the ensuing shift from an agrarian to a modern industrial society. It resurfaced briefly in America in the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other Transcendentalists, and later during the wilderness movement led by John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and others. (It was Muir who wrote of the physical world that “When we try to pick out one thing by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”) This nascent environmental awareness was later suppressed by the greed, wholesale exploitation of natural resources, and warfare of the twentieth century. It was not until the 1970s that the environmental movement began once more to have a widespread effect on America and other industrialized nations. Now, thankfully, our concern for the environmental impact of human activities has reached a new level. Recycling, resource management, and land conservation affect every business today — not just in the United States, but around the world.

Brewing beer is one of those businesses. Because they’re based in agricultural products such as malted grain and hops, breweries would seem to be minor polluters compared with paper mills or copper smelters — and they are. But according to Gunter Pauli in his book Breakthroughs: What Business Can Offer Society (Epsilon Press, Hanslemere, Surrey, UK, 1996), 92% of the ingredients used in brewing become waste products. Most of this, of course, is in the form of spent grain, which has been stripped of most of its nutritional content and is about 70% fiber. It is typically sold to farmers for cattle feed (many home brewers such as myself compost it). Most farms and cattle ranches in the United States can use all the spent grain they can get, but in smaller countries, such as Japan, the larger breweries are putting it into landfills instead — their cheapest alternative, but environmentally misguided. Though spent grain contributes healthy biomass to landfills, it can be more efficiently used as compost for farming, particularly mushrooms.

In addition, large breweries consume massive amounts of water. It takes up to 10 gallons of drinking water to produce 1 gallon of beer. A good argument can be made that this water consumption is wasteful consumption, especially in drought-prone areas such as Africa.

Breweries also consume a considerable amount of energy and produce prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a natural by-product of fermentation, but it can be dangerous to animal life forms even in relatively small quantities. Carbon dioxide normally accounts for only about 0.003% of the air we breathe; a concentration as low as 3% can be deadly. (The winery where I once worked produced about 55 tons of carbon dioxide annually along with its 100,000 cases of wine. Like workers in many of the larger breweries, we had to consult oxygen meters for safety before entering the tanks for cleaning.)

Pauli’s organization, Zero Emissions Research Institute (ZERI), a for-profit organization with close ties to the United Nations University, is undertaking a new approach to the brewing of beer. Their goal is to rechannel all of a brewery’s “output factors,” such as waste products, into input factors for other industries. ZERI calls this approach “integrated biosystems.” The organization and the Chinese Academy of Sciences are working with pilot breweries in Tanzania that will theoretically accomplish the group’s goals. (Other such breweries in Namibia, Fiji, Columbia, and China were begun in 1995 and are due to be reviewed this spring.) The brewery’s by-products will also sustain mushroom farms (Pauli claims that spent grain provides an ideal sterile medium for mushrooms), chicken farms, and fish farms, as well as operations dealing with bio-gas generation, algae production, and aquaponics. Pauli maintains that this process will create a sevenfold increase in nutrient product and four times as many jobs when new supporting businesses are developed. Even the animal waste from the chickens (or possibly cattle) would be fed into a “digester” to produce methane gas to run the brewery.

The ZERI plan also calls for reusing the CO2 produced by the brewery to grow vegetables in the greenhouse or to cultivate the fresh water alga spirulina, which can contain more than 60% vegetable protein and be used as a human food supplement, especially in developing countries. Waste water (assuming no toxic cleaning chemicals are used) can be used directly for fish farming and aquaponics (plant production). More complete information on the ZERI brewery system proposal can be found on the internet at https://www.zeri.org.

Is Pauli’s plan just another eco-Utopian dream? Some might think so. Yet this bold experiment, like St. Francis’s expanded vision of man’s place in nature, may provide an important model for “greener” brewing in the future. Through recycling, energy conservation, and improved packaging, the brewing industry has come a long way in recent years toward minimizing our abuses of the Earth. Maybe it is now time to envision — with the radical insight of Bellini’s saint — brewing’s place in a new global picture, one in which no element is wasted.

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