ASU professor finds craft brewers eager for guidance on sustainability

The craft brew industry has boomed over the past few years, and new research by an Arizona State University professor shows that while the brewers would like to use sustainable practices, many don’t think that consumers would be willing to pay a lot extra to support those efforts.

“Brewing is quite resource-intensive, and the number of craft brewers has hugely increased. We had 1,500 12 years ago and now it’s over 7,000,” said Carola Grebitus, an associate professor of food industry management in the Morrison School of Agribusiness at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus.

“Brewing is very water-intensive, and we were thinking about what that might mean,” said Grebitus, who also is a senior sustainability scholar in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation at ASU. Her paper, "Sustainable development in the craft brewing industry," was published recently in the journal Business Strategy and the Environment.

Her co-author in the study was Alicia Rosburg, associate professor of economics and Provost's Fellow for Sustainability at the University of Northern Iowa. That university offers the Iowa Green Brewery Certification, which provides technical assistance and guidance on environmental issues to small-scale brewers.

“So we are both in sustainability, and we wanted to know about this business that is still relatively young,” Grebitus said.

“The National Brewers Association has a lot of material on sustainability available to their members, so we wanted to know what they’re doing, and if they are doing something, in terms of recycling or energy use, are they tracking it?”

The two created a survey and then administered it to 29 craft breweries in Iowa, asking questions about sustainability practices and the brewers' perceptions of whether consumers would pay extra for those efforts. While the sample size of this study was small, Grebitus said that she and Rosburg are seeking a grant to expand the survey to many more craft brewers.

One of the biggest takeaways from the results is that even when the brewers are using sustainable practices, they’re not always tracking the results. While 80% track energy and water use, fewer than two-thirds kept track of recycling and wastewater, and about a third tracked trash headed to the landfill.

Among the results:

  • The respondents were environmentally conscious — more than 70% were either very or extremely concerned about environmental issues, and more than 75% usually or always purchase environmentally friendly products whenever they can.
  • But less than half of the breweries conduct an “annual assessment (internal or external) to evaluate operating procedures and identify opportunities for improving environmental practices.” A similar percentage had a “policy/mission statement that supports a commitment to environmental stewardship.”
  • Energy and wastewater were areas that breweries were least likely to have an environmental plan, with only around 10% of the respondents actively planning each of these areas.

Grebitus said that many of the brewers were arranging to have farmers pick up their “mash,” the grain byproduct left over from the beer-making process, which can feed livestock.

“But they’re not tracking that much, and we see room for improvement because if you don’t track something, you don’t know what’s happening,” she said.

The survey also found that 90% of the brewers believe that consumers will pay a small premium to support a brewer that achieved a certain sustainability level, about 1% to 5% more, but likely not more than that.

The researchers speculated that one reason that brewers aren’t prioritizing planning and tracking of sustainability measures is simple: They’re too busy.

Grebitus teaches the “Business of Beer” class at the Polytechnic campus, along with Tim Richards, who holds the Marvin and June Morrison Chair in agribusiness. The course teaches business principles focusing on different aspects of the beer industry, and brings in many guest speakers.

“Every single brewer that comes in is incredibly busy,” she said. “They wear so many hats.

“They might have to go in in the middle of the night because the brewing process is done and otherwise, the beer will go bad.”

The message is that startups should consider a sustainability plan from the beginning.

“If you start with certain things at the beginning — set up the mash transport, pay attention to water usage, check for energy leaks in your brewery — that can do a lot for you,” she said.

Grebitus believes that brewers are craving guidance on this issue.

“I have letters from 15 or 20 different brewers, and they would be so invested if we got the funding to bring this survey to a national scale,” she said.

“It’s an amazing industry with such hard-working, compassionate people, and it’s refreshing because it’s not just about the profit.

“They care about their product and are constantly trying to improve.”

Top image courtesy Pixabay.

Mary Beth Faller
marybeth.faller@asu.edu