As the craft brewing industry matures, many West Michigan producers have started seeking out technology that provides sustainable solutions to common issues.
Brewers’ lean manufacturing experience has positioned them to be more willing to invest in energy- and resource-saving technologies, for everything from energy capture and waste reduction to solar energy and biodigesters, according to industry sources.
The independent family-owned businesses also often take the long view on the investments, worrying less about immediate ROI in favor of finding workable solutions to persistent problems.
That’s led to opportunities for scientists and entrepreneurs working to develop those cutting-edge sustainable technologies.
One of them is Jakob Nalley, a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, who is developing a process to use wastewater produced by breweries to grow algae, a microorganism that can then be used to produce biofuel more efficiently than corn or other plant-based sources.
Since brewery wastewater is full of yeast, spent grain and other organic matter and nutrients, it provides an ideal environment for algae to grow, according to Nalley.
“If we can grow algae from a wastewater source, we can offer a benefit to industry by taking that nutrient out of the wastewater basically for free,” he said. “Then ultimately you have a value product at the end of this whole system.”
For his research, Nalley partnered with Galesburg-based Bell’s Brewery Inc. to collect and run experiments on the company’s wastewater.
When it comes to growing algae from brewery wastewater, Nalley said that his research could have myriad benefits for craft brewers.
On one hand, water usage has become an increasing concern for breweries, who strive to reduce water consumption from 30 gallons to 10 gallons for every gallon of beer, Nalley said. Since algae feeds on the nitrogen, phosphorus and other matter in the wastewater, brewers could treat their own water and recycle it back into their operations, saving them money.
At the same time, brewers could also use refined biofuel generated from the algae to power their generators, Nalley said.
“If (breweries) could make that biodiesel on site and make it for all of their energy needs, that could be pretty impressive,” said Nalley, noting that algae produces 350 times more liters of biofuel per hectare than corn.
A CULTURE OF SUSTAINABILITY
Nalley’s research, which is advised by Dr. Elena Litchman of MSU, underscores a trend that sees craft brewers investing in sustainable technology ranging from energy capture to waste reduction.
Sources say that breweries’ attraction to sustainable technology starts as a set of shared cultural values among brewers.
“Ideologically, people in craft beer have a mindset of efficient use of resources and an affable relationship with the outdoors,” said Walker Modic, sustainability manager at Bell’s. “You find people (at breweries) that love the outdoors and hate inefficiencies — it’s also just smart business.”
On the other hand, Stan Samuel, an entrepreneur and founder of Grand Rapids-based CASEQ Technologies LLC, sees breweries’ interest in sustainability as a result of them needing to keep their operations lean in the early years as a means of survival. CASEQ is currently developing technology to capture carbon dioxide created during the brewing process for breweries to use later.
Craft breweries that started in the 1990s when craft beer was in its infancy “had to figure out how to minimize raw materials and maximize output,” Samuel said. “They started looking for these ways to do that early on and it just stuck with their organization.”
Bell’s has already invested substantial capital in sustainable technology such as a biodigester project, which cuts the total cost of water usage at the brewery, Modic said. The biodigester, which it uses to convert leftover organic matter from the brewing process into burnable methane, has been operational since December 2014. On average, the biodigester processes 100,000 gallons of wastewater daily.
The company also uses a geothermal heating system to help save on heating and cooling costs at its offices and brewing facility in Comstock, Modic said.
While Modic can’t say if Bell’s will adopt Nalley’s algae-to-biofuel technology since the research is still in its infancy, he maintains that the craft brewery remains open to new sustainable solutions.
“The idea is totally simpatico with how we try to support the byproducts of our process,” Modic said. “We’re committed to mitigating waste wholesale.”
Bell’s willingness to invest in sustainable technology stems from how the family-owned organization views its business over a period of generations, he added.
“If you have a long time horizon, it gives you the ability to look at something like that biodigester, which has a super long payback by most industry standards — in excess of nine years, and say that still makes sense,” Modic said.
Oftentimes, craft brewers are not looking for the latest technological breakthroughs, but rather for existing technologies scaled to fit their operations and budgets.
For example, while large domestic producers have installed technology allowing them to capture carbon dioxide produced during the brewing process and reuse it in their operations, smaller craft breweries to date have not been able to afford the systems.
Most small-scale craft brewers typically vent their carbon dioxide rather than reuse it. But they could be reusing that carbon dioxide to carbonate their beers and to purge their conditioning tanks, versus buying it, according to Samuel of CASEQ.
“There is not an economically viable way for brewers to capture carbon in-house,” Samuel said. “It’s not financially sustainable, and that’s where we come in.”
CASEQ is developing carbon-capture technology that would decrease the physical footprint of carbon-capture technology while lowering the price point. When finished, the technology will capture the gasses released from the fermenting tanks, separate the carbon dioxide from the other substances and store it, Samuel said.
To perfect the technology, CASEQ partnered with Grand Rapids-based Brewery Vivant and Founders Brewing Co.
The relatively small size of CASEQ’s carbon- capture concept originally attracted Brewery Vivant to the technology and led to the partnership, said co-founder Jason Spaulding.
Brewery Vivant looked to install similar technology at its brewhouse, but the company ran into space constraints because of its cramped urban location, Spaulding said.
“Space is a challenge for breweries our size in municipalities,” Spaulding said. “You can’t always put huge tanks in just to manage wastewater like some of the larger breweries are doing. I’d love to have a biodigester, but where are we going to put that in a city setting?”
Brewery Vivant supports entrepreneurs who are developing compact technologies such as skid-mounted biodigesters and CASEQ’s carbon-capture equipment.
“It’s exciting technology,” Spaulding said. “I love the fact that there are smart people identifying problems in our industry and looking for innovative ways to do things. They’re asking questions that haven’t been asked before.”
While the price point of CASEQ’s technology will vary from brewery to brewery, Samuel said it will be cheaper than existing methods of carbon capture. CASEQ plans to have the technology installed in Brewery Vivant’s facility by the fourth quarter of 2016, Samuel said, adding that there remains plenty of opportunity to innovate in the rapidly growing sector.
“I think we will continue to see these innovations in the craft brewing industry,” Samuel said. “It’s fertile soil for people looking to innovate in that space.”