While many booze producers are increasingly espousing greener approaches to producing, positioning, and packaging their products, few brands rally harder for a sustainable future than New Belgium Brewery.
Earlier this year, the Fort Collins-based brewer explored what would a beer made with resources found in a climate-ravaged future taste like. (Terrible, if you’re wondering.) In 2020, the brewer’s flagship Fat Tire achieved carbon neutrality and in 2021, launched a tool that highlights meaningful and proactive climate plans for Fortune 500 companies. By 2030? New Belgium is gunning to achieve net-zero emissions across the entire company.
Today, the brand has unveiled one of its most ambitious, earth-forward initiatives yet—an open-sourced toolkit brewers can follow to achieve carbon neutrality.
It outlines in detail how brewers can measure their carbon footprint, reduce emissions, set achievable goals, buy carbon offsets, achieve carbon neutrality, and advocate for climate policy. It aims to take away the hurdles associated with going green, laying bare the resources, cost breakdown, tools, tips, processes and time requirements needed to achieve a more sustainable practice.
Ultimately, the goal is to make carbon neutrality less daunting. “Consider this guide as a library of options to pick off the shelf,” the guide assures brewers. “Pick at least one action to do today.”
The detailed resource represents hundreds of hours of work and significant financial investment from New Belgium. (Full toolkit can be viewed here.)
The toolkit also sounds the alarm for the foreboding future of the beer industry if we stay on our current climate trajectory. In recent years, New Belgium has seen barley fields decimated by droughts while warm temperatures have spurred pre-harvest sprouting, rendering the barley useless for malt production. The 2020 wildfires in the pacific northwest imparted smoke taint to hops supplies, while Florida hurricanes decimated citrus supplies—crucial for several of New Belgium’s beers. Even water has become a challenge to source consistently—erratic weather patterns affect snowmelt and stream flows, leaving water availability in flux. Wildfires have left slopes charred and soil eroded, affecting water quality, availability, and price.
Here, New Belgium brewmaster Christian Holbrook and the brewery’s director of social and environmental impact Katie Wallace dig into the toolkit, how it came to happen, and why it’s desperately needed.
How did this project come to fruition?
Katie Wallace: “We’re already seeing climate change affect beer ingredients. Barley and hop harvests are lower due to heat waves, droughts, and smoke taint from wildfire. Colorado’s largest wildfire ripped through our brewery’s watershed last year and now half our water supply is cut off, due to the sediment. The truth is, we’re worried about our ability to make beer into the future if climate change goes unchecked. But more than that, we’re deeply concerned for the wellbeing of our coworkers and our communities as climate disasters ante up.”
“True to our core business philosophy, we’re going to invest in protecting the prosperity of people and at this time, that means fighting climate change with everything we’ve got. That’s why we’ve been aggressively working to get to net-zero emissions by 2030, and we took a big step forward last year when we made our flagship beer, Fat Tire, the first certified carbon neutral beer in the U.S. By nature of being ‘the first,’ there was no model to follow and even our decades of sustainability experience wasn’t enough. So we had to dedicate hours and hours over many months to get it done and do it right. But it’s not enough that we did it for ourselves, we need other companies to step up with us to stem the worst impacts of climate change before it’s too late, so we are sharing everything we’ve learned in hopes that it gives other brewers a head start and helps all of us better fight climate change.”
Why make this toolkit accessible to everyone?
Christian Holbrook: “Climate change is inherently an open-sourced problem. It’s going to affect all of us. We want to make sure everyone in the brewing industry has what they need to make significant changes to their business and to our supply chains. Going carbon neutral is necessary, and if we can show other brewers it’s achievable, that they can do it too, and if we show them how to get there, we can make a bigger impact. So, ideally, we can avoid a future where a beer like Torched Earth is the new normal. We also have a moral duty to drive action on climate. Many corporations spent the last 50 years essentially lying to the public and positioning climate change as being a result of consumer choices. When in fact, negligence on climate change has been driven by corporations and lobbyists with special interests. We want to turn the tide on that, we all need to take responsibility for our own impact. And at this point, companies need to work together to move fast enough to save lives and save good beer.”
Do you ever hope to expand to further toolkits, say, to include things like land stewardship, employee health, etc.?
Wallace: “New Belgium is a Certified B Corp. We were founded by a social worker, so people are at the heart of our business. We do a lot to invest in their wellbeing, like paying a living wage, profit-sharing, open-book management, full healthcare benefits, and a lot more. These practices, just like our climate action, are essential to our long-term success. All businesses would be better off adopting this human-powered business model, and we always encourage that, so additional toolkits will come in the future.”
Earlier this year, New Belgium released Torched Earth; a frankly terrible beer made entirely with ingredients available in a climate-ravaged system. What reactions did you receive to the beer?
Wallace: Torched Earth really hit a nerve. We got a lot of ‘thank yous’ from other breweries and our beer drinkers. Climate change is a real, urgent threat and Torched Earth helped to make that feel real. We saw some pretty terrible cringe faces. Some of our friends even spit the beer out—the lingering aftertaste was the worst. More importantly, it drove people to use our advocacy tool and ask other companies to commit to climate action.”
Holbrook: “A lot of people asked me, ‘Why would you intentionally make a beer you don’t want to drink?’ But ultimately, they appreciated the bigger picture we were highlighting and identified how our industry will change if we don’t make serious efforts to curb climate change.”
Why are initiatives like these crucial?
Wallace: “Climate change is a threat for beer and for all of us, here and now, and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t take action. Initiatives like our toolkit are essential to building collective action to stem the tide. More broadly, something like 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies lack a meaningful climate action plan and that’s unacceptable. Our message to business leaders: if you don’t have a climate plan, you don’t have a business plan.”
Halbrook: “Exactly. And the craft beer industry has always been on the cutting edge, whether it’s flavor or sustainability. By sharing our toolkit, we can help our fellow breweries take more action, more quickly.”