Beer is a popular beverage worldwide: in 2006, beer engendered a total worldwide revenue of $294.5 billion. Beer is produced via multiple brewing methods and traditions using water, hops, yeasts, and malted agricultural grains, such as barley, wheat, corn, and rice. In total, $850 million worth of crops used in beer brewing are purchased from farmers in the United States alone. Given that the majority of these are conventionally farmed crops, many beers contain residues from chemical pesticides and fertilizers that not only harm human and animal health, but also pollute ecosystems and waterways.
Given the popularity of beer—especially imported varieties—issues of fuel-intensive transportation and wasteful packaging also arise. Most food products, including beer, travel an average of 1,500 miles before reaching our kitchen tables. They are carried, in large part, in diesel trucks. Diesel exhaust contains over 450 chemicals, 40 of them believed to be toxic to humans and detrimental to the environment. Carbon monoxide from vehicle emissions accounts for 56 percent of total carbon emissions nationwide and, along with nitrogen oxide, contributes to air pollution.
When not served on tap, beer is predominately packaged in and consumed from glass bottles and aluminum cans. According to reports published by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2005, 10.9 million tons of glass containers (from beer, juice, soda, and other bottled products) were disposed of in the United States; 2.8 million tons were recovered for recycling. It is estimated that an individual glass bottle, when recycled, saves an equivalent amount of energy as that needed to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours. Aluminum beer and soft drink cans accounted for 1.4 million tons of waste in 2005; 0.7 million tons were recovered for recycling. The energy saved by recycling a beer can, rather than creating one from virgin ore, is enough to operate a computer for three hours.
Like other food products, beer must meet the criteria set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be officially certified as organic: 95 percent of the ingredients must be grown in soil that has been free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years and it cannot contain genetically modified organisms. If between 95 and 70 percent of the ingredients used in processing are organic, the product receives a "Made with Organic Ingredients" certification.
As reported by the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic beer in North America jumped from 9 million in 2003 to 19 million in 2006. In March and April of 2006, America's largest brewer, Anheuser Busch, caught on to the trend and introduced two organic beers, Wild Hop lager and Stone Mill pale ale, in several test markets.
Regionally brewed beer—sometimes made from organic ingredients—supports local economic interests and agriculture. And when imbibed locally, it also eliminates the need for long-distance truck transportation. In addition, some regional breweries sell "growlers," which are half-gallon or smaller bottles that allow customers to revisit the brewery for refills, thus eliminating the need for packaging.
Eco-trends and technology
In 2006, researchers at the Kobe Pharmaceutical University in Japan found beer bran, a byproduct of barley-brewed beer, to be effective in filtering out environmental hazards such as benzene and trichloroethylene in polluted wastewater. Beer bran is a more cost-effective absorbent than commonly used filters such as energy-consuming activated carbon, which requires heating coal to 90O°C.
In March of 2007, scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia announced they will pair a fuel cell and wastewater from a Foster's Group brewery near Brisbane. The technology entails placing the 660-gallon fuel cell in the brewery wastewater. The fuel cell's bacteria takes in sugars, starches, alcohol, and other organic brewing waste and generate a small amount of electric energy—about 2 kilowatts—as well as clean water. Foster's, a large Australian beverage producer, plans on placing fuel cells in other breweries and wineries across the country.
The move toward organic farming has received a fair amount of criticism. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, believes organic farming techniques to be detrimental to the environment. In a December 2006 issue of The Economist he cites that the low yields of organic farming calls for the destruction of more land while the use of the synthetic fertilizers allows farmers to harvest vast amounts of, for example, barley, in a small area of cultivated land. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on high-input crops that have increased world food supply, but has been criticized because of the resultant increase in reliance on monoculture cropping and inorganic fertilizer use.
Related health issues
Beer, when not consumed in moderation, poses several health risks including alcoholism, cirrhosis of the liver, and various cancers. However, sensible drinking—the American Cancer Society defines this as no more than one drink per day for women and two per day for men—of beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages can be beneficial, as it has been found to decrease the fatal effects of heart disease, lowering the likelihood of death by 30 to 40 percent in comparison to nondrinkers.
The consumption of conventional beer also puts consumers at risk of digesting pesticide residues. In 2003, 17 percent of barley and 32 percent of wheat products tested positive for such chemicals. Organic beer tested positive for less than 5 percent. Additionally, organic and craft-brewed beers offer higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants—the darker the beer, the higher the levels. Mass-produced beers opt for cheaper malts such as rice and corn, (versus barley) the result being a lighter-tasting, paler, less nutrient-rich brew. Craft and organic beers also contain a higher alcohol content: generally from 4 to 8 percent by weight compared to the 3.2 to 5.5 percent of mass-produced, conventional beers.
- benzene: A liquid chemical used as a solvent and in the production of plastic, rubber, resin, and synthetic fabrics.
- craft beer: Beer made by small, independent breweries such as microbreweries, brewpubs, and at home using traditional beer-making methods.
- fuel Cell: An electric power-generating electrochemical device that operates through the combination of hydrogen and oxygen.
- genetically modified organism (GMO): The result of merging the genetic makeup of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature.
- hops: A perennial flowering vine—a distant relative of the cannabis plant—used in the brewing process to flavor and preserve beer.
- trichloroethylene: A liquid chemical used as a grease remover for metal parts and textiles.
- Research and Markets - Beer: Global Industry Guide
- Beer Serves America - Economic Impact
- Utah State University Recycling Center - Facts and Figures
- EcoSherpa - Beer Drinking Good For The Planet?
- MSNBC.com - A cleaner environment... through beer
- American Cancer Society - New Study Qualifies the Benefits of Moderate Drinking On Survival
- Ideal Bite - What are the best kind of beer goggles?