Is the Beer You’re Drinking Problematic?

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Mike Babb was born in Golden, Colorado, in the shadow of the monolithic Coors Brewing Company. He worked at Coors for 20 years, the third generation of his family to do so. During what he calls a sabbatical, he went to Weihenstephan, part of the Technical University of Munich in Germany, where he learned the craft of a master brewer. After teaching at the Siebel Institute, a prestigious brewing program in Chicago, Babb relocated to Michigan. He helped design a new joint higher education degree program at the Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Western Michigan University that’s set to kick off later this year: a four-year Bachelor’s degree in sustainable brewing. The first 30 credit hours at KVCC will give the students a brewing certificate, with hands on classes in an experimental brewing kitchen, along with an associate’s degree that they can transfer to WMU for a more rigorous scientific focus in the second two years.

“We’re going to try, at the onset, to educate brewers about sustainability, the costs involved for brewing, the impact to the environment, and the types of issues they need to be concerned about,” Babb tells me.

The emphasis on sustainable brewing showcased in the joint program at KVCC and MCU is not new, but it’s picking up steam. If you haven’t heard of the Brewer’s Climate Declaration, you’ve probably tasted the product of companies who’ve signed on. A few dozen of the biggest craft microbreweries in the country, like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, have added their name to this subset of Ceres’ popular climate declaration, a “call to action from leading American businesses and individuals.” The declaration signers want to pressure policy makers to act on climate change.

It’s also certainly no coincidence that Babb’s new program and the declaration (which began in March) are arriving at the apex of a craft-brewing renaissance; in 2014, craft beer continued to eat up more of the beer market, with many in the industry hoping to claim 20 percent of total market share by 2020. The number of small breweries also ballooned, with nearly 3,500 breweries serving pints around the country. There’s growing momentum by craft brewers to cut down on their direct and indirect carbon emissions, and think about their environmental impact. According to an analysis by the Guardian, the more local your beer, the better it is for the environment.

“In terms of craft brewers, they need to look at sustainability not just in terms of cost, but in terms of design and thinking about these things at the onset, at how they will be impacting the environment,” Babb tells me. “Local produced beers, if they are brewpub, for example, they have no packaging materials.”

Steven Bertman, a professor of chemistry at Western Michigan University who’ll be part of the new brewing program, sees sustainability as a growing cultural fixture of craft brewing. “It’s just my sense from talking to these brewers that a lot of the people who are in the craft beer industry are naturally inclined to be more interested in environmental issues. It’s not frat boys who’re saying ‘we want this Budweiser to be more sustainable!’”

Mike Babb

The new program aims to build on the natural momentum of this craft brew spirit, assuring that the next generation of brewers at both small and large companies will come into the industry with these values baked into their practices. It will also allow new beer makers to learn the lessons bigger corporations are picking up as they try to apply the consumer-demanded ethos of sustainability on a broad scale. The degree itself is a “two and two” program: students will spend two years learning different brewing styles, food pairing, safety issues, quality control issues, and legal issues, and two learning about life cycle analyses and systems.

Babb describes how processes that reuse energy and minimize wastewater can positively affect the quality of beer. The component parts required to make a good beer are relatively simple: heating and cooling water, grains, hops, and yeast. We know that climate change is affecting hops yield and may impact barley production. And in breweries, the biggest user of energy is the wort-boiling, brew kettle section of the beer-making process. The kettle available to students in the program uses half of the energy of comparable brew kettles, a tool Babb says is more popular in Europe, where energy costs are significantly higher than the U.S., but one that’s gaining ground with increasing awareness about sustainable practices.

“[Students will be] able to operate a brew kettle where the vapors are condensed and recovered, and actually that heat is reused in other parts of the process,” Babb says. “When you do that, you significantly drop the energy requirement.”

And it’s not just energy use. The beer making process can be incredibly wasteful, both in its use of water, and how its byproducts are managed.

“So many of these smaller breweries only use cleaning chemicals once,” Babb tells me. The program has a cleaning system that will reuse the chemicals, known as cleaning in place, or CIP, rather than sending the chemicals to the sewer after one shot. Students will learn how the byproducts of the brewing process—the spent grains and spent yeast—can be utilized in other ways. If done properly, spent grains can be composted to cultivate very rich soil, while the spent yeast will be sent to the culinary school to enrich flavors and sauces and gravies and soups. “There’s a progression of very simple things that can be done to cut down on waste, and then there are some things that are a little bit more involved.”

Unboiled wort. Image via Twitter user @groulxsome

The types of environmental values like energy efficiency, water reuse, and proper wastewater disposal Babb and Bertman will be teaching in the program weren’t always foundational in the beer industry. Multinational beer corporations—acting not unlike corporate entities in other sectors—ran amok thirty years ago. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, Coors was fined a number of times by the EPA. They dumped millions of gallons of liquid toxic waste containing flammable solvents, lead dross, and cyanide solutions in landfills. They failed to report contaminated drinking water, and local officials discovered that just downstream of the company, babies were born with double the national average of low birthweight and childhood cancer. Even as recently as 2001, they spilled 77,000 gallons of beer in Clear Creek, killing over 50,000 fish across seven-and-a-half miles.

Now, some of these multinational breweries appear to be turning over a new leaf. MillerCoors has upped its water-to-beer ratio, reduced the waste it sends out of its brewing facilities, and increased energy efficiency. Anheuser-Busch InBev claims to have the best water-to-beer ratio in the world, even as they produce one out of every four beers. The reasons for the changes are complicated, but part of the corporate pivot may be a response to the popularity of the local, craft brew craze. Some of the most beloved craft companies are incredibly vocal about their environmental stewardship, an enthusiasm with the power to shift markets and catch the attention of the macro breweries. Trying to connect with consumers, some of the multinationals are even buying up craft companies, or making “crafty” beers, wolves in sheep’s clothing that have all the appeal of a microbrew, with none of the inherent values or authenticity. Either way, companies both large and small will be looking for creative new brewers with a sense of the sustainability movement and a skill for minimizing waste.

Babb and Bertman hope that the program in Kalamazoo will produce that new generation of brewers. As craft beer has grown in stature, so have educational opportunities to get a degree in beer-making, and learn from masters like Babb, who have experience in both industry and craft. The big difference in Michigan is the emphasis on sustainability, the first program of its kind in the country. And it’s not just the brewers either; young people in general expect more from the products they consume. The program is poised to have a long-term effect on the industry as a whole, as the benefits of better beer continue to trickle down to brew aficionados who want more of a connection with the stuff they kick back.

“To me, it’s a win-win thing,” Babb says. “I think this movement is really something important with the millennials, because they are hungry for having an identity with where their food comes from, where they beer comes from. I like that.”


Four black women, Engineers Christine Darden and Mary Jackson, mathematician Katherine Johnson, and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughn, worked as "human computers" at NASA during the Space Race, making space travel possible through their complex calculations. Jackson, Johnson, and Vaughn all played a vital role in helping John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

They worked behind the scenes, but now they're getting the credit they deserve as their accomplishments are brought to the forefront. Their amazing stories were detailed in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was later turned into a movie. (Darden was not featured in the movie, but was in the book). Johnson has a building at NASA named after her, and a street in front of NASA's Washington D.C. headquarters was renamed "Hidden Figures Way."

Keep Reading Show less

Between Alexa, Siri, and Google, artificial intelligence is quickly changing us and the way we live. We no longer have to get up to turn on the lights or set the thermostat, we can find the fastest route to work with a click, and, most importantly, tag our friends in pictures. But interacting with the world isn't the only thing AI is making easier – now we can use it save the world, too.

Keep Reading Show less
Good News
Courtesy of John S. Hutton, MD

A report from Common Sense Media found the average child between the ages of 0 and 8 has 2 hours and 19 minutes of screen time a day, and 35% of their screen time is on a mobile device. A new study conducted by the Cincinnati Children's Hospital published in the journal, JAMA Pediatrics, found exactly what all that screen time is doing to your kid, or more specifically, your kid's developing brain. It turns out, more screen time contributes to slower brain development.

First, researchers gave the kids a test to determine how much and what kind of screen time they were getting. Were they watching fighting or educational content? Were they using it alone or with parents? Then, researchers examined the brains of children aged 3 to 5 year olds by using MRI scans. Forty seven brain-healthy children who hadn't started kindergarten yet were used for the study.

They found that kids who had more than one hour of screen time a day without parental supervision had lower levels of development in their brain's white matter, which is important when it comes to developing cognitive skills, language, and literacy.

Keep Reading Show less
via KTVU / YouTube

The 63-year-old Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, currently branded the RingCentral Coliseum, is one of the most decrepit sports venues in America.

The home to the the NFL's Oakland Raiders (until they move to Las Vegas next season) and MLB's A's, is notoriously known as the Black Hole and has made headlines for its frequent flooding and sewage issues.

One of the stadium's few positive aspects is its connection to public transportation.

Keep Reading Show less
Hero Video
via Anadirc / Flickr

We spend roughly one-third of our life asleep, another third at work and the final third trying our best to have a little fun.

But is that the correct balance? Should we spend as much time at the office as we do with our friends and family? One of the greatest regrets people have on their deathbeds is that they spent too much of their time instead of enjoying quality time with friends and family.

Lawmakers in the United Kingdom have made a significant pledge to reevaluate the work-life balance in their country.

Keep Reading Show less