Refreshing the beer industry

1st September 2016

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Libi Newell

Heineken claims to have developed the world's first large-scale, zero-carbon brewery. David Burrows reports

Chatting over a drink in the Austrian town of Göss, Michael Dickstein admits the concept of a zero-carbon beer may not resonate with most customers. His marketing team has told him as much: sustainability messages might sway just 5–10% of consumers into buying one brand over another. Despite this seemingly low figure, their relevance remains pertinent.

‘If we thought it was too early to approach customers with these messages we wouldn’t have linked our brands with [the green agenda],’ says Dickstein, director of sustainability at Heineken, the world’s third largest brewer. ‘Environmental sustainability is high on the global agenda, but it’s also what our consumers expect from us.’

Indeed, research conducted last year among 30,000 consumers in 60 countries by global information business Nielsen backs this up. Fully 45% said knowing the products they bought came from a company known for being environmentally friendly either ‘very heavily’ or ‘heavily’ influenced their purchasing decisions. Some 51% of millennials said they checked packaging for sustainability claims before making a purchase.

Brewed by the sun

Heineken has already been tapping into these trends using its Brewed by the Sun campaign. This covers drinks produced using solar energy, including Birra Moretti in Italy, which carry the strapline to prove it. Focusing on energy rather than carbon makes sense: it’s more relevant to consumers and one step ahead of the competition, says Dickstein.

According to a report published last year by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, renewables accounted for just 7% of the energy used in the food and beverage sector in 2013 compared with 15% in the overall energy mix. ‘Many [food and drinks companies] are still hooked on fossil fuels,’ the JRC concluded.

Heineken is already the world’s largest user of solar energy in beer production, with major installations in Singapore, the Netherlands, Italy ands the UK, where its Tadcaster brewery has had more than 4,000 panels (876MW a year) installed.

Now it has bigger plans. The company is aiming to cut carbon emissions by 40% by 2020. The target, set per hectolitre of beer produced, is against a 2008 baseline. By last year it had already achieved 36%. In absolute terms, emissions fell 8% between 2008 and 2015, a figure that is notable only when set against the 43% rise in production (Heineken brewed 188.1 million hectolitres of beer last year, a hectolitre being 100 litres). There is more work to do if the company wants to keep increasing volume and decreasing carbon simultaneously. This is where the project at Göss comes in as other breweries embrace a range of renewable technologies and energy efficiency initiatives to reach the bar set there.

Spent grain

The first thing a visitor to Göss notices when looking for renewables is the lack of solar panels: the 1,500m2 solar plant generates just 3–5% of the site’s thermal energy requirements. The imposing new fermentation tank for spent grain makes up for this. It is the ‘Bentley’ of biogas plants, according to Hrvoje Milošević, regional sales manager at Bioenergy International (BDI), the company that installed it.

It is the first biogas plant of its kind, but it did not come easy. The main challenge, says Milošević, was to adapt the technology to the brewery’s ‘five days on, two days off’ production schedule; but the firm came up with a solution that shoots down the oft-cited criticism that renewables are inflexible.

The plant, which has been running since October 2015, takes all the organic waste from the brewery. The lion’s share of this is spent grain, which used to be stored and then sold or given free to local farms as livestock feed. Now the waste is fed through a hydrolysis tank into the digestor to produce heat for the brewery’s boilers, as well as steam to clean returned bottles.

Every hectolitre of beer leaves 20 kg of surplus yeast and spent grain, enough to produce 75Nm3 (norm-cubicmetres) of biomethane. With 18,000 tonnes of organic material to play with, there is plenty of waste to supply half the Göss brewery’s heat requirements. If production capacity increases from the 1.4 million bottles of Gösser beer produced daily, the plant will devour the additional waste.

Financial outlay

With its big investment in biogas, Heineken is playing the long game – the return on investment for a biogas plant at a Heineken brewery in Greece was four years. It helps to have the financial department on side when shopping for new technology, but the board has bought into the ethos. Heineken’s finance team took three days to calculate the savings produced by company’s energy and water reductions, and came up with 71.1m (£60.3m) since 2009. Most of these, however, are due to incremental improvements in the supply chain rather than revolutionary steps, Dickstein says. This is also the case in Göss. Electricity from hydropower is standard in Austria, and that, allied to a range of energy efficiency measures, have helped to cut energy use by around 30% in the past ten years.

One of these is an innovative wort (malt sugars) boiling system, which dramatically enhances the evaporation efficiency. The bitterness units, thermal load and amount of coagulable nitrogen (which correlates to the foam stability of the beer) all remain constant and maintain the taste. ‘Whatever we do, the final product can’t change,’ says Andreas Werner, the Göss site’s brew master. He has spent ten years or so pushing his bosses to invest in measures that would turn Göss into a state-of-the-art, zero-carbon brewery without affecting the quality or price of the product (see below).

Werner says his ideas have been received with an ‘open ear’, but he always has to prove that the cost of production will not increase as a result. This ties in with the Nielsen research findings which suggested consumers, especially younger ones, would pay more for greener brands, but one that is sustainable and costs the same is a win-win.

Coming first

The pioneers of sustainable business are always striving to be first, and this is what drives new technology and helps to reset the bar ever higher. Heineken is no different. The zero-carbon beers should put Göss, a town in the state of Styria, on the map, at least in sustainability circles. ‘What we have achieved here, as well as through our growing family of Brewed by the Sun brands, shows we now walk the talk,’ Dickstein says.

Heineken’s company-wide sustainability strategy provides not just savings but shelter from looming risks, including energy cost and availability, water scarcity and new regulations – such as the revised Renewable Energy Directive, which may be implemented to help hit emissions targets in line with last year’s Paris agreement.

This future-proofing has caught the eye of investors, with interest increasing in what Heineken is doing to improve its sustainability. Dickstein himself admits to having gone from a relative nobody in the world of sustainable business to speaking at more than 40 conferences last year. ‘We want Göss to be the role model for breweries around the world,’ he says.

Going further

The biogas plant at Göss is something that the company’s other breweries will be looking at closely; after all, every one of them has spent grain to deal with. There are huge gains to be made. A look at the breakdown of Heineken’s environmental performance last year shows that it sent more than 2.7 million tonnes of waste into the animal feed chain compared with just 43,000 tonnes that were fermented into biogas.

The company’s Tadcaster and Manchester plants in the UK already operate anaerobic digestion plants – the latter is now one of the top five performing Heineken breweries globally, having cut energy use by 27% since 2014. Heineken describes its approach to energy use in the UK as one of ‘continuous improvement’. The speed of this may, however, depend on changes to national and European renewable energy and waste policies. There is uncertainty around these after the UK referendum and it is far from clear whether the new government will get behind the green agenda or look to dilute laws. One of Decc’s final moves was to cut some of the Renewable Heat Incentive tariffs, a decision that was poorly received by industry.

Policy support is one thing, but local backing cannot be forgotten. Werner and BDI admit the residents of Göss had concerns about the biodigestors, mostly in relation to extra traffic and odour. Walking around the huge tanks, one might expect there to be a stench – but a closed system ensures nothing escapes.

>The fermenter is an impressive and replicable technology for Heineken. It is not the only energy technology being used at the Göss brewery, however. The town’s sawmill, Mayr-Melnhof, burns bark and sawdust to produce electricity, but it was producing more thermal energy than it needed, something that came to Werner’s attention. Now the excess is fed into the Göss plant for use in brewing, cleaning and pasteurising.

It is simple, yet effective: 35% of the brewery’s heat energy comes along the 700 m pipeline between the two local businesses; the mill, meanwhile, has an additional income stream and cuts its waste. ‘If we had a sawmill next to every one of our breweries it would make life much easier,’ admits Heineken global manager for utilities Kalpesh Tejani.

Alas, that is not the case. But the partnership shows the benefits of unconventional thinking when seeking to improve energy efficiency. It is another piece in the jigsaw that has helped take Göss from pumping out 3,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year to zero.

That Göss is a zero-carbon rather than carbon-neutral brewery is an interesting aside. Heineken toyed with the idea of marketing it as the latter but felt that suggested a level of offsetting. ‘The point is that the brewery at Göss does not release any carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere,’ a spokesperson confirms.

Consumers may not care to concern themselves with the nuances of carbon terminology. Even carbon as a concept is abstract, admits Dickstein, which is why the company has so far honed in on energy in its campaigns. Brewed by the Sun is a message consumers can succumb to, he says.

Heineken is involved in the European Commission’s project to standardise product environmental footprints. This follows research showing that there are more than 400 environmental labels on the market and more than 60 ‘leading methods’ to calculate carbon footprints (see the environmentalist, August, pp21–24). Does this mean that drinkers can look forward to raising their glasses to a zero-carbon pint?

Not yet, but as Heineken’s Europe president Stefan Orlowski put it recently: ‘We are constantly looking at ways to make our sustainability story relevant to consumers through our brands.’ As one of the top five most effective advertisers in the world, according to advertising agency Warc, if any firm can sell the idea, Heineken can.

Heineken in the UK

Manchester, Tadcaster, Caledonian breweries, plus Herefordshire ciderie and apple mill;

  • since 2014, £100m invested into Manchester and Hereford sites;
  • in Manchester: modernised the keg line and mash filters; improved the controls software of the anaerobic digestion plant (allowing the brewery to capture and reuse 85% of the biogas produced and helping to reduce its reliance on natural gas by around 10%); and
  • in Tadcaster: fleet of five zero-emissions electric fork lift trucks

Brew master and carbon maestro

The Austrian town of Göss has been synonymous with beer since the year 960. Nuns ran the local production in the monastery during the middle ages before the modern brewery was founded in 1860. Today it is run by brew master Andreas Werner, who has almost single-handedly driven down the site’s carbon footprint from 3,000 tonnes a year to nothing.

The beer industry will not be free from fossil fuels overnight, he has says, but the ten-year project at Göss shows what can be achieved.

The Göss brewery in numbers:

  • founded in 1860;
  • produces 1.4 million bottles of zero-carbon beer daily using various renewable technology and energy efficiency techniques;
  • 2003 – overhaul of the site’s energy systems begins, led by brew master Andreas Werner;
  • 100% of its electricity consumption is from hydropower sources; and
  • energy efficiency measures include reuse of 90% of waste heat.


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