Before the invention of the train and refrigeration, drovers would walk their cattle from as far as Scotland to provide beef for the hungry citizens of London. On this long journey, an animal could lose as much as 100 pounds in weight, so would need to be fattened up before being sold at the market. The drovers would look for places to feed their emaciated livestock at various places in the city, such as the pastures around Islington or near to breweries, taking advantage of the abundance of spent grains, the nutritious by-products of beer brewing. This beer-beef synergy could be viewed as an early example of industrial symbiosis and is just one example of how one of our most popular beverages is an extremely fertile area for the application of the circular economy.

Beer is one of the oldest and most widely consumed drinks in the world; only water and tea are drunk in greater quantities. A pint of ale comprises four basic ingredients: water, barley, hops and yeast. The production of beer begins with starch in barley being broken down into soluble sugars through the malting process, which entails soaking the grains to allow germination to commence, and then halting it through drying. The sugars are then fermented into alcohol in a reaction catalysed by yeast in the presence of water. The last ingredient in the holy quartet are hops which are added for flavour and smell.

Image: Toast Ale

Beer’s consumption is as old as writing – a Sumerian poem was unearthed written on a clay tablet that gives praise to Ninkasi, the ancient goddess of beer (most depictions of brewers in ancient times show them as women) as well as providing a recipe for brewing using spent bread. Clearly this ancient wisdom has stood the test of time – in London a start up uses surplus crusts and loaves to create a caramelly new brew called Toast Ale.

Value creation in the Circular Economy of Beer

Using surplus bread to make beer is a good illustration of one of the four value creating principles of the circular economy, namely the ‘power of cascaded uses’. In a cascade, ‘biological nutrients’ (the surplus crusts in this example) are used for another purpose (making beer) thus substituting for an inflow of virgin materials. It’s essentially a reuse system that creates additional value by taking waste from one stage in a cycle and using it as an input ingredient for the next. The final stage in this cascade should always be the safe return of nutrients to the biosphere, therefore closing the loop and ensuring regeneration of natural capital.

The multiple potential uses of brewers spent grains is a good example of this. Malted barley provides complex carbohydrates and sugars needed for fermentation as well as imparting colours and flavours which we associate with beer. However, every litre of beer generates approximately 0.2kg of spent grains, that globally adds up to 39 billion tons of solid waste generated each year. The spent grains are full of protein, fibre and other nutrients that can be used to make food, nutraceuticals, animal or fish feed; as a growth medium for mushrooms; to generate energy or fertilise gardens or farmer’s fields. It has been estimated that extracting this extra value could yield over $2 additional revenue per hectoliter of beer, which for a brewery like Heineken that produces 188.3 million hectoliters per year could generate significant extra income. Fish feed is a particularly valuable product in Asia which has a large and growing commercial fish farming sector. Currently a high proportion of this feed comes from corn and wheat, thus competing with human food production; or from soya whose cultivation is associated with large scale deforestation and other negative ecological impacts.

Another good example of extraction of cascaded value has been demonstrated by Saltwater Breweries in Florida who have created an edible six-pack ring from barley and wheat by-products from the brewing process. The use of these previously discarded materials replaces the need for fossil-fuel derived plastic. Even more importantly, it addresses the issue of plastic leakage into the ocean, that can lead to terrible impacts on fish and other marine life.

Other circular economy value extraction principles that can be applied to beer are the ‘power of inner loops’ and the ‘power of circling longer’. This is exemplified by the re-use of glass beer bottles. Research carried out in 2012, outlined in the report Towards a Circular Economy 2, showed that by designing a more robust bottle, with 34% more material than a single-use bottle, would allow 30 bottle reuses, offsetting the additional material cost 20 times. In UK, it is estimated that this could lead to a 20% overall reduction in packaging costs for beer.

Big breweries like Heineken and SAB Miller are waking up to the opportunities that exist in the circular economy space, demonstrating their commitment through membership of the CE100 network. SAB Miller currently cascade 99% of spent grains to secondary animal feed and other uses, such as the development of nutraceuticals called pre-biotics. They also sell over 50% of their total beer volume in returnable bottles and harvest methane from their brewery wastewater treatment plants. Heineken have a specific circular economy strategy for their operations, activities include cascading of spent grains to other uses such as feed and energy production; reusing over 97% of bottles in Netherlands, the widespread use of renewable energy and an R&D initiative with materials innovation company ECOR to develop and print promotional and packaging products made from their waste stream, which includes spent brewers grains, paper, cardboard and textiles.

Circular Water Systems and Beer

Water is a key resource in the beer making process, making up > 99% of the final product, but also a key enabler in many of the production stages. Breweries typically use 4 -10 litres of water to produce one litre of beer, thus putting additional pressure on an increasingly water-stressed world. There are a number of ways that water consumption and management in the brewing process could be improved so that the water footprint of beer could be reduced.

During California’s recent long drought, an architect going by the very apposite name of Russ Drinker collaborated with a craft brewer in San Francisco to create a beer made out of recycled water called Maverick Tunnel Vision IPA. In a blind tasting, a panel of beer experts could not tell which ales were made using this alternative water source. In Holland, a group of entrepreneurs have created a bitter blonde beer out of ultra-filtered rainwater – adding credence to the expression every cloud has a silver lining. In this case a ‘blonde’ lining would be more apt, and the fruity beer goes via the very prosaic name of Hemelswater (“Heaven’s water”).

One of the biggest process uses of water is in the steeping of the barley to initiate the germination of grain in the malting process. On average every tonne of malt requires 4 – 5 m3 of steep water. During steeping about 1% of the grains’ dry weight is dissolved, leaving a chemical called quinone in the steep water. The effect of this is that re-using this water will inhibit germination of the next batch by as much as 36% and so re-use is not currently considered by brewers. This could change soon as recently a UK-French research team have discovered a way of removing the inhibitor from the water, thus facilitating the possibility of more closed loop system which would enable over 70% of the steep water to be re-used.

Some breweries are literally looking upstream to ensure the natural systems that supply their water are healthy. Heineken’s breweries in Spain are all in water stressed areas, and the company found the best way to combat the threat was by improving land use in the surrounding watersheds. In collaboration with Commonland, a land restoration NGO, it has already kicked off two projects. One is testing whether planting barley among olive trees will improve soil filtration to save lost water in the part of the Guadalquivir watershed that feeds its Jaén brewery (with the bonus of barley for the brewing process). In the other it is restoring three degraded lagoons in the Doñana wetlands, which feed the company’s Sevilla brewery, to improve soil structure and water filtration by re-planting endemic trees and other species. Once scaled, the projects are expected to meet all the Jaén brewery’s and half the Sevilla brewery’s water balancing targets.

Beer brewing as part of an ecosystem

One of the schools of thought of the Circular Economy is Thomas Graedel’s concept of Industrial Ecology. This is the idea that an industrial process should not be viewed in isolation from its surroundings but in concert with it. In this context, beer should be seen as one component of a larger ecosystem, accepting inputs (e.g. barley, hops, recycled wastewater) from one part of the system, and providing food to others parts (e.g. spent grains, nutrient rich water, energy).

The Plant Chicago. Image: Rachel Swenie / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Plant in Chicago is a good example of how such an ecosystem could work. This multi-dimensional enterprise is located in an old meat packing warehouse in a run down part of the city. It comprises a fish hatchery, hydroponic garden, a commercial kitchen, a brewery for beer and kombucha tea, a bakery, a mushroom farm and a shared kitchen. The Plant aims to operate as a net-zero energy system where waste from one part serves as raw materials for another. For example – spent grains from the brewery can be combined with commercial feed to provide food for tilapia fish, while solids from the tilapia wastewater can be used as fertiliser for plants.

Further west in Montana, Wildwood brewery has similar ambitions. The facility has developed an integrated system, with beer production at its heart, to cascade or reuse materials from one enterprise to another. Beyond the actual brewing process, the operations include mushroom growing, worm cultivation for composting and animal feed, anaerobic digestion for energy production, aquaculture, agriculture, animal husbandry and heat recovery.

The examples described above are just some of the exciting possibilities that exist when circular thinking is applied to planet’s favourite alcoholic tipple. Many of the ideas are small scale at the moment, but as the economic and other benefits associated with these new approaches start to stack up, then it should become clear that the coming together of beer and the circular economy will give us many reasons to be happy.



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The Author

Nick Jeffries

Nick Jeffries

Nick works in the Insight and Analysis programme of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which aims to provide evidence of the benefits of a circular economy and insights into the transition pathways. He is currently working on a number of exploratory projects to help identify potential future areas of focus.

Before joining the Foundation, Nick worked as a Chartered Civil Engineering consultant across the commercial, humanitarian and international development sectors. When not working he likes foraging for wild food and embarking on culinary journeys in his kitchen.

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