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December 7, 2007

A crafty way to save the world

Published in the Spokesman Review on December 7, 2007

Craft brewers maintain a reputation for radical thinking. Since the 1980s, they’ve turned a generic, canned industry into a diverse market known for adherence to pre-industrial age traditions tempered by modern experimentation. No wonder they’re among the pioneers of eco-friendly brewing practices in the United States, adapting to changes in the economic and global climate by using alternative energy and producing organic products. "Economically, it made sense,” said Ted Vivatson, founder of Eel River Brewing in Fortuna, Calif., which last year started buying energy made from recycled waste materials. “Environmentally, it was a no-brainer.”

Eel River came early to the eco-party when it became the first certified organic brewery in the United States in 2000.

“It was consumer-driven. People were asking about organic beers, and we here at Eel River thought, wow, what a cool concept,” said Vivatson, who made the decision against contrary advice. “It’s kind of crazy, because the beer industry, when we first stared making organic beers, they called me a nut. They said, ‘Who’s gonna buy organic beer?’ But there’s a substantial market for it, and we’ve been filling that for some time.”

Now, seven years later, Eel River has become a 100-percent biomass-fueled brewery. Its energy comes from Pacific Lumber, which fuels it own power plant with wood scraps and yard trimmings, among other things.

But that’s just one drop in a quickly filling pond.

New Belgium Brewing Co. in Colorado buys wind power. Michigan Brewing uses biodiesel and steam. Even Anheuser-Busch is trying to capitalize on the trend with its USDA organic Green Valley Brewing brand (though it doesn’t cop to being a Bud brother on the label).

In addition to going supernova in terms of popularity, California’s Stone Brewing has decided to invest in the Earth – and in the brewery’s economic future – by powering it’s fleet with biodiesel and making plans to switch up to 54 percent of its energy to solar power.

“For years and years and years, essentially from our beginning, we’ve recycled everything we can, and we’ve just generally tried to be resource minded,” said Greg Koch, CEO of the brewery, which is popular for its Arrogant Bastard strong ale. “Part of that is because it’s a smarter business decision. The second one of the three R’s is reuse. If you’re able to reuse something, that also saves you money, and that’s also a good business decision. And then recycle stands on its own.”

Koch, who says the solar installation will commence as soon as Stone gets final approval, pushes people to apply that philosophy to as many aspects of their lives as possible.

“Being eco-friendly doesn’t have to be complicated – if you can’t do a lot, a little is great,” Koch said. “Part of the message also needs to be, hey, when you’re getting in your car, going to the store, are there two errands you can make instead of just one? Can you go to the store once a week rather than twice a week? Can you go to the farmer’s market and buy some of your produce there? Can you not go to fast food anymore? At all? Ever? Can you replace an incandescent light with one of those compact fluorescents? The list goes on and on. … It doesn’t have to be these horrible, life-changing, self sacrifice kinds of decisions, although I laud those who do that.”

Both Vivatson and Koch pointed out that in the end, it comes down to the type of person who becomes interested in craft beer: Progressive, creative thinkers.

Think about that next time you pop open that bottle of Arrogant Bastard.

“Honestly, in my experience, people who get into craft brewing do so because they think about their surroundings,” Koch said. “They’re not people who are led by the nose by what the television tells them to think, or say, or eat or drink. And as such, being free minded people, free-minded people tend to seek out better answers when they’re available.”

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