Maine’s craft brewing industry is known for nationally sought-after beers, hip design and rapid growth.

Less appreciated is how brewers have been able to pursue what in many manufacturing industries are contrasting ideas: sustainability and profits.

Maine brewers annually consume millions of pounds of grains and hops shipped from hundreds of miles away. Tens of millions of gallons of water a year are pumped into breweries and millions more are discharged into public sewage plants. Thousands of pounds of spent grain are disposed of every year.

But overall, Maine’s craft breweries have embraced sustainable management of their breweries, to reduce or reuse waste and limit pollution. The state’s biggest brewery, Portland’s Allagash Brewing Co., has adopted practices so it uses only 4 gallons of water to make a gallon of beer – about half the national average.

“The type of person who decides to get into craft beer, there is a high likelihood they care about their community and the earth,” said Allagash head brewer Jason Perkins.

But it’s not just an environmental ethos that drives craft brewers to adopt “green” practices. It often also makes sound financial sense.

“I’m really weary of making sustainability a political statement, because it is really not, it is a fundamental business fact,” said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

The guild’s newest strategic plan highlights preserving Maine’s environment and natural resources, especially its wealth of fresh water.

“The simple truth is that we need great water to have great beer,” Sullivan said. “It is not a political statement, it is a business necessity, and what is going to allow the business to thrive here.”

KEEPING PACE WITH EXTRAORDINARY GROWTH

By most measures, Maine’s breweries already thrive. On average, almost two new Maine breweries a month opened in the last two years, and now number 153. Production last year was 9.5 million gallons, a 32 percent increase from five years prior.

At least 2,000 Mainers are employed directly in craft breweries and the industry contributed $260 million to the state’s economy in 2017. Visiting breweries is one of the top destinations for throngs of tourists who travel to the state every year.

Despite that growth, some of Maine’s most recognizable breweries are couched in environmental stewardship.

Allagash has been environmentally focused since its founding in 1995, said master brewer Perkins. As it grew to one of the state’s biggest beer makers, Allagash invested to conserve resources and refined procedures such as an obsessive recycling program to limit waste. For instance, it separates everything that can be recycled – paper products, various metals, plastics – into separate bins designated for each product.

Because of its size, the company can afford to install sophisticated technology to reuse water for heating, cooling and cleaning and filter wastewater to remove unhealthy residue.

Senior brewer Josh Tierney in the brew house at Allagash Brewing Co. The company has adopted stringent recycling and reuse practices to reduce its impact on the environment. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Allagash’s efficiency is just a bigger version of what smaller brewers in Maine and across the country already have in place, Perkins said.

“I would imagine every brewery in Maine would be doing this, or I hope so,” he said.

Brewery wastewater is top of mind at the Portland Water District. As the epicenter of Maine’s craft beer boom, Portland’s sewage treatment plant handles millions of gallons of effluent from more than a dozen breweries in and around the city.

Coming directly from a brewery, that wastewater has levels of bio oxygen demand, organic solids and unbalanced pH that exceed what normal users produce, said Chuck Skypeck from the Brewers Association, a national trade group. Unaltered brewery wastewater can damage micro-bacteria that treat raw sewage, gum up sewer lines, force treatment plants into overdrive or even create algae blooms. Sewer districts can charge user fees to cover treatment costs from overloaded systems, creating additional costs for brewers.

“In a lot of ways brewery wastewater is unique, but in some aspects it is very similar to what other industries are producing,” Skypeck said. “Breweries are not unique; what is unique is the really rapid dissemination of breweries.”

In the Portland Water District, only a handful of the biggest breweries draw the attention of inspectors and analysts who monitor what is sent down the drain. Most of Portland’s emerging brewers are too small to warrant that scrutiny, so regulators reach out to new companies and explain potential problems that their effluent poses – ideally before they finish their first batch, said Scott Firmin, director of wastewater services.

“It has been a bit of a challenge to keep up with the number of new breweries opening up,” Firmin said.

The water district recommends to new brewers inexpensive ways to remove solids and neutralize pH before pouring wastewater down the drain.

“We are trying to keep them from being part of the problem,” Firmin said. “If you are a new brewer there are so many things to consider that wastewater may not be top of the list.”

OTHER GREEN INITIATIVES

The heaviest physical byproduct of beer making is spent grain, drained of the sugars, proteins and nutrients that go into beer. Allagash alone produces around 6 million pounds of spent grains a year, Perkins estimates.

Disposing of waste without overwhelming landfills or incurring steep costs could be daunting, but brewers have an advantage – their major byproduct is biodegradable and suitable not just for compost but also animal feed. Most Maine brewers provide spent grains to farms for feed or send it to an industrial composter. Some reuse it to make dog treats or other products.

“From day one Geary’s has always sent its spent grain to a farmer down the road,” said Robin Lapoint, president and co-owner of Geary Brewing Co. in Portland. Founded in 1983, Geary was the first craft brewery in Maine and one of the first on the East Coast.

Senior brewer Josh Tierney works in the 70-barrel brew house at Allagash Brewing Company last month. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette Buy this Photo

“Certainly it is very green and it helps everyone save money,” Lapoint said. “It is a green effort and it is a financial effort and it always has been.”

Other companies have focused on packaging, energy use and other measures.

When Baxter Brewing Co. opened in 2011, the company, now Maine’s third biggest, was the only brewery to sell all its products in aluminum cans.

Nine years later, consumers are presented with a galaxy of local beers in 16-ounce cans and far fewer in bottles. Since aluminum is more likely to be recycled, it is an environmentally conscious packaging choice, but that’s not the only reason Baxter chose it, said head brewer Justin Boulin.

“We were the first in New England to do can-only,” he said. “The goal behind that was quality-focused, but also sustainability-focused. We can ship about three times the amount of cans as we can for bottles.”

Some of the recycling containers at Allagash Brewing Company. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette Buy this Photo

As craft beer grows in the state, some companies are attempting to leverage the industry’s collective size.

Allagash committed to sourcing 1 million pounds of Maine grain a year by 2022. A collection of companies are banding together to collect huge grain sacks for re-use. This past summer a coalition of more than a dozen breweries formed the Brewshed Alliance to donate a portion of sales to protect state water resources.

For Sullivan, sustainable business has another meaning.

Environmental stewardship and careful expansion will be a critical part of the guild’s vision of building world-class breweries that last generations, Sullivan said.

“We have been going through a period of hyper-growth,” he said. “We want our brewers to start thinking beyond the next quarter or the next batch and to the long-term future.”


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