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Heineken’s greener brew

The beer giant is refreshing parts of an industry its rivals haven’t reached, with a zero-carbon brewery in Göss. David Burrows reports from Austria.

Chatting over a few steins in the Austrian town of Göss, Michael Dickstein admits the concept of a zero-carbon beer might not resonate with the majority of drinkers. His marketing team has told him as much: sustainability messages might currently sway between 5% and 10% of consumers into buying one brand over another. That doesn’t make it irrelevant, though.

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

In research conducted by Nielsen among 30,000 consumers in 60 countries in 2015, 45% said their purchasing decisions were either “heavily” or “very heavily” influenced by knowing the products they bought came from a company known for being environmentally friendly. And 51% of millennials also check product packaging for sustainability claims before making a purchase.

Heineken has already been tapping into these trends via 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.

According to a report published in 2015 by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, 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 are still hooked on fossil fuels,” the centre concluded.

Heineken is already the world’s largest user of solar energy in beer production, with major installations in Singapore, the Netherlands, Italy and the UK. Now it has bigger plans. The company has set out to cut carbon emissions by 40% by 2020. The target, set per hectolitre (100 litres) of beer produced, is against a 2008 baseline.

By last year it had already got to 36%. However, in absolute terms emissions fell 8% between 2008 and 2015; still, not bad considering the 43% increase in volumes during the same period (Heineken produced 188.1m hectolitres of beer in 2015). 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 here.

The first thing you realise at Göss is that there aren’t many solar panels: the 1,500m2 solar plant generates just 3-5% of the site’s thermal energy requirements. What does stand out is the new fermentation tank for spent grain. It’s the “Bentley of biogas plants”, according to Hrvoje Miloševic ́ , the regional sales manager at Bioenergy International (BDI), the company that installed it.

It’s also the first biogas plant of its kind, says BDI, which means it didn’t come cheap. The main challenge, says Miloševic ́ , was to adapt the technology to the brewery’s “five days on, two days off” production schedule; but they’ve come up with a solution that shoots down the oft-cited criticism that renewables are not flexible. So how does it work and is it worth it?

Brewmeister and carbon maestro

The Austrian town of Göss has been synonymous with beer since 960AD. Nuns ran the local production in the abbey through the Middle Ages, before the modern-day brewery was founded in 1860. Today it is run by the brewmaster, Andreas Werner, who has almost single- handedly driven the site’s carbon footprint down from 3,000 tonnes a year to nothing. The beer industry won’t be free from fossil fuels overnight, he has said, but the 10-year project at Göss shows what can be achieved.

The plant, which has been up and running since October 2015, has been designed to take all the organic waste from the site. The lion’s share of this is spent grain, which has traditionally been stored and then sold or given away to local farms as livestock feed. Now it’s all fed into the digester, via a hydrolysis tank, to produce heat for the brewery’s boilers as well as steam to clean returned bottles.

For every hectolitre of beer there will be 20 kilograms of surplus yeast and spent grain, enough to produce 75Nm3 (normal cubic metres) of biomethane. With 18,000 tonnes of organic material to play with, there’s plenty of waste to supply half the brewery’s heat requirements. If production capacity increases from the 1.4m bottles of Gösser beer produced daily here, the plant will happily devour the additional waste.

With its big investment in biogas, Heineken is clearly playing the long game (the return on investment will be “much higher” than the four years achieved at a plant in Greece). It helps to have the money men on side when shopping for new tech, but the board has bought into the ethos.

Heineken’s bean counters took three days to calculate what the company’s energy and water reductions mean in “hard cash”, says Dickstein. They came up with savings of €71.1m (£60.5m) since 2009. Most of this, however, is down to incremental improvements in the supply chain rather than revolutionary steps, Dickstein adds. This is also the case in Göss. Electricity from hydro power, for example, is fairly standard in these parts, while there are a range of energy efficiency measures that have all helped cut energy use by around 30% in the past decade.

One of them is an innovative system for boiling the wort (malt sugars), which dramatically enhances the evaporation efficiency.Taste isn’t affected either: the bitterness units, thermal load and amount of coagulable nitrogen, which correlates to the foam stability of the resulting beer, all remain constant. “Whatever we do, the final product can’t change,” says Andreas Werner.

Göss brewery in number

  • 1860: brewery founded
  • 1.4m: daily production of bottles of zero-carbon beer using a variety of renewable technology and energy efficiency techniques
  • 2003: overhaul of the site’s energy systems begins, led by brewmaster Andreas Werner
  • 100%: proportion of electricity from hydropower sources
  • 90%: proportion of waste heat reused as part of energy efficiency measures
  • 0: carbon emissions at the site, down from 3,000 tonnes a year

Heat comes from a number of sources

  • 35% from neighbouring sawmill
  • 50% from biogas generated from spent grain
  • 10% from biogas created from waste water
  • 3-5% from solar

As the Göss site’s brewmaster, Werner is the man who has spent the past decade or so pushing at his bosses’ door in order to turn it into a state-of- the-art zero-carbon brewery – without affecting the quality or price of the final product (see “Brewmaster and carbon maestro”).

There has long been an “open ear” to his ideas, but he always has to prove the cost of production won’t rise. It makes sense. Research by Nielsen suggests consumers (especially younger ones) will pay more for greener brands, but one that is sustainable and costs the same is a win-win. “Our Göss brewery may be in a small town but our goal was to make a big impact,” Werner explains.

The pioneers of sustainable business are always striving to be first, and this is what drives new technology and helps continuously reset the bar. Heineken is no different. The zero-carbon beers should put Göss – a town that doesn’t have a Wikipedia page – 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 (There’s a revised renewable energy directive to look forward to, as well as emissions targets to hit in line with the Paris agreement).

This future-proofing has caught the eye of investors, too: interest has doubled of late. 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.

The biogas is surely something that the company’s other breweries will be looking at very 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 2.7m tonnes of waste into the animal feed chain, compared to just 43,000 tonnes that were fermented into biogas.

The company’s Tadcaster and Manchester breweries in the UK already have anaerobic digestion plants up and running. The latter is now one of the top five performing Heineken breweries globally, having cut energy use by 27% since 2014 (see “Heineken in the UK”). The approach to energy use in the UK is one of “continuous improvement”. The speed of this may, however, depend on changes to both national and European renewable energy and waste policies.

The Brexit vote has created political chaos. The prime minister, Theresa May, has closed the Department of Energy and Climate Change and woven the portfolios into a new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It’s far from clear whether May’s government will get behind the green agenda or look to water laws down (that DECC’s last move was to cut some of the Renewable Heat Incentive tariffs hasn’t gone down well).

Heineken in the UK:

  • Manchester, Tadcaster, Caledonian breweries, plus Herefordshire cidery and apple mill
  • Since 2014, £100m invested in Manchester and Hereford sites
  • In Manchester: modernised the keg line and mash filters; improved the control software of the anaerobic digestion plant (allowing it to capture and reuse 85% of the biogas produced and helping reduce its reliance on natural gas by about 10%)
  • Tadcaster: fleet of five zero-emissions electric forklift trucks

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

The fermenter is undoubtedly an impressive and replicable technology for Heineken. And yet it was something else that got those of us on a recent behind-the-scenes tour most excited. The town’s neighbouring sawmill, Mayr- Melnhof, burns bark and sawdust to produce electricity, but it was producing more thermal energy than it needed. Werner found out and the excess is now fed into the brewery for use in brewing, cleaning and pasteurising.

It’s simple, yet astoundingly effective: 35% of the brewery’s heat energy comes along the 700-metre pipeline built 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’s global manager for utilities, Kalpesh Tejani.

Alas, there isn’t. But the partnership shows the benefits of thinking outside the box when it comes to improving energy efficiency. It’s another piece in the jigsaw that has helped take Göss from pumping out 3,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year to zero.

That this 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 spokeswoman confirms.

Consumers may not care to concern themselves with the nuances of carbon terminology. Even carbon is quite an abstract concept, admits Dickstein, which is why the company has thus far focused on energy in its campaigns. “Brewed by the Sun” is a message consumers succumb to quite easily, 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. Are there plans to market zero- carbon pints?

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 (Warc, 2016), if anyone can sell the idea, Heineken can.

This article has been published with permission from the Environmentalist, where it first appeared.