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Even though I don’t like beer, it hasn’t escaped my attention that the world’s most famous beer festival, the Oktoberfest, will start on Saturday. For 16 days, several million people from around the globe will invade Munich, which, as usual, poses a big challenge for the environment.
No, I’m not talking about the strains caused by additional traffic getting people in and out of Munich.
No, I’m not talking about the mountains of garbage piling up every day, or the huge amount of electricity needed to keep the visitors partying late into the night.
I am talking about beer itself, and the huge amount of water needed to produce it. Not only is water needed to cultivate the main agricultural raw materials of beer, the process of brewing is much more water-intensive than, for example, the production of soft drinks. It takes many litres of water to make one litre of beer.
Fortunately, I am not the first person to notice. The beer industry is looking for sustainable brewing solutions, and a number of water-saving measures have already been taken. The basis, of course, is the regular maintenance of taps and piping systems in order to avoid leaks. Also important: the reuse of beer ingredients and packaging.
Some breweries have installed solar panels on their roofs, getting about 20% of their total energy supply from the sun. Others have installed water treatment facilities inside their premises. The importance of efficient water management cannot be underestimated: anaerobic treatment of waste water can capture biogas, thus replacing fossil fuels used to generate electricity.
How does that work? Inside sealed tanks, bacteria convert the waste into organic acids, ammonia, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Ultimately, the remains of the sludge are converted by other microorganisms into biogas.
The fermentation process of beer itself (when yeast converts the glucose into ethanol and carbon dioxide gas) is also very energy-consuming, as it produces a substantial amount of heat and the tanks must be cooled constantly to maintain the proper beer temperature.
As you can see, there are a lot of chemical processes involved when brewing beer. Visitors to the Oktoberfest will not spend a single second thinking about that, but maybe they would appreciate their favorite beverage even more if they knew how much water, energy and chemical magic was involved.
For those of you not going to Munich: have you ever tried Lambic beer? Or Gueuze? Or Kriek?
These are very special beers brewed exclusively in the Brussels region. What makes them so special? They are fermented by Mother Nature. Giant barrels of mash sit outside, waiting for bacteria like Brettanomyces bruxellensis to settle and do its work.
If this kind of fermentation isn’t sustainable, then what is?
I have never tried that beer, but I’d be happy for you to try it and let me know what you think.