On the right track
Sierra Nevada Brewery’s environmental initiatives continue full steam ahead
It’s called locking the loop; everything from steam to shrink-wrap is recycled, explained Molly McNally, a tour guide at Sierra Nevada Brewery. But aside from the usual tour information, there’s plenty going on behind the scenes, too.
Most recently, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has been working to reduce its carbon footprint by shifting a great deal of transportation to more eco-friendly modes. A few months ago, the company began importing grains from Canada on its own rail spur recently completed off of the main Union Pacific Railroad line.
“Building the rail spur was quite the effort,” said Bill Manley, the company’s communications coordinator.
He wasn’t kidding.
Purchasing nearby property off Hegan Lane and getting permission from Union Pacific was just the beginning. The project required laying more than a mile of track. The company also built an unloading structure and a pneumatic vacuum transfer system to move the grain from the rail cars into trucks to get them to the brewing facility about three miles away.
All told, the project took more than two years to complete, Manley said. Industrial Rail Construction built the track, and Chico firm BCM Construction constructed the building. The finished product allows vast quantities of grain to be shipped more efficiently, since each railcar holds the same amount as three to four semi trailers.
In the spring of 2006, Sierra Nevada began receiving rail-shipped grain at an existing unloading facility in Hamilton City. But the drive to the brewery took more than 30 minutes each way, slowing the efficiency of the process and adding more exhaust and pollution to the environment. Building a closer spur was the brainchild of brewery owner Ken Grossman and Stan Cooper, Sierra Nevada’s logistics manager.
Another recent addition to the brewery is a biodiesel processor. All used vegetable oil from the Sierra Nevada Restaurant & Taproom is collected and processed on-site into a useable alternative fuel. It is used in the company’s fleet to help offset the consumption of conventional diesel.
“Something that we have used as a model for environmental efficiency, and others can use as well, is that we have really tried to close the loop as much as possible,” explained Cheri Chastain, Sierra Nevada’s sustainability coordinator. “We have looked at items, materials or substances leaving our process, and ways to recycle them back into our brewing process.”
For about $1.62 a gallon to process, the fuel is also cost-effective. The brewery is able to produce about 60 gallons a week for use in local and long-haul route trucks.
“At this point we are making as much biodiesel as we can, and filling up the trucks as often as possible, but it’s really only the start of fossil-fuel independence,” Manley said.
Another behind-the-scenes environmental initiative is the brewery’s wastewater-treatment operation. Manley explained that the water is light industrial liquid from the brewing process, not from bathroom sinks or sewers. Most of it is used for cleaning kettles and moving the residue from inside the brewing and fermentation tanks.
The treatment plant is a two-stage digester: Water is pumped into a tank filled with beneficial bacteria that consume organic matter without oxygen and is then moved into a larger tank with a different set of bacteria in the presence of air. Both processes consume most of the contaminants in the water, which is then used to irrigate the on-site hop field grown specifically for brewing the Chico Estate Harvest Ale.
Continuing the recycling loop, the processed grains and yeast are recovered and used as a nutritional supplement for livestock. A portion is fed to Sierra Nevada’s own herd of cattle that later become food fare in the restaurant.
“We produce millions of tons of spent grain each year,” Manley said. “Obviously, the small [few dozen] head of cattle we operate in conjunction with Chico State can’t consume all of that. We sell the bulk of it to local farmers and ranchers, but try to keep that within a 100-mile radius of the brewery, so we can help our local farmers first.”
What’s more, the manure from the cattle is composted and used as a soil amendment in the on-site hop field.
Of course, it’s hard to miss the giant solar array next to the hops field. Composed of 10,000 panels, it’s one of the largest private solar arrays in the country. Used in conjunction with fuel cells, the photovoltaic project helps generate an average of 70 percent to 80 percent of the brewery’s total energy needs.
Back on the tour, McNally notes that the company looks out for the needs of its employees as well as the Earth. Getting a pair of comfortable shoes every six months is just one of many perks.
“Part-time employees get health benefits here. Isn’t that wonderful?” said McNally, adding that the company’s flexibility allows her to pursue her life as a musician.
She is one of more than 400 employees who are encouraged to adopt a healthful lifestyle and reduce their own emissions by riding bikes—both to work and on their personal time—through a program called “Green Machine.” Participating employees are invited to a dinner at the end of the year, and a raffle with prizes like plasma televisions.
McNally recently enrolled to participate and looks forward to the personal and environmental rewards that the voluntary program provides.
“Working here makes me feel like the people I work for care about my well-being and the well-being of the environment,” she said. “I am part of a caring community.”