Brew that’s true

They don’t get much greener than Sierra Nevada Brewery

Sierra Nevada Brewery Co. has done its part. Now it’s time for you to do yours: Drink up, imbibing enviros!

Sierra Nevada Brewery Co. has done its part. Now it’s time for you to do yours: Drink up, imbibing enviros!

Photo By kelsey falle

It’s hard to miss the giant solar array in the hops field next to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. 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 Chico brewery’s total energy needs.

However, those mirrors are just the surface of the brewery’s efforts to create a sustainable business, explained Cheri Chastain, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s sustainability coordinator.

“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,” she said. “We have looked at items, materials or substances leaving our process, and ways to recycle them back into our brewing process.”

For the company, closing the loop means examining the entire production process, from recycling water and other waste products to developing more efficient transportation from field to brewery to market.

Consider the brewery’s wastewater-treatment operation. Communications coordinator Bill Manley explained the water is light industrial liquid from the brewing process, not from bathroom sinks or sewers. The treatment plant is a two-stage digester: Water is pumped into a tank filled with beneficial bacteria that consume organic matter without oxygen. It’s 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.

The loop is closed further by reprocessing grains and yeast used in the production process so that it can be fed to livestock, including Sierra Nevada’s own two dozen head of cattle. (Naturally, the manure from the cattle is composted and used as a soil amendment in the onsite hop field.)

“We produce millions of tons of spent grain each year,” Manley said. “Obviously, the small herd of cattle we operate in conjunction with CSU Chico 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.”

Most recently, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has been working to reduce its carbon footprint by shifting to more eco-friendly modes of transportation. That includes building its own rail spur off of the main Union Pacific Railroad line.

In the spring of 2006, Sierra Nevada began receiving rail-shipped grain at an existing unloading facility in Hamilton City, 30 minutes away. It not only slowed the production process down, it added more exhaust and pollution to the environment. The spur has solved those two problems, but it wasn’t easy.

“Building the rail spur was quite the effort,” Manley said.

The spur was the brainchild of brewery owner Ken Grossman and logistics manager Stan Cooper. More than a mile of track was laid down. 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 3 miles away.

All told, the project took more than two years to complete, Manley said. Industrial Railways Company 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 rail car holds the same amount as three to four semitrailers.

To further shrink the carbon footprint and close the loop, some of the brewery’s trucks run on fuel produced by the brewery’s biodiesel processor, another recent addition. All used vegetable oil from the Sierra Nevada Taproom & Restaurant 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. At $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.

Now that’s something worth drinking to.