Can we drink our way to a healthier planet?
Americans have had a lot to drink about lately. From the pandemic and the election to the ongoing battle for racial justice, and, at long last, the onset of #vaccinatedgirlsummer, it’s no wonder people are imbibing more alcohol. Sometimes a lot more.
So what does that mean for the planet?
Like any product, making booze requires resources and creates waste. Beer has four main ingredients: water, barley, hops, and yeast. Wine and distilled spirits often have just two or three. Of course, if you’ve ever had a funky craft brew you know that all sorts of other flavorings and twists can go into the mix (one of my all-time favorites featured blueberries, vanilla beans, and catnip). At its core, though, alcohol is a relatively simple concoction.
And we drink a lot of it. Worldwide, people consume around 117 billion gallons of alcohol every year, with the lion’s share — over 100 billion gallons — in the form of beer or hard cider. Today, the U.S. grows around 2 million acres of barley, and almost all of it is used for beer. Barley and hops aren’t particularly intensive crops, but it’s no secret that our industrialized agriculture system takes a toll on the land and the climate (and vice versa).
All the barley and adjunct grains that go into brewing those gallons wind up as a waste stream. Once the fermentation process is complete, brewers are left with a porridge of malted barley and hops to dispose of or repurpose as best they’re able. About a pound of that soggy mix gets left behind with every six pack of beer produced. Historically, a large portion of it went to animal feed, but the rising popularity of urban microbreweries and home brewing has put beer makers farther away from the farmers they might have partnered with. In some cases, the only option is to dump it.
But before these sobering realities get you down, know that a sustainable future doesn’t have to be dry. A growing number of entrepreneurs and researchers are finding innovative ways of making your favorite beverages more climate-friendly. They’re creating new uses for the byproducts of brewing, making tasty new drinks from upcycled ingredients, and embracing regenerative agriculture and grains that are easier on the earth. There’s never been a more exciting time to drink responsibly.