Water footprint of brewing
Every litre of beer produced requires many times that amount in water. The most up-to-date figures we found were from 2009 and stated that the water footprint per litre could range between 45 litres and 155 litres, largely depending on where it was brewed and where the ingredients were grown.
For beer brewed in the UK, water consumption may be less of an issue because we usually have plenty and our cooler climate means that the footprint for the crops required (if also locally sourced) is likely to be lower. However, it can be a real issue for communities fighting multinational breweries in countries facing water shortages.
Heineken, for example, has been linked to water conflicts in Chihuahua, Mexico. The company was widely criticised for opening its factory in a region that faces serious water stresses, where the capital has been warned that it may only have 10 years of water left due to overexploitation, and where some households face rising prices for water use.
Carbon management and reporting of the brewers
As always, we rated all companies on what they’re doing to report and tackle their emissions. We expect companies to be taking meaningful steps to address their key emissions; to be reporting on emissions including those within their supply chains; and to be committing to targets in line with international emission goals. For beer and lager, this means that companies should be discussing their emissions from agriculture and ingredient sourcing, as well as from their breweries, packaging and transportation.
Only a handful of companies were considered to be taking adequate steps in terms of reporting and managing their carbon, and half of these were small companies, which don’t have to meet such robust criteria by virtue of their size.
Of the larger beer companies, just 20% received our best rating.
Best: Carlsberg, Diageo (Guinness), Hepworth, Kirin, Stroud, Toast.
Middle: BrewDog, Black Isle, AB InBev, Mahou.
Worst: Little Valley, Samuel Smith, Marston’s, Fuller Smith & Turner, Molson Coors, Heineken, Asahi, Greene King, Freedom, Copper Tun (Nirvana), Brooklyn, Empress Ale (distributes CELIA).
We think some readers will be surprised not to see BrewDog in the ‘best’ category. The company has been celebrated over the claim that it “takes twice as much carbon out of the air as we emit.” However, this strategy is based on offsetting – an approach that Ethical Consumer doesn’t rate as highly as emissions reduction plans. The company has purchased 2,050 acres of land in the Scottish Highlands with the aim of creating 1,500 acres of broadleaf native woodlands and dedicating 550 acres to peatland restoration. As far as offsetting goes, the project looks like it has all the right partners and has been developed with Professor Mike Berners-Lee – respected climate scientist and the source for many of our emissions figures in this guide.
Our problem with the approach is that, while the steps taken may be positive, all sectors need to decarbonise and we can’t all offset our emissions like this – there isn’t enough land. There is also no guarantee that they’ll be permanent. The carbon capture and storage will only last as long as the woodlands and peatlands are protected. It’s therefore much better to avoid the emissions in the first place. Because BrewDog already counts its emissions as compensated, it doesn’t have adequate targets in line with international agreements in place.
BrewDog looks impressive though when compared to some of the biggest companies. Heineken and Asahi failed to report absolute emissions. Molson Coors failed to convince on the steps it was taking to address its climate impacts. These three companies are amongst the largest brewers in the world.
In fact, many rich conglomerates have been shown up by Hepworth brewery, which, despite having a turnover under £10.2 million, was taking significant steps towards reducing emissions and has one of the most ambitious net zero targets we saw in researching this guide.
In theory, beer is manufactured using very few ingredients: water, yeast, hops and a starch source such as barley malt. The biggest risk for GM, however, comes from sugar or corn syrup. Genetically modified varieties of these products are sometimes grown, and while these ingredients aren’t used in ‘proper’ beer, they may be used by larger, commercial brands.
In the UK, GM ingredients have to be labelled. However, GM corn syrup and sugar are much more common in countries like the US, where there is less regulation around GM use.
GM yeast has also been developed in recent years, although we couldn’t find any suggestion that it had been approved for use in the EU/UK. Liz O’Neil from campaign group GM Freeze explained, “The yeast is more complicated as I’m not sure it is covered by the same regulations [in the UK] due to being a microorganism rather than a plant or an animal.”
If you’re concerned about the potential impact of GM on our ecosystems, you may want to steer clear of a company that is using GM anywhere in the world. Asahi, Heineken, Kirin, Mahou and Molson Coors all lost half a mark under Controversial Technologies for likely use of GM ingredients. AB InBev is directly involved with developing genome editing of barley and therefore lost a full mark.