December 21st, 2016

Alcohol problem: the environmental impacts of beer

5 minute read

by Alice Walton


Most of us enjoy a pint or two at Christmas time. Whether we’re letting our hair down at the work Christmas party or meeting up with family and friends down the local pub, and whether it’s an ale to warm the cockles on a cold winter’s night or a cool lager to rouse us from a pudding-induced nap, over the holiday season the idea of a nice pint of beer may often come to the forefront of our minds.

As it’s Christmas, most of us will be happy to put aside any thoughts of empty calories or potential hangovers; but can the environmentally-minded reveller afford to turn the same blind eye to the carbon footprint of our favourite festive tipple?


Not all beer and skittles

It is estimated that 1.5% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions are created by the production and consumption of alcohol, the majority of which is beer.  A number of sources – including Mike Burners-Lee’s 2010 article in the Guardian, Cool World Consulting’s carbon footprint calculator and The Climate Conservancy’s study into Fat Tire Amber Ale – have tried to establish where these emissions arise and how they can be reduced.

Of course, not all of the 15,837,785,877 pints of beer consumed in the UK every year are produced within the UK. The scale and method of beer production can vary wildly, from tiny microbreweries producing around 3,000 pints a year to global brands like Molson Coors, which can shift 19 million pints of Carling, Coors Light and Cobra over the festive period alone.

The way we make, move and serve our beer can make a big difference to its impact on the environment. In his book How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, Mike Berners-Lee suggests that, while consuming a locally brewed cask ale in the pub can produce as little as 300g CO2e, a bottled beer from a shop that has been extensively transported can be responsible for as much as 900g CO2e.


Sauce of emissions

The carbon footprinting process involves looking at the whole lifecycle of a product to identify all the ways that it could either directly or indirectly contribute to emissions, and then calculating the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

CO2e is calculated by multiplying the emissions of each of the six greenhouse gases by its 100 year global warming potential. A full carbon footprint includes the obvious things such as ingredients, packaging, fuel, electricity and transport as well as the less obvious such as staff travel, equipment replacement and disposal at end of life.


Keeping packaging to a minimum helps reduce your festive booze footprint. Photo: Jenn Durfey (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr.


Carbon footprinting studies into beer production and consumption have found that ingredients, electricity, packaging and distribution can all play a major part in increasing emissions, and that many of these are reduced when the drink is consumed locally in a pub on tap, rather than out of a bottle.



Raising the bar

As the evidence for the anthropogenic causes of global climate change becomes ever harder to ignore, many companies are taking steps to measure and reduce their carbon impacts, and when it comes to sustainable beer Adnams is already making strides.

Located in the Suffolk town of Southwold, Adnams is committed to offering beer that is produced and sold in a responsible manner and sets itself annual targets to reduce its impact on the environment. From large scale investment, such as the installation of a grass roofed distribution centre and bio-generator for processing production waste, to smaller changes including 38% light-weighted beer bottles, it is taking steps towards greener production.


Best bitter? Suffolk-based Adnams is leading the way in making beer more sustainable. Photo: John Winfield (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons


The brewery can now boast that 67% of its waste (700 tonnes a month) goes to feed local cows, meaning that it’s not only diverted from disposal but that it requires very little transportation. It also helps the cows to produce 40% less methane than if they were fed on grass.  A further 29% of waste is processed by the bio-generator to create biomethane for the grid and fuel for the company’s fleet of distribution vehicles. The brewery has also, built a closed loop system into beer production, using heat generated by the equipment sterilisation process to preheat the brewery stills.

Adnams is also taking steps to reduce its environmental impacts in other areas. Using state of the art brewing machinery from Germany means that it uses just 3.1 pints of water for every pint of beer produced; some estimate the industry average to be almost twice that. What’s more, the brewery’s work with the local community includes keeping bees, working with local school children to grow and cook home produce and organising regular beach cleans.


I’ll drink to that

While the craft beer market is currently thriving, with many small scale brewers doing their bit to bring you great tasting local beers on a tight carbon budget, not every pub or supermarket will stock them. It’s important to have national brands like Adnam’s which shout about their sustainability credentials and provide the concerned purveyor and consumer with a more environmentally friendly choice of tipple.

Like in every aspect of life, the little changes that we can easily make may not just be small beer. If you’re settling in for a Christmas time session, check the pumps for a local brew or keep your eyes open for a more sustainable snifter.


Alice Walton


Leave a Reply

2 Comment threads
2 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
4 Comment authors
Alice WaltonadministratorRobert StrongMark Baines Recent comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Robert Strong
Robert Strong

Beer’s a plant based food if they’d only stop putting fish bladders in. How does 300g to 900g CO2e (per drink?) compare to other alcoholic beverages, coca cola etc., bottled water, tea, coffee and farm yard scrumpy, to a typical roast dinner or to the very banana mentioned in the book title? If it is significant then which part of the brewing process is it that produces the most emissions? Usually the brewer aims to CO2 leaks during and after fermentation, because if oxygen gets in it spoils the product. Also can we have a reference to compare the many… Read more »

Alice Walton
Alice Walton

Robert, here are the articles that looked at which parts of the brewing process created the most emissions:

If you click on the blue links in the article it will take you directly to the reference documents so you can compare facts.

Hope this helps…

Mark Baines

I’d better go to the pub right now to check it out…