As of December 2012, there are over 2,700 breweries operating in the United States – more than at any other time since Prohibition. In 2011 alone, 174 new microbreweries opened their doors in the U.S. The explosion of breweries in the past two decades would seem to suggest that this is an easy growth, cash cow market, but it’s much more difficult to annually turn a profit than these figures might suggest.
And some, like the Alaskan Brewing Company (which was the 67th brewery in the U.S. after Prohibition), have had to come up with innovative new ways to keep their business in the black. That’s where ‘Beer Powered Beer’ comes in.
The Alaskan Brewing Co., located in Juneau, Alaska, has started a process of reusing brewing ingredients as fuel, making their brewery more self-sustaining in an attempt to cut costs.
One of the main ingredients in most beer is a malt and barley mash. The grain is spent, or used, in the brewing process, and leaves behind a wet, biomass byproduct. Most breweries, including Alaskan Brewing Co. until recently, ship this residual grain mash to farms and agricultural operations, that then use the grain as a protein source in feed for livestock. For many breweries in the contiguous 48 states, this is a fairly efficient means of spent grain disposal. But for a brewery based out of Juneau, where transportation in and out of the city is highly limited, this was an expensive part of the operation.
For every $60/ton that the brewery received for their spent grain from farmers, it cost them $30 /ton to ship it there. Once the expense of drying the byproduct for shipping is tacked on, as well as other operating expenses, it was clear that this cycle would not sustain itself for long.
So they turned to an in-house recycling process. With the help of a nearly half-million dollar grant from the Federal Rural Energy for America Program, Alaskan Brewing Co. set out to create a special boiler system that ran entirely on spent grain for fuel. According to the company’s brewing operations and engineering manager, while some breweries currently utilize spent grain as a co-fuel, ‘nobody was burning spent grain as a sole fuel source for an energy recovery system, for a steam boiler.’
The system, which cost $1.8 million and was developed with the help of an industrial furnace company in North Dakota, burns the dried spent grain to create steam. The steam, an often underutilized renewable energy source, then powers their entire facility. The boiler system, which is expected to save the company $450,000 annually, will offset their energy costs by 70% and pay for itself in under five years.
The green revolution tends to focus on wind and solar energy but, as is shown, there are many forms of renewable energy that are still largely untapped. While this model does not appear to be adaptable to larger brewing operations just yet, it’s a clear example of how businesses can become more energy efficient and more profitable.
You can also check out the video below if you want to learn a little bit more about Alaskan Brewing Co.