Organic beer is old news. The latest attempts by breweries to go green have nothing to do with organic hops or locally grown barley. In fact, most of their environmental efforts have nothing to do with what goes into their beer at all. Instead, breweries are focusing their attention on greening all aspects of the beer-making, from the breweries to the packaging materials.

"More and more breweries are conscious about their [carbon] footprints and their impact on the environment," says Julia Herz, spokeswoman for the Brewers Association. "It's more than just a trend; it's a movement."

The movement seems to be taking hold. According to the Brewers Association, there are 1,500 craft breweries in the United States (defined as breweries that produce fewer than 2 million barrels of beer per year) and a growing number of them are embracing alternative energy, starting composting programs, recycling spent grain and using reclaimed materials, including brewing equipment, in their operations.

In California, Sierra Nevada gets a third of its power from the sun. Its efforts are part of the largest private solar installation efforts in the nation, with 1.8 megawatts of photovoltaic panels. Solar power also helps Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville, Calif.; Twin Lakes American Farm Brewery in Greenville, Del.; and Upland Brewing Co. in Bloomington, Ind., run their brewing operations. According to Upland Brewing Co., switching to solar helped cut its natural gas usage by up to 75 percent.

The Lucky Labrador Brewing Co. in Portland, Ore., spent $70,000 on a solar thermal system that gathers energy from the sun to heat the water used to brew beer, saving the brewery close to $2,000 per year in energy costs. To celebrate its success, Lucky Lab introduced a limited-edition Solar Flare Ale that has gotten rave reviews.

"It was an economic no-brainer," says Gary Geist, co-owner of "The Lucky Lab," explaining that the cost was offset by federal and state tax credits and a grant. "It was also part of our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, to do what we can to be sustainable."

Energy efficiency is also top-of-mind in Colorado, where the New Belgium Brewery gets 100 percent of its power from the wind, has cut its water use in half and is in the process of installing solar panels onsite. The changes have enabled the brewery to cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 8 million pounds per year.

"From the beginning, one of our core values has been to produce world-class beer using environmentally friendly practices," says Bryan Simpson, spokesman for New Belgium Brewery. "It's part of our corporate culture to keep the environment in mind in everything we do."

It's not just the brewery buildings that are getting green makeovers; the materials used to transport and package beer are becoming more eco-friendly, too. At Odell Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, Colo., craft beers are bottled in recycled glass and six-pack holders are made from recycled paper. At Oregon-based brewpub McMenamins, pallets used to transport kegs are returned to the distributor to be reused, the wooden bungs used to seal kegs are chipped into garden compost and nylon malt bags are collected for gardening. In keeping with the 3 R's, even kegs and other brewing equipment is purchased second-hand from other breweries and retrofitted. McMenamins has even hired a full-time environmental coordinator to manage reducing, reusing and recycling the brewery's waste.

Although smaller breweries are leading the green revolution, some of the big-name beer-makers are making changes, too. MillerCoors, one of the largest beer brewers in the world, switched from hard-to-recycle steel cans to aluminum in 1959. Today, the Colorado-based brewery recycles its own wastewater and sells ethanol to local refineries. Anheuser-Busch, brewer of Budweiser, has also made some eco-friendly changes to its Fairfield, Calif., brewing operations, installing six acres of ground-mounted photovoltaic panels and a bio-energy recovery system that captures the nutrients in brewers wastewater and converts it into biogas.

Both Coors and McMenamins offer hop flowers, berries, brewers yeast and other "spent grains" to local farmers for livestock feed. In Hawaii, Kona Brewing Co. sells its spent grains to farmers, too. The brewery also uses spent grain from the brewing process as an ingredient in its pizza dough and breads.

This new twist on green beer might not make a cold pint taste better, but the efforts add up to a huge environmental impact.

"These brewers are passionate innovators who are making a difference," Herz says.

In honor of their efforts, grab a cold beer and make a toast to the breweries that are committed to balancing their passion for great beer with their commitment to the environment.

For more, check out MNN's beer category.

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New twist on green beer
Breweries big and small are thinking outside the bottle as they make their operations eco-friendlier.