Farming is a risky business in an age of climate change, as hop growers in Washington’s Yakima valley can attest. As weather patterns alter, the farmers who grow 40% of the world’s hop supply are battling one crisis after another. Violent windstorms toppled their hop trellises just before the 2020 harvest. (A similar gale drove the December 2021 fire that ripped through the outskirts of Denver, Colorado.) An unprecedented heat dome scorched their crop during the summer of 2021. And wildfires during the autumn of 2020 ruined still more hops.
These issues have been affecting the entire beer industry supply chain for the past two years. Katie Wallace, New Belgium Brewing’s director for social and environmental impacts, says that the Colorado wildfires rendered the water inaccessible to our brewery. Due to extreme heat and the smoke taint, we also had the worst barley crop of any farmer’s lifetime. Extreme weather events caused major disruptions in supply chains, such as the February deep freeze that halted supplies of essential ingredients for brewing.
But even though climate change threatens their business, New Belgium, and other beer companies, are showing leadership in adapting. They offer a case study in environmental action that has a real, tangible impact.
A case study in concrete action
New Belgium Brewing is based in Fort Collins, Colorado. They wanted their customers to taste the effects of climate change. Fat Tire, their flagship brand, launched “Torched Earth,” which was a limited-release beer that contains smoke-tainted and drought-parched ingredients. It was horrible. Wallace, New Belgium says that it is crucial to be able to convey the truth about what climate change will do to beer. “Because it’s going get worse .”
if we don’t take action.
Fat Tire also made waves throughout the beer world in 2020, when they announced that their popular amber ale was certified carbon neutral – the first beer in the United States to achieve that status. These initiatives are only the tip of the (rapidly melting!) iceberg. Brewery is doing extensive work at all levels to make it as sustainable as possible. They are undertaking a wide range of actions that consumers can measure and see.
The effort started with a comprehensive carbon accounting process – a critical analysis of how much is emitted by the business, and where. Fat Tire then began purchasing high-quality carbon offsets to reduce emissions that were not directly controlled by them, such as transportation. Fat Tire’s efforts will pave the way for similar programs across all New Belgium beers, putting the business on the path to complete carbon neutrality by 2030.
New Belgium Brewing also played a crucial role in lobbying the city council of Fort Collins to transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2030. Wallace believes that other companies should not hesitate to follow her lead. She says that sometimes companies feel they have to set up their own carbon accounting first. However, this is the easiest option. “Companies should talk to the local utility leader about switching to renewables. This is an action they can now take! It doesn’t take a company to be able to sustain their internal environment before they ask for .”
Wallace also highlights the role of larger companies in the fight against climate change: “70% of our emissions come from 100 companies,” she says. “It’s concerning. We can break our backs over here as a medium-size business, but we need the bigger companies to do the work too.” To that end, New Belgium and Fat Tire launched a “Last Call for Climate” initiative, highlighting the sustainability efforts of Fortune 500 companies, along with Twitter links for consumers to call them out or praise them based on their sustainability plans.
New Belgium also developed sustainability standards for beverage companies and launched a free toolkit for carbon-neutral breweries that they can download and use.
For 2022 and beyond, the company has bold goals. Wallace says that the company just launched a supplier engagement program. This will allow suppliers to better understand climate goals. “Our success will rely on them heavily.” Other items on the agenda include implementing recommendations from the energy engineer New Belgium hired to review their 2030 net-zero plan, continuing to work with their internal carbon-neutral task force, and engaging with New Belgium’s banking and insurance providers.” They have so much influence in what gets funded in the world,” Wallace says.
A ripple effect
New Belgium has set the stage for other beer companies to follow their lead. Chase O’Malley, from Sunday Beer Co., says, “When New Belgium announced in 2020 that they had made one of their beers carbon neutral, it was the first I had heard of another brewery doing it on that scale. It was truly inspiring for us.” Sunday Beer Co. soon followed New Belgium’s lead, making their signature Lager carbon neutral and pooling with small businesses to purchase offsets through Carbon Neutral. Future beers