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Spotlight on SDG Labs: Brewing up sustainability

This is the third in a series of stories that focus on the SDG Labs, a group of prototype projects supported by Future Earth, Stockholm Resilience Centre and The University of Tokyo Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science (IR3s).

To learn about another SDG Lab based in Nigeria, read Trees grow in Kano.

To learn about a project in Fiji, read Indigenous knowledge for healthy islands.

You can also watch presentations on the SDG Labs given at the 7th International Sustainability Science Conference in August in Stockholm, Sweden. You can find the conference programme here, and the live stream here.

After a long day of talks at the 7th International Conference on Sustainability Science in August, presenter Barry Ness gave attendees one last set of instructions: How to taste beer. Drinking a brew after an academic marathon is a time-honored tradition. But at this event in Stockholm, the sustainability scientist at Lund University in Sweden wanted to do things differently. Ness wanted the participants to really experience their beers.

“It’s not just about taste,” he said onstage. “It’s first about what do you actually see here. What’s the colour of the beer? Is it light? Does it look like coffee?”

Over the next 45 minutes, the the more than 150 people assembled sipped on four different kinds of beer hand-picked by Ness: a pilsner, stout, farmhouse saison and an India Pale Ale, or IPA. The tasting event was an opportunity for the scientist to talk about his latest project, an effort to foster sustainability in Sweden’s craft beer industry.

Ness explains that in recent years, Sweden has seen an explosion in small-scale breweries, churning out everything from traditional lagers to experimental sour beers. That growth has been a boon for the country’s hop-lovers, but it’s also created a range of sustainability challenges – from concerns over water and energy use to issues of labor practices and gender equity. This year, Ness teamed up with representatives from across the craft beer industry to begin to develop solutions to those problems. His “SustBeerLab” is one of more than 20 “SDG Labs” recently supported by Future Earth and its partners.

“Brewers have a close connection to nature through water usage, through the ingredients they use,” Ness says. “They’re inherently aware of these types of issues. And I think that a lot of them really have this desire to be closely linked to the communities that support them.”

Brewing boom

It’s an industry that Ness knows well. He has been a self-described “snobby beer drinker” since he was a high school student in the 1980s in Minnesota, United States. Today, he brews his own beer out of his kitchen in Eslöv, Sweden. “I actually brewed for my Ph.D. party, which was a disaster,” he says. The beer, not the Ph.D.

But if Ness is a snob, he’s not alone. According to data from the Colorado-based Brewers Association, nearly 5300 breweries operated in the U.S. in 2016. That’s a more than three-fold increase from the breweries that existed 15 years before. By definition, craft breweries produce less beer than mega-labels like Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors. They also tend to focus on beers with more complex flavours, such as those sour beers – which are fermented with “wild” strains of yeast, giving them a tart taste. 

Such a rapid growth in breweries, however, can come at a cost. The process of brewing gobbles up a lot of energy and even more water. According to information reported to the Brewers Association, the smallest class of breweries in the U.S. use an average of nearly 17 barrels of water to make a single barrel of beer – even the larger and more efficient craft breweries report water-to-beer ratios that exceed four-to-one on average.

Brewers and other beer lovers discuss the future and sustainability of craft brewing in Sweden at an event in August. Photo: Barry Ness

Ness wanted to do something about those and other challenges. He turned to his adopted home of Skåne County, Sweden. The region sits across the Øresund Bridge from Denmark and is home to 1.25 million people and 30 craft breweries. In August, Ness brought together 17 people interested or involved in the local beer industry, including brewers, beer ingredient suppliers, a craft beer consultant and academics, for dinner – and, of course, beers. The topic of conversation was sustainability.

The event was the first step in creating “some kind of meeting place around sustainability and craft beer,” Ness says. “It was a forum to talk about the different issues and what are priorities areas. Is it gender? Is it community engagement? Is it packaging systems?”

There are plenty of role models for growing breweries in Skåne and elsewhere to follow, Ness says. In the U.S., Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in California reports that it gets 20% of its energy from solar panels on site, and New Belgium in Colorado clocks in at 12%. Locally, the breweries Remmarlöv Gårdsbryggeri and Brygghuset Finn both offer beers made from certified organic ingredients.

But Ness wanted the Skåne brewers to also think bigger. “It’s great that you can do this, but at the same time, we’re talking about so many other issues than just water and energy use and maybe organic ingredients,” he says. “We’re talking about structures of society and issues of social change here.”

Sustainability principles

The sustainability scientist is keen, for example, to get brewers to think about gender in the beer world, which he says is dominated by “a bunch of bearded men.” The Pink Boots Society, a membership organisation centred in the U.S., works to promote women in the brewing industry, but it doesn’t yet have a chapter in Sweden.

Ness recognises that many breweries may be hesitant to champion such issues, especially when they’re struggling to stay in business in a crowded market. But he thinks it’s possible. In the coming months and years, he wants to work with his small group of beer professionals to develop a list of “sustainability principles” that companies could follow. Breweries that agree to meet those principles might be able to put a special logo on their labels.

But he also says that what the group, which he calls a “living lab,” sets out to accomplish is still brewing. “It's a part of the process,” Ness says. His goal is to serve as an “expert and coax people in a certain direction and try to enlighten them on these different issues, but, at the same time, not dictate everything.”

For his part, Ness is trying out new recipes in the kitchen. He just bottled a beer he’s calling “Swedish Blonde.” It’s a Belgian blonde ale – think light and sweet – made using hops grown in Sweden. “Who else can say that they’re working with one of their passions in life outside of academia and trying to combine that with research?” he says.

As the Swedes say just before taking a sip, skål.