Take a moment to picture the epitome of sustainable building design. Now, imagine what it looks like where your favorite beer is made. Chances are, the two images look vastly different. For decades, the typical American brewery has hardly embodied the best examples of green building practices—in fact, most breweries represent the opposite: largely industrial, energy-guzzling facilities that use outrageous amounts of water, gas, and other natural resources just to produce a single batch of a kölsch or a saison.
But thanks to the growing national interest in sustainability, many brewers are looking to smart design and more efficient operations to improve their triple bottom line. Companies like Abita Brewing Company and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. are managing water resources and investing in renewable energy while Boulevard Brewing Company has unveiled a new expansion that brings a rare natural resource to the brewery floor: sunlight.
It’s a brave new world for brewery design, and the future of beer is looking brighter with every pint. (And that’s not just the beer talking.)
Brewers sometimes joke that if you’ve seen one brewery, you’ve seen them all. Regardless of size, location, and whether the operations are set up in an old industrial warehouse, reclaimed building, or structure that is built from the ground up, the schema typically looks the same: the building parameters are tall and wide with sprawling open floor plans and easy access to loading docks. Inside, a labyrinth of shiny tanks, hoses, and pipes winds and weaves throughout the space, bubbling, buzzing, and whirring as hops and malts are transformed into liquid gold.
When it comes to the design of these spaces, at least in initial phases, function nearly always trumps form. Peter Weber, design principal and senior architect at Coburn Partners, has worked on a number of brewery design projects, including the new Breckenridge Brewery in Littleton, Colorado. He says initial design decisions must be driven by the organizational demands of the equipment because at the end of the day, efficiencies in the brewing process equal cost savings.
“One of the things that is unique to breweries is that the equipment has a massive impact on the design project. In many ways, you have to design the building around the equipment,” Weber says, “so you want to shorten pipe lengths when possible. You need wide, open floor plans for things like packaging lines and tall spaces for coolers, dry storage, and fermentation tanks.”
That’s not to say aesthetics never come into play. For many new large-scale construction projects, such as Breckenridge’s and Sierra Nevada’s, the outward façade of the structure plays an important role, too, as companies aim to take advantage of the growing tourism industry. Instead of simply moving in to an industrial park or warehouse, elaborate new facilities are built from the ground up, with blueprints broadened to include taprooms, restaurants, expansive gift shops, and visitor’s centers. In many cases, designers look to regional aesthetics to create unique environments that will be attractive to visitors and reinforce the story of a particular brand.
“There’s 3,000-plus breweries out there, and everyone wants to go somewhere local,” says Brian Grossman, co-manager of Sierra Nevada’s new brewery in Mills River, North Carolina. “If you have something that is architecturally way out of place, it’s not going to excite a lot of people.”
Both Grossman and Weber wanted their respective projects to visually resonate with the surrounding culture and landscape. At Breckenridge’s new location, Weber and his team implemented a campus of large, barn-like structures, creating a rustic farmhouse look that speaks to the history of the Front Range in Colorado. At Sierra Nevada, the new facility is made primarily out of brick, a decision influenced by historic masonry that proliferates throughout the East Coast.
“It was important for us to reflect our location, to design a building that fit into the lush western North Carolina landscape,” says Ryan Arnold, Sierra Nevada’s communications manager. “Myriad details pay homage to the rich brewing history that preceded us, namely through material choices, including salvaged wood, copper, and brick.”
This theme is not limited to new construction. The design teams behind work done at Abita and Boulevard left the original facilities intact but took visual liberties with new expansions and additions. For Boulevard in Kansas City, El Dorado Inc. added an glass-clad, aviary-like structure to the existing brick warehouse to represent the intersections of modern growth and historic industry.
At Abita in New Orleans, metal buildings, silos, and stainless steel tanks jut out from the original operations side of the property, whereas the exterior of the new visitor’s center mirrors classic French Quarter architecture, complete with wrought-iron balconies, a central courtyard, and a water fountain. “We’re ingrained in the culture of Louisiana and New Orleans,” Abita president David Blossman says. “We are proud to show who we are, and we want people to come in and not see a generic front. We want people to see Louisiana.”
Intelligent brewery design must bleed into the operational side of things, too. Beer is composed of about 95 percent water, making clean and abundant natural resources essential to producing a quality product. As a result, many brewers are paying closer attention to the ways in which they source and use water to ensure a sustainable future.
Specifically, brewers are increasingly vocal advocates for preserving clean water resources to ensure abundant supply for the future. Many have taken the issue to bat publicly through the Brewers for Clean Water campaign, an initiative put into place by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2013, that encourages businesses to do their part to ensure streams, lakes, and other water resources remain viable for the foreseeable future. Upwards of 50 breweries across the country participate, including Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas Brewing Company and New Belgium Brewing.
“It’s critical to protect tributary streams and nearby waters,” says Jenn Vevier, directory of strategy and sustainability at New Belgium. “The science shows, without doubt, that they are linked to downstream water quality. Not polluting those resources is not just being a good neighbor—it makes good business sense.” Safeguarding natural resources not only ensures a rich stock for the future, but low-quality water negatively affects the flavor of a final brew; with hops, malts, and yeast as beer’s only other ingredients, it’s impossible to make delicious beer without good, clean water.
In order to keep the nearby water channels wealthy and pure, Sierra Nevada went so far as to design and engineer a man-made streambed. Due to unexpected levels of rainfall that on-site collection systems didn’t have the capacity to store, the brewery teamed up with landscape architects at Design Workshop to create a creek that would capture excess runoff and prevent pollution of the nearby Mills River. “It was important for us to slow the flow of what is entering the river, prevent erosion, and keep sediment on the surfaces. So, the creek is designed to keep that water on-site, let the sediment settle out of it, and then slow it as it goes into the river,” Chastain says. “I don’t think any other brewery has ever had to do anything like this before.”
Sierra Nevada also boasts an on-site wastewater treatment facility—a design feature sometimes seen at larger craft breweries that pre-treats used water before sending it back into city systems. According to the Brewers Association, most breweries discharge a whopping 70 percent of their incoming water as “effluent,” or wastewater. Most of what is left over from the brewing process consists of sugar, yeast, and other organic proteins—things that are not as harmful as chemical toxins, but when left untreated can negatively impact natural ecosystems over time. Pre-treating water (adjusting the PH and removing solids) before it enters the system helps prevent long-term costs and repercussions.
Beyond maintaining the integrity of natural water resources, brewers are looking to reduce consumption levels and reuse water during the beer-making process, too. The average brewing cycle demands anywhere from eight or more gallons of water to produce a single gallon of beer. When you consider that craft breweries are allowed to produce up to six million barrels—or 186 million gallons—of beer per year, it’s no surprise that many aim to reduce this ratio with savvy design solutions.
Sierra Nevada’s North Carolina location captures rainwater to prevent drawing unnecessarily from local resources. Several 5,000-gallon tanks collect the rain that pours off of the brewrey’s rooftop, and an underground, 500,000-gallon tank acts as storage for runoff from paved surfaces. Collected water is used for both irrigation and plumbing systems on-site.
Others look to recycle water from the various steps that take place during brewing. Most facilities, such as Abita or Breckenridge’s new Littleton location, will take recovered water from the pre-fermentation process that would normally go down the drain and reuse it to clean tanks, kegs, and floors. Breckenridge will also follow in Sierra Nevada’s footsteps; it plans to use recycled water to irrigate its on-site hop field. These kinds of measures both help breweries cut down on their need for additional resources and reduce bottom line costs in the long run.
As far as business operations go, brewers won’t hesitate to admit that facilities are major energy hogs. Whereas most energy and heat issues in buildings can be improved by making alterations to the structure, when it comes to breweries, the energy load land squarely on the shoulders of the equipment.
“One general observation that surprised us when we first started working on breweries is that the amount of energy used is grossly dominated by the brewing process,” Weber says. “The refrigeration and heating needs just to brew and ferment the beer far outstrip anything the building does. The building becomes almost negligible in terms of its energy use because the equipment loads are so huge.”
Weber says the best thing any designer can do to combat this is to find better ways of using equipment efficiently. At Breckenridge, a heat-recovery vapor condenser captures steam heat that escapes during certain boiling processes and condenses it back into hot water that can be used to heat the next batch. The brewery installed storage tanks to house hot water on-site, so that subsequent batches won’t require the energy needed to bring the water to a boil.
Abita also uses an energy-recovery program and employs a Krones EquiTherm system that generates an additional 25-percent savings of total energy. Abita also uses solar power to generate on-site energy, with an 85-kilowatt system that it hopes to double in the future. At its California location, Sierra Nevada reaps the green benefits of extensive solar and hydrogen fuel cell systems as well as two 200-kilowatt Capstone microturbines that run on the methane recovered from the on-site wastewater treatment plant in Mills River. The solar arrays in California produce roughly 20 percent of Sierra Nevada’s electrical needs; in North Carolina, solar panels on the brewery roof and covering parking lots create 600 kilowatts of clean energy.
Boulevard’s Cellar 1 expansion in Kansas City is an architecturally unique brewery project that is also notable in its approach to energy savings. The new strikingly modern glass enclosure juts out above a sea of surrounding industrial warehouses, acting in stark contrast to the existing brick facility while also providing ample light for the brewing operations below it during the day. Through the design, the architects harnessed the power of natural light to reduce the need for around-the-clock electricity, supplemented inside with high-efficiency T5 fluorescent light bulbs used on motion detectors and varying fixture settings that change light volume and intensity based on what activity is occurring.
“There was tremendous effort to balance the maximum gain of natural light and minimize the gain of solar heat,” says Josh Shelton, principal at El Dorado. To ensure the abundance of light would not negatively affect the heating systems within the building, a granular, urban-looking shield of corrugated, perforated aluminum protects the glass from sun when appropriate on several sides of the building. “The perforated panels become more dense and opaque in relation to southeast- and southwest-facing elevations, and the panels shift to a more open perforation pattern as the structure faces northwest,” he says.
Other heat-reducing devices are employed at Boulevard, too; walls are heavily insulated with blown-in foam, low E-insulated glazing coats the volume, and the roof is covered in a reflective TPO to dissuade light absorption, creating a complete energy-savings package. At night, the aviary-like cube glows with soft, welcoming light when viewed from the gritty streets below.
For so many breweries, sustainable design is helping their businesses go above and beyond to meet the triple bottom line—an important goal, considering how seriously brewing operations can impact the environment.
Some, like the president of Abita, say the impetus is not merely trendy—it’s just good business practice. “We call it ‘green’ now, but we like being efficient and not wasting things,” Blossman says. “We’re blessed with such great resources, and we recognize that and want to preserve them. It’s important for us to give back.”
Others, like Sierra Nevada, seek LEED certification as proof of their efforts, even if that’s not necessarily the driving impetus for them. Grossman says he and his family are outdoor people, and knowing his business practices are respecting the surrounding natural resources is important to him personally.
“Our ethos, our belief, is: why would you not do something that’s better for the environment if you’ve got the opportunity?” Grossman says. “Maybe some of those things will help our bottom line, maybe some don’t, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s definitely a combination of both.”
When smart thinking, quality design, and brewers come together, it’s a win-win for both the environment and everyone involved. It’s also great for the beer-drinking community. Knowing these companies are creating infrastructures that will ensure sustainable beer operations for the future without harming the environment means you can take extra pride in sipping that pint of your favorite brew.