Green beer 

Sustainability project aims to change Montana's breweries

During the Montana Brewers Association conference in Missoula last fall, Heather Higinbotham pitched an idea she'd been mulling for years. The Bozeman energy conservation specialist hoped to delve into the question of how to set Montana's craft breweries on a path toward increased sustainability, a course she'd spent nearly eight years helping other businesses chart through her UnCommon Sense training program. According to Higinbotham, five breweries, including Missoula's Kettlehouse and Great Burn Brewing, signed up "on the spot," and a sixth, Philipsburg Brewing, followed just days later.

"We wanted to get five to eight breweries in our first pilot round," she says, "just so we had a manageable number as we figure out what the needs are and what level of support they're going to need."

The venture quickly morphed into the Brewery Sustainability Implementation Pilot, which UnCommon Sense launched in conjunction with Montana State University's Montana Manufacturing Extension Center and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. For the past eight months the pilot has been helping breweries in Missoula, Philipsburg, Sidney, Bozeman and Livingston identify the best methods to increase efficiency and decrease waste, as well as institute behavioral shifts toward sustainability among staff. Higinbotham says she intends to roll out the findings at the 2016 MBA conference this September, and hopes to eventually work with other state agencies including the Department of Commerce to spread the word more broadly.

"So much of this is the storytelling," she says. "I can go talk to people until I'm blue in the face and they're like, 'Oh, okay, whatever. You're educating me about sustainability. Great.' But if they're a brewery and they say, 'Man, Kettlehouse did that, that's so cool,' their peers are going to have so much more impact."

click to enlarge Kettlehouse Sustainability Coordinator Eddie Wooldridge shovels spent grain into a truck for use by a local farmer, one of several initiatives the brewery introduced to reduce waste and increase efficiency. Kettlehouse is one of six breweries participating in the statewide Brewery Sustainability Implementation Pilot. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Kettlehouse Sustainability Coordinator Eddie Wooldridge shovels spent grain into a truck for use by a local farmer, one of several initiatives the brewery introduced to reduce waste and increase efficiency. Kettlehouse is one of six breweries participating in the statewide Brewery Sustainability Implementation Pilot.

For Kettlehouse, the timing of the pilot program coincided closely with the brewery's establishment last year of a company sustainability initiative. Sustainability Coordinator Eddie Wooldridge says Kettlehouse had already instituted a number of changes prior to the program, such as installing a centrifuge to increase filtration efficiency, which he estimates has reduced water usage by 20,000 gallons a year, and sending spent grains to local farmers. However, the brewery's involvement with UnCommon Sense did give Wooldridge some new ideas, among them the creation of an in-house sustainability committee made up of staff from different branches of the company.

"One of the aspects that this pilot has done for us, too, is allow for us to create new standards of operation or revamp our SOPs," Wooldridge adds. "That's just to make sure everybody's using the same gallons of water when we're cleaning a tank or turning things on and off when they should be, just self-policing each other."

When it comes to creating a more sustainable operation, Wooldridge says tracking data and establishing baselines for things like water usage are obvious starting points. Most folks outside the industry might not realize how much waste is generated by the brewing process: spent grains, wastewater, yeast. Kettlehouse's new facility in Bonner will further address these issues with on-site wastewater treatment. But for other breweries looking to start down the sustainability path, Wooldridge says not to overlook the "low-hanging fruit."

"Lighting is one of those things," he says. "Everybody can change their lightbulbs out, and it's going to have a high impact and it doesn't take that much effort to change."

Like Higinbotham, Wooldridge views the pilot program as a starting point for broader change among the state's roughly 60 breweries. Conversation among the pilot participants already turned to the idea of creating a sustainability committee through the MBA, he says, which would ensure the work continues beyond the pilot program's end this summer.

"Allowing us to communicate to one another, creating that committee within Montana, would really help us shoot ideas back and forth—what's working, what's not working, how can we help you, help us," Wooldridge says. "My end goal as a business is to work with other breweries and create a community where they realize it's important to have that as part of their program."

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