Your Memorial Day Beer Choice Can Support Sustainable Farmers and Local Economies

, Kendall Science Fellow | May 26, 2016, 3:39 pm EST
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In the spirit of enjoying adult beverages this Memorial Day weekend (responsibly, of course!), I want to share a bit about the burgeoning craft beer industry in the United States and why the trends are encouraging for sustainable farming and local economies.

By definition, a craft beer operation is one that is smaller, producing less than 6 million barrels of beer annually (for reference, Anheuser-Busch Companies, the largest brewer globally, produces more than 120 million barrels per year). Craft breweries are also largely independently owned.

A colorful tasting sample of craft beers from my visit to Cape May Brewery. Of course, brewers are no longer bound to just the basic ingredients. Part of the reason I love visiting breweries when I travel is to taste the local flavor. These brewers in South Jersey proudly boast a seasonal Cranberry Shandy as well as its locally themed extra hoppy Coastal Evacuation, as a few creative examples.

A colorful tasting sample of craft beers from my visit to Cape May Brewery. Of course, brewers are no longer bound to just the basic ingredients. Part of the reason I love visiting breweries when I travel is to taste the local flavor. These brewers in South Jersey proudly boast a seasonal Cranberry Shandy as well as its locally themed extra hoppy Coastal Evacuation, as a few creative examples.

Craft brewers might be closer to you than you think. The American Craft Brewers Association estimates that the majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewer. Having moved away from my hometown in southern New Jersey many years ago, I have grown a bit disconnected from the local business scene. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a “hopping” scene at Cape May Brewery when I visited last year over the Christmas holiday.

Zack Tashley, the Tasting Room Manager at Cape May Brewery, told me that in the five years since they opened, they’ve more than doubled their brewing capacity and now employ 45 full and part time employees. They get a lot of out-of-towners coming to visit, and he notes that “people will take their beer-cations and wine-cations in Cape May County.”

This is an area that is in need of good economic news. With several Atlantic City casinos closing in the recent past, it is estimated that 15% of the region’s jobs have been lost since 2005.

What the basic beer ingredients mean for sustainable agriculture

Let me start with some history. The German beer charter (the Reinheitsgebot), initially established in Bavaria in the 16th century, declared that the only a few basic ingredients were to be used in beer: water, barley, hops and yeast. It is thought that this was enacted to encourage barley use to prevent competition for wheat and rye with breadmakers, ensuring food security of basic staple crops (interestingly, a parallel discussion over high quality grains lives on today).

Next let me explain briefly what those ingredients have to do with more sustainable agriculture. Water should be pretty self-explanatory, as it is a most critical component of beer making, and as my colleague Marcia DeLonge has written numerous times, healthy farm landscapes contribute to clean water. Water is also a critical component of beer processing (in sanitation, for example), and larger craft brewers such as New Belgium are leading the charge to use water as efficiently as possible in their operations.

Barley is a small grain crop that when malted is used to provide the sugars that ultimately become alcohol via fermentation from yeast.  Many other small grain crops used in craft brewing, such as wheat and rye, have varieties that grow in the spring and over winter.

Fields of barley in Washington state. Most barley in the United States is grown in the Northern Plains and Pacific Northwest but could be grown much more widely to support new markets such as craft brewing and improve water quality. Photo: Victor Szalvay (flickr.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Fields of barley in Washington state. Most barley in the United States is grown in the Northern Plains and Pacific Northwest but could be grown much more widely to support new markets such as craft brewing and improve water quality. Photo: Victor Szalvay/CC BY-SA 2.0 (flickr.com, via Wikimedia Commons)

As an agricultural scientist interested in increasing landscape diversity, I see a unique opportunity in crops that grow over winter. Over time across the Corn Belt, high prices for corn and soybeans led to a decrease in planting of small grain crops, leading to bare soils during the spring, when the region receives much of its precipitation. This shift in cropping patterns – from winter and summer crops to summer crops only – is highly correlated to increased nitrogen runoff into waterways. So by incorporating small grains for craft brewers into their crop rotations, farmers can help decrease water pollution.

Hops are a perennial vine plant producing cone-type flowers. Hops are grown in larger numbers in only a few states, including Washington, Oregon and Idaho, but have the potential to be grown much more widely. They provide aromas as well as the bitter flavor in beer meant to complement the sweet sugar from grains. Hoppy beers are wildly popular these days and some project that the plant can yield serious profits, to the tune of $25,000 per acre. They not only then offer roots in the soil all year long but also the chance at large returns for producers.

Local economies have a lot to gain, too

Of course, I recognize that craft beer cannot cure all of a region’s economic woes – nor should it – but the craft beer industry continues to grow into a formidable niche in the overall beer market. Right now it sits at 12.8 percent of market share, according to the American Craft Brewers Association. The trade association estimated that craft brewers contributed $55.7 billion to the U.S. economy and over 400,000 jobs in 2014. The actual sales number for craft beer is estimated at $22.3 billion and as a point of comparison, the most recent Organic Trade Association survey puts their industry’s entire sales at $43.3 billion. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

A crowded tap room at Cape May Brewery when I visited last Christmas season. It is hard for me to remember any brewery that I have visited over my recent domestic travels – from Wisconsin to Colorado to Tennessee - that hasn't been bustling with business.

A crowded tap room at Cape May Brewery when I visited last Christmas season. It is hard for me to remember any brewery that I have visited over my recent domestic travels – from Wisconsin to Colorado to Tennessee – that hasn’t been bustling with business.

As opportunities to procure local hops and small grains grow, the local economic benefits will follow. As another example, a UCS analysis for the state of Iowa earlier this year found that if the state’s institutions, restaurants, and retailers purchased more locally-sourced food products, it would add $3 billion to Iowa’s economy and support up to 49,000 full time jobs. That’s just for one state, and while not specific to small grains and hops, it demonstrates the capacity of local products to improve local economies.

I plan to explore more on the environmental and economic opportunities of craft beer in future posts. There might be a lot of potential for cultivation of these crops in different regions, offering diversification and economic opportunities for producers. However, growing the crops is only one part of the battle; challenges of course remain for marketing and processing.

In the meantime, when you raise a glass responsibly this weekend, remember the benefits of imbibing locally. Cheers to craft beer’s continuing empowerment of environmental and economic opportunities!

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