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A-B InBev: How a Global Brewer Is Setting the Bar for Innovation in Local Water Conservation

Dr. Gary Hanning, Director of Global Barley Research, shows off his drought-resistant plants. | Image credit: Kim Soko-Schaeffer

I came to Colorado, like millions before me, for the mountains, the active, sustainable lifestyle — and, of course, the beer. Coloradoans love their beer. So when I was invited up to Fort Collins to check out the water-saving initiatives of a local brewery I jumped at the opportunity. “Which one?” I wondered. Fort Collins is home to more than 15 breweries (roughly 1 for every 10,000 residents), amongst the highest concentrations for any city in America. New Belgium is a certified B Corp — that’d make sense. Or maybe Odell?

But no, I wasn’t going to be visiting one of the famed local microbrewers. I was going to the mothership, the world’s largest brewer — Anheuser-Busch InBev. The megabrewer has been operating a brewery in Fort Collins since 1987, long before it became a trend to do so. And based on my experience learning about some of its sustainability initiatives, particularly in the area of water conservation, AB InBev’s micro neighbors could almost certainly benefit from its holistic, innovative initiatives.

Brewery

I was welcomed to Fort Collins with sunshine, which soon turned to rain, which resulted in snow as we approached Ben Delatour Boy Scout Ranch, home to a demonstration site where AB InBev is working with The Nature Conservancy of Colorado (TNC) to protect the Cache la Poudre watershed, the main water source for all of Fort Collins, including its breweries.

As you’d imagine, it takes a lot of water to make beer, 90 percent of which is needed to grow the barley and other agricultural inputs. To accommodate this, AB InBev also runs its global seed research hub in Fort Collins, where researchers have identified a drought-resistant barley variety that can maintain yields with as much as 40 percent less water. But it doesn’t stop there. At the brewing stage, AB InBev has claimed that it is the most water-efficient brewer in the world, using just 3.2 hectoliters per hectoliter of production. The Fort Collins Brewery itself has reduced water use by 40 percent since 2004, mostly by reusing the water used for the pasteurizing process.

There is also a lot of effluent, or wastewater, from the brewing process and when the Fort Collins brewery opened 27 years ago, the local municipality couldn’t handle all that waste. So the brewery turned to local agriculture expert Duane Sellmer to come up with an innovative solution. The result is that the brewery now pumps its effluent 4 miles under County Rd 52 to a 7,000-acre farm that uses only what the brewery sends and nature provides. NutriFarms is one of two such farms in the world, the other near AB InBev’s brewery in Jacksonville, FL. The unfiltered water relies on remnants of barley, hops and rice to be used as a sort of fertilizer, eliminating the need for additional nutrients to grow whatever it is the local economy demands.

Farm

Regardless of these measures, Fort Collins is still considered a water-stressed area. Not due to lack of rain — any town at the base of the Rockies benefits from the annual snowmelt that feeds our rivers. We have a different kind of danger: fire. In 2012, Fort Collins ran into serious trouble when Colorado’s second-largest wildfire swept through the area, which led to the city literally running out of drinking water — not because water was needed to put out the fire, but because the wildfire created tons of ash, silt, sediment and other debris that polluted the local water source (in this case Cache la Poudre River), making it unsuitable for drinking.

AB InBev has partnered with TNC and the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed (CPRW) to help prevent this situation in the future. According to TNC, wildfires in Colorado are larger than ever — unnaturally so. This is a result of years of thinking of all fires as bad, and preventing even the smallest ones from naturally occurring. But our forests need fires to thin out the trees and provide other necessary benefits to the ecosystem. Colorado’s forest should naturally be thin, but we’ve let them grow to thick, which is now fueling these epic fires.

“Beyond being a critical ingredient in all of our products, water is a precious resource for the communities where we operate — including Fort Collins,” said Shana Ruffus, director of Corporate Social Responsibility-Environment at Anheuser-Busch. “Partnering with organizations like The Nature Conservancy is imperative in helping work toward this common goal — ensuring that water is a natural resource that lasts.”

This partnership is now working on a demonstration site nestled in one of the most beautiful parts of the state at the base of the Rockies in the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch, surrounded by National Forest land.

TNC is working with local volunteers to strategically thin out the forest to act as a barrier zone to prevent the spread of future fires. They are doing this work all over the state, in areas strategically chosen to protect communities and watersheds. The work is laborious, dangerous, and subject to the whim of nature. After cutting down fire-enhancing Douglas Fir trees, the remaining biomass has to be collected and hauled out of the forest to be turned into fire wood, wood chips for mulch or sawdust to be used at the ranch. Unfortunately, Douglas Firs are not suitable for lumber. Professionals are then called in to do prescribed burns in the area to burn off the remaining debris and provide the soil with the ecological benefits that natural fires provide. The result is a proven method for preventing the spread of wildfire, protecting communities and watersheds in the process.

“We’re excited to collaborate with Anheuser-Busch on this project,” says Paige Lewis, director of Colorado Fire and Forest at The Nature Conservancy. “This investment will enable us to work closely with our partners to identify the most critical areas to restore, ultimately benefitting both people and nature.”

Having expected the day to be spent digesting dry data and stats while visiting corporate offices and manufacturing facilities, I was pleasantly surprised to spend it standing in the sunlight on snow-kissed forests in the Rockies learning about watershed conservation, and walking through fields of crops grown from the waste of a brewery. It was an unexpectedly new take on water conservation, and one I’m happy to know the world’s largest brewery is implementing in my home state. 


Kim is a purpose-driven consultant. She works with entrepreneurs, non-profits, social enterprises and conscious companies to improve their ability to create positive impact in the world. Her expertise lies at the intersection of management consulting, social sciences and creative thinking.… [Read more about Kim Soko Schaefer]


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