Is the MillerCoors Sustainability Report a Big Deal?

A colleague read my last post on beer, “How Much Energy Does It Take to Make a Beer” and asked me to add some context to the recently released MillerCoors 2014 Sustainability Report covered by the Washington Post.  In the age of corporate greenwashing, should she be impressed? So I took a look.

In short, the answer is yes without question. Focusing only on energy, MillerCoors claims an average specific energy consumption (energy used to make a beer) of 123 mega joules per hundred liters, down from 162 in 2009. Regardless of what is being produced, when a manufacturer of the scale of MillerCoors cuts energy use per unit by 24% in five years they should be applauded. See the chart below for their progress (and on page 44 of the report).

Source: MillerCoors 2014 Sustainability Report

Source: MillerCoors 2014 Sustainability Report

For more context, the international average specific energy consumption for beer production was 207 mega joules per hundred liters in 2012. So while there are probably small differences in how these numbers are calculated, you can be sure that MillerCoors is absolutely crushing the international average.

MillerCoors is clearly excelling on energy, and really all breweries of that scale should be creating low energy beer for a couple reasons. First, the economy of scale is real in energy just like in price. Large breweries are working with more heat and more water, and therefore have bigger opportunities for reuse and recovery with better economic returns to justify the initial equipment costs.

Second, bigger breweries often use high gravity brewing. (Note: I have no idea if MillerCoors is using high gravity brewing.) High gravity beer is brewed to have more alcohol and some brewers make high gravity beer and then add water to reach the desired alcohol content. This lowers energy use per beer because a brewery can increase its output while heating and cooling a smaller amount of liquid.  This method is not generally used in smaller craft and microbreweries, because those breweries cannot get many of the flavors we associate with craft beer using the method.

The smaller the brewery, the bigger the challenge presented by benchmarking energy per unit beer. The up-front costs for energy efficiency measures may be a larger percentage of their overall budget, and the return may not be all that great. Increasingly, this is where I am focusing my attention. Small breweries will not save energy the same way as the big breweries, but they can still save energy.