Climate

The Country’s Fourth-Largest Craft Brewery Is Trying Its Hand At Climate Activism

CREDIT: New Belgium Brewing

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efore they sold their first bottle of beer, Kim Jordan and Jeff Lebesch, co-founders of New Belgium Brewing, went for a long hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. On that hike, they came up with four core beliefs and values that would guide their fledgling brewing operation. One pillar of the operation was environmentalism — both Jordan and Lebesch agreed that the company should, no matter what, be a good environmental steward.

More than two decades later, New Belgium Brewing has grown into the fourth-largest craft brewery in the United States, producing more than 900,000 barrels of beer annually and selling their products in 38 states around the country. But they’ve maintained their commitment to environmentalism, transitioning in the last eight years from a business internally concerned with sustainability to a vocal advocate for clean water and sustainable business practices in both local and national politics.

This winter, for the first time, New Belgium is turning its attention to climate change advocacy. To draw attention to climate change and raise support for Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit that touts itself as a leading climate advocate in the winter sports community, New Belgium has teamed up with Ben and Jerry’s to create a limited release beer and ice cream pairing — Salted Caramel Brownie Brown Ale, available in both beer and ice cream form.

Jennifer Vervier, director of sustainability and strategy with New Belgium Brewing, told ThinkProgress that although New Belgium has been internally concerned with climate change as a company for some time, the partnership with Ben and Jerry’s represents the first customer facing climate advocacy project that the company has been involved in.

Produced in limited batches, the beer and ice cream will both run until all the products have sold out, which Vervier hopes will be after the New Year. In addition to selling the products in stores, New Belgium and Ben and Jerry’s are planning a suite of events aimed at rallying support for the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

“Sure, it’s really important to look at your own impacts and the way you live your own life, but the biggest thing we can do is to be advocating,” Jerry Greenfield, Ben and Jerry’s co-founder, said in a product release video. “We need policy changes to make things change, not just people washing their clothes in cold water. We need more than that.”

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CREDIT: New Belgium Brewing

Political advocacy is not new to New Belgium — the company has testified before Congress on behalf of the EPA’s Clean Water Rule and created its own PAC to contribute to federal campaigns. But until recently, climate change has been an issue that the brewery has dealt with internally — both in trying to mitigate its own carbon footprint and protect its business against the threat of a changing climate.

In 1998, the company launched an energy audit, with the intention of better understanding its carbon footprint. The single largest emitter of CO2 in the on-site production of the beer, the audit found, was electricity — up to that point, it was supplied by coal-burning power plants. New Belgium decided to begin purchasing wind power to run its operation, a decision that company leaders allowed all employees to vote on. Vervier describes that as a “seminal moment in New Belgium’s history.”

“That cemented, internally, the idea that we were environmental stewards and we were going to put our money where our mouth is,” she said.

In 2008, about ten years after it began buying wind power for its brewing operation, New Belgium conducted another audit — this time, looking at the life-cycle carbon footprint of a six-pack of Fat Tire Amber Ale, the company’s flagship beer. In doing so, Vervier explained, New Belgium became the first beverage company to publish a carbon assessment of one of its products, a move that helped the company understand where in its supply chain it could make the most impact in reducing its carbon footprint.

“New Belgium alone isn’t going to change recycling,” Vervier said. “New Belgium alone isn’t going to change truck fuel efficiency standards. But when we realize the impacts of those things, we start joining coalitions that are working on those issues.”

One such coalition is BICEP — Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, an offshoot of CERES, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainability in businesses. In joining with BICEP, Vervier said, New Belgium has been able to greatly expand its political advocacy, at both the state and federal level. In 2013, New Belgium signed BICEP’s Climate Declaration, and then worked to organize a separate Brewer’s Climate Declaration in March of this year.

“I think that folks were impressed that brewers were standing up, and we had a lot of awareness about how climate change would impact our supply chain,” Vervier said. Climate change is expected to make growing hops and barley — two ingredients crucial to beer production — more difficult, while the threat of more frequent and severe droughts raises questions about water quality and availability.

Vervier hopes that, by becoming involved in climate activism, New Belgium can help make the issue more personal to its customers.

“So many people in this country have a really intimate relationship with craft beer, and I hope that to hear a craft brewery say that climate change has a real impact on the things that you care about … will give people pause,” she said. “We love beer. Beer is fun, beer is part of a healthy and enjoyable life. We owe it to each other to raise awareness around this issue and let our elected officials know we care about it.”