How Green is Your Beer?

For black Friday, we go green.  Via John Foyston comes the news that breweries can now track their environmental impact via a program designed by the Institute for Environmental Research and Education in Washington state.  Not only that, but they can list the details on their labels:

The eco-labels, produced through the Earthsure Brewers software, show "life cycle assessments" also known as Type III Environmental Production Declarations....
"The (information is) displayed in a similar manner like the nutrition label on food," said the IERE's Colleen Barta. "Links are used to help consumers understand what the impact categories mean."
The labels report footprints in the carbon, water and energy realms. In Oregon, Hopworks Urban Brewing and Fort George Brewery have adopted the labels.
The labels list a bunch of highly technical and obscure stats which meant nothing to even a greenie like me.  So I tracked back to the IERE's original definitions (pdf) and had a look.  Not only do Fort George and Hopworks plan to use the labels, they actually helped develop the criteria, which are comprehensive and deeply involved.  The include all environmental impacts (air pollution, water and chemicals use,) of the entire life-cycle of beer, from barley field back to cow field with the spent grains.  For example, "it includes transportation of chemicals and seed to the farm and application of fertilizers and pesticides, and any emissions on the farm (e.g. N2O emissions from nitrogen fertilizer)."  If a brewery uses, say, coffee in one of its beers, those ingredients are subject to the same standards.  It includes the footprint at the maltster, the footprint of packaging manufacture, delivery and transportation costs--in essence, every conceivable jot of energy used to make a pint of beer.  The list of impacts goes on for pages, and the whole IERE document is 35 pages long.

So now we get back to that label and its obscure measures.  In some cases, the term's meaning is easy enough to figure (water use), but the numbers aren't.  In other cases, like "Eutrophication," the whole thing is meaningless.  They do provide definitions for each measure.  For example:
8.4 Eutrophication is the overgrowth of biomass caused by the anthropogenic release of nutrients, particularly fixed nitrogen and phosphorus. Eutrophied water bodies show early effects in te rms of species distribution and toxic algal blo oms, and ultimately as algae decompose eutrophication causes oxygen depletion leading to fish kills. Large portions of the world’s water bodies are subject to eutrophication seasonally. Most causes of excess nutrient releases are agriculture, human and animal wastes, and combustion processes. Beer and all food products contribute to eutrophication.

8.5 Ecotoxicity represent direct effects of releases of toxic materials organisms. It is anticipated that toxic materials will be emitted during the production and application of pesticides and fertilizers and during the transportation of ingredients, packaging and beer in packaging. These shall be evaluated using the Usetox, latest version, as expressed in the TRACI model

Unfortunately, although IERE describes each dimension, it doesn't give a scale to judge whether, to use Hopworks' example, 1.2 CTUs of toxicity is good or bad. Perhaps that's on the way--it will be critical if these labels are going to communicate anything to the public. Even this step is praiseworthy, though.  Breweries have been among the best citizens in terms of monitoring their environmental impact.  Any effort to quantify that impact and make the data publicly available is impressive--it shows breweries are willing to put their performance under scrutiny.  Fort George and Hopworks get special credit for working to create the definitions.  Good on you, folks--