As Canada's largest producer of certified organic beer, Mill Street Brewery finds that being green pays the bills. Despite flat sales overall in the brewing industry, the organic sector is a growing part of the craft beer market.
"Now that it's taken off, it's profitable," says Steve Abrams, Mill Street Brewery's CEO. "When we started the company in 2002, nobody else was doing it in Ontario. Last year, we had over 50 per cent growth."
While the Toronto-based microbrewery also makes conventionally produced beers - its Original Organic Lager is one of seven brands - nearly half of the total output and sales of beer are organic.
Organic beer is not the easiest to brew. All the raw materials must be certified organic and guaranteed non-genetically modified organisms. In addition, the brewing process, which is about six weeks long, compared with the typical two or three weeks for conventional beers, must be free of any chemical contamination. Plus the beer must meet all the Canadian Organic Program standards and have the paper trail to prove it. It's complicated. Often, high quality organic ingredients can't be sourced locally and must be shipped long distances.
Here are Mill Street's green steps, from start to finish.
The key raw ingredients for organic beer are barley malt and hops. Mill Street recently switched to North American instead of German organic malt to reduce shipping distances, but it still travels a long way to Ontario. It's a mix of Canadian and Washington state barley malt from Canada Malting, but it's processed in Vancouver, Wash., because that's where Canada Malting's certified organic processing facility is.
"I want to buy locally as much as I can," says Joel Manning, Mill Street's brewmaster. "You can't just take organic barley and process it in a regular plant. It would lose its certified organic status."
The barley malt is shipped in bulk instead of bags, to eliminate packaging, to Mill Street's dedicated organic silo. An affidavit guaranteeing the cleanliness of every single bin and truck goes with it.
"There isn't a lot of organic malting grade barley grown in Ontario," says Mr. Manning. "Farmers won't commit their land to organic because it requires the land to be fallow for several years, and you need to rotate some other crops before you can put barley in. It's risky for them to get their value back."
Mill Street's organic hops come from New Zealand. "We use a German variety and the only place on the planet that grows that variety to Canadian organic standards is the south island of New Zealand," says Mr. Manning. "So we bring in a couple of pallets of these hops once a year. "
A lot of what Mill Street does to green the beer-making process focuses on energy reduction and recovery. Brewing is an energy-intensive activity because it requires a lot of heat, says Mr. Manning. When in full production of six brews a day, the company uses about 42,000 litres of hot water.
Two years ago, the company added a new high efficiency system for heating the beer. It also installed a heat recovery system on the brewhouse's kettle stack that strips more than 95 per cent of the heat back out of the steam that used to go into the atmosphere. Over the course of a day, the recovered energy is used to heat about 10,000 to 15,000 litres of water to 90 degrees Celsius for use in the brewing process, and for equipment cleaning.
The company also shuts its boilers down when not in use to reduce energy use, and has eliminated all phosphorus-based cleaning chemicals and replaced them with environmentally-friendly ones.
"We use the same efficiencies for making all our beers, not just when we make organic," Mr. Abrams says. "Our environmental initiatives are facility wide."
Mill Street uses silk-screened applied ceramic labelling rather than paper labels. The bottles are re-fired after the inks are applied so that the ceramic actually becomes part of the glass, so there's no need to use energy to wash the labels off. "We wash and reuse all our own bottles," says Mr. manning. "The painted bottles last pretty much forever - we've never seen them fade."
The bottles are sorted and returned to them through Ontario Beer Stores for a sorting fee. Mill Street did a campaign last year asking people to return their bottles and have seen a steady improvement in the return rate - up to 75 per cent come back.
"Often people just put them in the blue bin where they get crushed," says Mr. Manning. "But at least they don't go to landfill."
Mill Street "recycles" its spent malt - the husk and material from the barley after the sugar has been extracted - as food for dairy cattle.
"We pay a nominal amount to a company in Acton to pick it up - about 30 to 35 metric tons a week - and sell it to farmers," says Mr. Manning. "The spent malt isn't organic by this time and we're happy that it's going to a responsible use."
Mill Street has also just installed a $250,000 centrifuge for removing excess yeast from waste water. They hope to be able to sell this reclaimed yeast, high in B vitamins, to food processors, but for now they will mix it with the spent malt for cattle feed.
Eco-friendly beer cups
Mill Street uses corn-based biodegradable cups when serving beer at outdoor events, but Mr. Abrams says sourcing them is an issue as is getting people to sort them into the right waste bins. The cost is about double that of conventional cups.
"People appreciate it, but it's very expensive," says Mr. Abrams.
As Mill Street replaces equipment, Mr. Abrams says they look for more efficient units from an energy recovery or water saving perspective. And while the company wants to be known for more than just producing organic beer, they are committed to doing it well.
"You can't be 'kind of' organic," says Mr. Abrams. "Either you're in or you're out."