In the postcard-perfect town of Göss, a two-hour drive south of Vienna, something very interesting is brewing.
This is home to the Gösser Brewery, one of more than 165 breweries owned and operated by the Heineken Group, the world’s third-largest beer maker with some 250 different brands under its umbrella – including Bierra Moretti in Italy, Amstel in the Netherlands, Tiger in South East Asia and Gösser in Austria - the nation’s favourite, with 70 percent of market share.
And it is here that Heineken is proudly boasting to have created the world’s first large-scale zero-carbon brewery.
The company’s wide-ranging sustainability strategy, known as Brewing a Better World, was born in 2010, with specific goals designed to keep the business on the straight and narrow when it comes to using water, sustainably sourcing raw ingredients for its beer and promoting responsible drinking among its consumer base.
It also details a target to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by its breweries by 40 percent by the end of this decade. While the target is a relative one, rather than absolute (telling in itself, given the company’s fairly aggressive global acquisition drive in recent years) - reducing energy use and the greenhouse gas emissions commonly associated with the beer-making process - it is no mean feat.
But in the wake of the Paris Accord signed last year and a growing community of businesses willing to invest heavily in carbon reduction and clean energy to satisfy increasing public pressure on polluting companies, it is no surprise a company of Heineken’s size and stature is taking its climate role seriously. The burgeoning band of companies signing up to the Climate Group’s RE100 initiative, committing to scale up their use of renewable energy – not to mention those more closely aligning their carbon-reduction goals with scientific evidence as to what constitutes meaningful progress on climate mitigation – is testament to the fact that few companies want to be on the wrong side of history on this one.
As Heineken’s global director of sustainable development, Michael Dickstein, says, “environmental sustainability is high on the global agenda – but it’s also what our consumers expect from us.”
So, what has Heineken done in its Gösser facility, a brewery that has been running since the 1860s and now produces some 1.4 million bottles of beer every day? Well, it is powered entirely by renewable and reusable energy sources, including solar, hydropower, biogas and waste heat, reducing its carbon footprint by around 3,000 tonnes of CO2 a year to absolutely zero.
First, there is a football pitch-sized site of solar thermal panels, producing around 3 percent of the brewery’s heating needs. Then, around 35 percent of its heat requirements come from a fairly large biomass district heating system in which Heineken has invested with the cooperation of Mayr-Melnhof, a local timber sawmill company, with the brewer buying the waste wood chipping and sawdust, which is burned to create energy.
Another 10 percent of heat is produced by an onsite wastewater treatment plant.
But the real star of the show is an onsite spent-grain fermentation tank, producing biogas that satisfies 50 percent of the brewery’s energy needs.
Most of the waste from the beer-brewing process is spent grain. Until May 2016, it was stored onsite, then sold to local farms for cattle feed – a common practice across the sector. But now, the fermentation process generates enough methane from the 18,000 tonnes of spent grain and filter residues to heat the brewery’s boilers. As well as heating water for the brewing process, steam is generated and used for cleaning bottles (in Austria, 90 percent of the standard beer bottles are returned and reused). Then, the remaining waste is used as fertiliser in barley fields – the grains from which then return to the brewery as a core ingredient.
But while Brewing a Better World has offered the foundation and framework for success in Göss, the story is as much about one man as it is abut the company. Gösser’s brew master Andreas Werner has spent the last 13 years pouring over the details of his brewery, exploring ways to find efficiencies and working out the complexities of the site to create a state-of-the-art brewery powered entirely by green energy.
Now, as the company will attest, Göss is very much the jewel in its crown and the understanding gained from this process will no doubt be used in similar initiatives across the company. Heineken in the Netherlands, which operates the largest brewery in Europe, recently announced its ambition to go zero carbon, while its other breweries are also increasingly implementing renewable energy.
And there’s a whole range of Heineken brands that are said to be ‘Brewed by the Sun.’ From next year, many bottles of lager, including Tiger, Bierra Moretti and Wieckse, a popular Dutch brand, will carry ‘Brewed by the Sun’ labels in what will be the company’s first attempt to connect its low-carbon projects - which get so many energy and sustainability geeks excited - to its consumers, who remain largely uninterested in how responsibly their favourite beers are created.
The trouble is, what has been achieved in Göss is not easily replicable. So much of the success is down to the perseverance and pioneering spirit of one individual and the partnerships that have been created with neighbouring organisations. Let’s face it, without a local timber mill within spitting distance of the brewery, reaching that zero-carbon status would have been impossible and Heineken’s other breweries may not find it so easy.
Dickstein admits the company is on a journey and is still well away from where it wants to get it. “But what we have achieved in Göss shows we now walk the talk,” he says.