03/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Green Beer, Greener Beer

Green Inc. this morning has a piece on New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, Colo. -- unfortunately headlined "Brewer Learns Lesson About Green Marketing." The story goes like this:

New Belgium started buying wind offsets in 1999, then noticed that people liked that. They continued to increase their green efforts and, as one might suspect, ramped up their marketing of those efforts. When one employee left the company, it apparently became his mission to carefully critique the brewer's green efforts.

That's important. Green marketing should be carefully watched. And the man even made good points, causing New Belgium to make positive changes a few years ago. But I'm not sure that the negative tone in "Brewer Learns Lesson" is warranted. Maybe "Obsessed Ex-Employee Spurs Green Brewer To Aim Even Higher."

Here is one point made on Green Inc.:

Among other things, New Belgium noted that packaging and transporting of raw materials, including barley, which is imported from faraway Wisconsin, account for nearly half of its overall footprint.

Stuff that comes from far away causes a bigger carbon footprint. True, and I applaud Green Inc. for making the point, and I'd sure hope they'd make it when reporting on any other business that requires "importing" ingredients from as far away as Wisconsin is from northern Colorado. But call me skeptical.

Secondly, the following sentences make these amazing announcements, very casually:

As a result, Ms. Orgolini said the company was investing in research to harvest local barley, and that it was opening a new packaging facility designed to reduce carbon emissions. The company also reported that it had partnered with the City of Fort Collins, Colorado State University and "other energy-focused companies" in applying for a grant from the Department of Energy to fund a project aimed at reducing peak-load electricity demand.

Catch that? This is a brewer that wants to be involved in pioneering smart-grid technologies.

New Belgium is actually pretty far ahead of most brewers, and may be matched in quantity and scope of sustainability efforts only by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, Calif. New Belgium even hosted a "green recovery" community meeting recently:

At a community session at New Belgium Brewing Co., environmentalists promoted residents' health and safety, environmental health and a sustainable economic stimulus plan as a part of "green recovery" for Colorado's sagging economy.

"I really do think not only do we have a crisis in our face," said Fort Collins Democratic Rep. Randy Fischer, "but we can make this crisis an opportunity by investing in a green Colorado."

But the ex-employee's point is a good one, if not one made in the most cordial way. Raw materials for all kinds of products can come from very far away and offset many other, more well-publicized green efforts. Organic hops used in American beers bearing the USDA organic label, for example, are mostly grown in the Pacific Northwest -- or in New Zealand.

(Drinking locally is one of the very best ways to drink "green beer" because of the sheer weight of transporting beer, especially in heavy glass bottles.)

In any case, cutting down on packaging is always a good idea, New Belgium has started that this year:

At current production levels, the move will eliminate 150 tons of cardboard from going into New Belgium packaging, while preventing 174 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year. In addition, the transition will save New Belgium an estimated $280,000 in the coming year.

"We've designed a new 12-pack carton that will tighten the case to prevent bottles from hitting each other during transit," said director of operations Mark Fischer.

Additionally, the brewer has started canning its flagship beer, Fat Tire. Aluminum cans, while a bit nastier to produce, take far less energy to recycle (and less energy to distribute, too).

It's important to watch companies that aggressively market their green efforts, as New Belgium does, but it's also important to recognize a company that's legitimately doing the right thing of its own volition.