03/17/2008 12:51 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Hops and Fears on St. Pat's Day

Hops are scarce and their price has been rising. Barley too. But you can't make beer without them. So be afraid of a beer drought at some small breweries. These fears are no joke says Alonovo. It's enough to remind you of Prohibition, the end of which was 75 years ago. From April to December 1933, the only legal U.S. alcohol was beer. For St. Patrick's Day, 2008, the question is: Which beer is greenest? Of the biggest three U.S. brewers, which has the greenest production? I think it's Anheuser-Busch.

The 2000 edition of Shopping for a Better World gave an A to Anheuser-Busch for its environmental programs, a D to Miller and a C to Coors. What has changed since 2000? Two of the three companies were acquired by overseas buyers -- Coors by the Canadian firm Molson and Miller (formerly part of Philip Morris/Altria) by South African Breweries, based in London. All three companies have posted their sustainability practices on their websites, so that consumers can make their own assessments based all the links provided below.

Anheuser-Busch produces an annual report on its sustainability practices. The report on 2006 appeared in July 2007. Anheuser-Busch (1) generated enough renewable fuel to heat more than 25,000 homes, (2) reduced solid waste per net sales by 11 percent since 2001, (3) reduced water use per net sales 3 percent since 2002 (brewery water use per barrel of beer has declined more than 20 percent since 1990). (4) recycled approximately 364,000 metric tons of used aluminum containers -- 27 billion cans -- through its Anheuser-Busch Recycling Corporation subsidiary in 2006 -- more cans than Anheuser-Busch breweries use to package their products. Anheuser-Busch has established two goals for 2010: (1) reducing absolute greenhouse gas emissions by five percent from its 2005 baseline and (2) increasing its use of renewable fuels from 8 to 15 percent. The company has clearly had trouble reducing its electricity use -- its high dependence on aluminum cans could be one reason -- but has had success in other areas. It partners with dozens of NGOs, including the Rainforest Alliance, and government agencies and prepares its report according to Global Reporting Initiative guidelines. The general impression left from a perusal of the sustainability report on the year 2006 is that Anheuser-Busch has strong internal controls and for many years has run a tight ship. The report is strongly centered on the United States. The company has been slow to embrace third-party certification of environmental and social areas.

SABMiller also has an impressive sustainable development report for 2007. The SAB Miller report is well laid out, says the right things, and provides some convincing stories from different parts of the world. It also includes an assurance statement from The Corporate Citizen, which shows it understands the new consumer environment in which third-party assurance is very important. The acquisition of Miller by SAB has changed the feeling of the company's report from the days of the 2000 edition of Shopping for a Better World when Miller was part of Philip Morris. However, the USA component is not easy to ferret out. For example, under recycling, the report emphasized that 79 percent of beers in South Africa are in returnable bottles. That is wonderful but it's in South Africa, where the economics are different. I found it hard to find what exactly Miller is doing in the United States.

Molson Coors has an attractive online environmental report on its website with a good chart showing how much more energy the Coors facilities use than those in Canada and the UK. They are on their environmental way but they have some catching up to do with the other two companies.

I checked Calvert's website and it rates Anheuser-Busch highly on green issues but indicates that it doesn't matter because it makes alcohol. The Corporate Citizen Top 100 List also excludes breweries. It seems odd to me that a company should be dropped from mainstream SRI lists for making beer. Certain religious groups of course oppose the use or manufacture of alcohol and for them this is a natural screen. But alcoholic beverages are different from cigarettes. The first cigarette is bad for the health both of the smoker and those breathing nearby whereas alcoholic beverages have adverse health effects on the drinker and those nearby only when consumed to excess. Moderate drinking of red wine (one or two glasses per day) has been shown to have beneficial results and on February 13 scientists averred that the benefits come from other forms of alcohol as well.

In June 2007, Climate Counts Rated SAB Miller First, Anheurser-Busch Second,Molson Coors Third. Climate Counts rates three beer companies -- SABMiller gets a 58, Anheuser-Busch a 29 and Molson Coors a 20. The Climate Counts Rating for based on a report for 2005 that appeared in 2006. The research was done during June 2007 and the Anheuser-Busch report came out in July 2007. I don't think the Climate Counts ratings warrant changing my rank order. It is concerned mainly with energy use and there are other issues. The fact that Anheuser-Busch is heavily involved in making and recycling cans means it will use a lot of electricity. But the alternatives need to be considered. The carbon footprint of any company depends on what it does. The carbon footprint of a beer company today is surely fainter than that of a dairy operation or a meat processor. A brewer buys hops and malted barley and uses a lot of water to process the beer and a lot of cans and bottles to bring the beer to the consumer. Aluminum cans are light and save transportation costs. Anheuser-Busch recycles more aluminum cans than it uses and it has been focusing on reducing its solid waste and water use. Molson Coors has a higher goal for reduction between 2005 and 2010, but its environmental record in 2000 we know was the worst of the three brewers.

So my reading of publicly available environmental reports is that Anheuser-Busch has a lot it could still do but that it is doing more than the other two largest brewers in the United States. Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors are both on the EPA Partners list with goals for 2010 on March 17, 2008, but Miller has a goal only through 2006. New information has come out on some significant advances being made by Anheuser-Busch on the solar-energy-grid front.

Closing Advice for green beer drinkers:
1. If you think that beers should be locally brewed and you don't live near an Anheuser-Busch distillery, you can find a microbrewery near you here. Some microbreweries may have a difficult time with rising commodity prices.
2. If you want a small brewer with cutting-edge environmental processes and policies, go for Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing Company beer. The company is attempting to get to zero emissions.
3. Anheuser-Busch makes two organic beers -- Stone Mill and Green Valley. SABMiller makes Organic Amber (certified by Oregon Tilth) under the Henry Weinhard label.
4. The greenest way to get your drink? Draft. Next best, for a national brand, an aluminum can. For a local brand, a glass bottle. To understand the reasoning, see analysis by Brendan Koerner.
5. On St. Patrick's Day, drink responsibly. An "average" beer is about 5 percent alcohol, but an "ice" beer can be as much as 7 percent alcohol. Malt liquor is also higher in alcohol content than regular beer. Watch the glass size of draft beers -- they can hold as much as 22 ounces, nearly twice the size of the standard 12-ounce beer can or bottle.