Beer Scout: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. wins top environmental certification

GOING PLATINUM: The solar arrays that greet visitors in Sierra Nevada's parking lot are only a small part of why the brewery's Mills River operation received Platinum LEED certification. The facility also has systems in place to generate electricity by harnessing methane, to reduce waste and water consumption and to control erosion and rainwater runoff. Photo by Scott Dougals

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Mills River production facility was recently awarded the U.S. Green Building Council’s top certification for environmental responsibility in design, construction methods and ecologically sustainable practices. The USGBC recognizes four levels of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, or LEED, of which Platinum is the highest possible. The Mills River facility is one of only two breweries in the country to have received LEED Platinum certification, and the only dedicated production brewery to do so.

Environmental sustainability has been a part of Sierra Nevada’s ethos throughout its nearly four-decade history. Even in the earliest stages of development, the company’s East Coast facility was planned with LEED certification in mind.

“Platinum certification wasn’t something we were specifically aiming for, but it was something we were really hoping for. Ever since the very concept of building a second brewery was on our radar, we knew we wanted to aim for some standard of LEED certification,” says Sierra Nevada Beer Ambassador Bill Manley.

“Internally, we were aiming for at least LEED Silver, because there are some aspects of LEED certification, like ease of public transportation, that are not in Sierra Nevada’s power to control. But as we started to see the potential areas we could improve, it started to look like the Platinum level was in our sights, so we’re really happy to have been able to get there.”

The LEED certification program scores the sustainability practices of both existing buildings and new construction across six categories, and buildings must score at least 80 out of 100 points to receive Platinum certification. Sierra Nevada implemented a number of creative measures that were rewarded in the scoring process, including the installation of two Capstone microturbines. The machines harness the methane produced by the brewery’s on-site wastewater treatment plant for electricity generation to complement that produced by solar arrays in the public parking area and across two-thirds of the packaging facility’s roof.

The brewery was also conscientious about the waste produced during construction, another category assessed in LEED certification. “Waste reduction is a big thing for us. We work really hard every day, both here and at our California brewery, to limit the amount of materials that are actually going into landfills,” says Manley. “One of the things the LEED folks were interested to learn is than we diverted more that 88 percent of our construction waste from landfills.”

Locating its East Coast facility in the mountains of North Carolina presented a new set of environmental challenges for the Chico, Calif.-based brewery. Heavy precipitation and the age of the Appalachian Mountains required additional planning to control levels of runoff and erosion that are not such a critical consideration in Northern California. To that end, the brewery constructed an extensive system of cisterns and water collection sites throughout the facility that gradually release rainwater back into the river system, another consideration for LEED assessors.

Redirecting rain is not the only area in which the brewery has developed effective strategies for dealing with water. Its state-of-the art brewhouse has greatly reduced water consumption in the brewing process, according to Manley. “Brewing is energy- and resource-intensive,” he says. “Water usage here in the facility is down to near-historic lows — less than half the amount of water per barrel that it’s taken us in the past to make beer.”

One of the stated intentions of the LEED program is to encourage businesses to adopt green building practices, and Manley notes that Sierra Nevada hopes smaller breweries will benefit from the larger company’s experience. “People ask us often why Sierra Nevada is so focused on sustainability, and a lot of that goes back to the early days when Ken [Grossman] was starting the brewery in the late ’70s, buying used dairy equipment and used fruit hoppers. Ken likes to joke that the idea ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ wasn’t a sustainability mantra, it was his business plan, because he couldn’t afford to do anything else.

“It’s nice that in our position in the industry now, we’re able to take the measures to build with sustainability in mind,” says Manley, adding, “More than anything else, we’d like to show people that it can be done, that you can invest in your brewery, but also your employees, your community and environment, and still be successful. It makes it not only ethically worthwhile, but also from the standpoint of the bottom line.”

The Mills River facility continues to evolve, with a cellar expansion already completed and new tanks ready to be installed on the production floor. The brewery’s sustainability practices also continue to improve as needs change over time and new technology becomes available. A team of employees on both coasts, predominantly under the direction of California-based Sustainability Manager Cheri Chastain, constantly runs reports on energy production and waste reduction, and all employees, from brewers to wait staff in the taproom, are held responsible for maintaining and improving sustainability standards.

“I think that craft brewers in particular lean toward doing it the right way, even if that’s the hard way,” says Manley. “I don’t know if our LEED certification is going to help us sell any beer, but at the end of the day it’s the thing that we care about; it’s the right way to do business, so we’re incredibly thrilled to have received this certification.”

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