Can Beer Help Regenerate The Planet?

May 22, 2024, by James Smith

https://craftypint.s3.amazonaws.com/crafty/learn/Sustainability-icon-230620-122751-230706-153400.png
Can Beer Help Regenerate The Planet?

“We started to realise the potential this has to change the entire industry – even the farming industry. It sends a shiver down your spine.”

“It’s our duty [as craft brewers] to be more in touch with what’s happening in our supply chain.”

“For us, it's just the right thing to do.”


You often hear the phrase "beer for good", or variations on the theme, bandied about. And with good reason too.

Beer has been used for countless fundraisers, to bring attention to important causes, to support organisations in all corners of the country. The rise of craft beer has created new community hubs in regional towns and suburbs, sparked all manner of new businesses working alongside brewers, and encouraged the development of new techniques, ingredients and flavours, while breathing fresh life into some that had seemingly been lost to time.

At the same time, making beer is a notably energy-intensive process – hence the considerable time, money and resource pumped into making it more sustainable: covering breweries in solar panels; capturing and reusing byproducts from the brewing process; developing reusable and biodegradable packaging; and so on. What's more, used irresponsibly, like any form of alcohol it can lead to harmful consequences.

So it might seem a little rich to hear people claiming beer could help change the world. Not just be a force for good, but possessing the ability to help humanity avert the climate crisis. 

Yet those people exist, there's a growing number of them*, and they're not tinfoil hat-wearing fringe-dwellers but some of the key players in the Australian beer scene.

And now many of them are coming together under the Good Grain banner. It's an initiative launched by Stone & Wood in partnership with not-for-profit group Sustainable Table with the intention of becoming an industry-wide and led movement "aimed at fostering awareness, education, and support for regenerative grains in Australia".

 

Voyager Craft Malt co-founder Stu Whytcross enjoying a beer made with his malts at the Whitton Malthouse.

 

One of the project's early supporters is Stu Whytcross, co-owner of Voyager Craft Malt in the Riverina region of New South Wales, and the man responsible for the first quote at the top of this article. We've written about his pioneering role in this space before, and he believes the new initiative has the potential to get the message about the benefits of regenerative farming to a far wider audience, both within the beer industry and among beer consumers.

He cites some eye-watering figures: 40 million tonnes of grain are grown in Australia each year, the equivalent of two million shipping containers. The country produces more than one-third of the world's malting barley.

“We have the potential to be leading the world in this sustainable, regen space," he says, "and there’s no better conduit to do it than through beer.”

He talks about putting messaging around sustainability onto beer labels, in much the same way larger brewers have printed fun questions underneath stubby caps to spark conversation.

“Beer is the social lubricant," he says of its ability to spark conversation among a broad cross-section of society. "It’s the perfect vehicle for that.”

Lallemand 1
Bintani- Updated Behind The Brew- E

While there are different levels or accreditations within the world of organic, sustainable and regenerative farming, the malts he's been producing in tandem with Chris and Sam Greenwood, which we've written about at length here, can help brewers and distillers reduce their carbon footprint by up to 30 percent due to the way the grains are farmed, notably without the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. Such farming practices are better for the land too, improving soil quality, and fostering greater resilience against the vagaries of climate change, among other benefits.

Stone & Wood now use one bag of Voyager's regen malt in each brew of Pacific Ale and far larger amounts in other beers, such as the Northern Rivers Beer (NRB), which we wrote about earlier in the month and which acted as another milestone in the path that has led to Good Grain.

“When they first approached us it was easy to dismiss this as purely a marketing opportunity for them," Stu says of his initial conversations with the brewing company four years ago. "Then when I started meeting [former sustainability leader] James Perrin and [head brewer] Caolan [Vaughan] – anyone I’ve seen from Stone & Wood – they’ve been passionate about what they’re trying to do. Even their film crew, and anyone who’s been talking to us, has been doing it for the right reasons.

“We started to realise the potential this has to change the entire industry – even the farming industry. It sends a shiver down your spine."


So, what does Good Grain mean in practice? 

Stone & Wood's Northern Rivers Beer represented another milestone in their work towards using more regen grain.

 

In the first year, the hope is to raise $100,000 – Stone & Wood and Sustainable Table have each contributed $25,000 – to support people and projects operating in the regenerative grain space: Mountain Rye Perennial Project; Tuerong Farm; Black Duck Foods; and Natural Intelligence. There will be a conference designed to connect growers, suppliers and producers at Stone & Wood's Brisbane brewpub in October, and they're putting together a collection of resources on regen agriculture for brewers and maltsters eager to learn more.

Overseeing the project for Stone & Wood is their sustainability leader Jahdon Quinlan, who says the fund is driven by a desire to support "conscious cultivars that are pushing the boundaries of cereal grain growing in Australia and finding innovative, regenerative, and sustainable ways of producing better grain.”

As for the brewing company's involvement in such an initiative – not least as it comes at a challenging time for the industry during which their parent company Lion / Kirin has shuttered the likes of Two Birds Brewing, Tiny Mountain and Bevy Brewing – he says: “We're not focusing on a commercial benefit as the central consideration for this project, for us it's just the right thing to do for the long-term growth of the regenerative grain economy in Australia.

"We need to be part of the solution given how much malt we use. We have a responsibility to be part of that solution.

“If we don’t start investing in these suppliers now, then we won’t have malt to procure when things get better. We need to set the industry up for success.”

Another local brewery that's been working tirelessly in this space for years is Marrickville-based Wildflower. Along with fellow inner-west Sydney brewery Batch, they helped first shine a light on what Stu and the team at Voyager were doing with the Greenwoods, and co-founder Topher Boehm has been chatting to Jahdon over the past couple of years, sharing knowledge, insight and resources he’s gained while on his own journey.

 

Wildflower co-founder Topher Boehm with Chris Greenwood, one of the farmers pioneering regenerative farming techniques in Australia.

 

Topher will be among the speakers at the conference, an event which shares similarities with the Waratah Day events he first put on in 2018 – "Conversations and tech talks surrounding local agriculture and beer" – and sees the benefit in an operation like Stone & Wood amplifying the messaging around sustainability and regen grain.

“How good that, even though they aren’t able to go 100 percent, they’re not saying, ‘We’re not going to do it.’ What they can use is a shitload more malt than I can use," Topher says.

“I’m never going to take a lot of this grain but if I can help people see what Chris and Sam and Stu do it’s a no-brainer.”

He's eager to point out that it's not just the reduction in his brewery's carbon footprint or the philosophical aspects of finding ways to be more sustainable that appealed to Wildflower.

“We did it for the quality of the grain. Not only is it grown better, but there’s more nutrients in it when it’s malted by Stu. [Our beer] is so much closer to the farm. It has better mouthfeel and texture, and has more warmth than using a generic grain.”

He adds: “When you go to a nice restaurant, they’re not buying their fruit and veg from Coles or Woolies, they are going to the farms and seeing what’s growing well. It’s our duty [as craft brewers] to be more in touch with what’s happening in our supply chain.

“It’s something to talk about with your consumers. I understand that things are super price competitive and we feel it too, but being a brand that’s making another pale ale is more risky than making something that has a connection; take [the extra cost of the grain] out of your marketing budget!

“It’s giving other farmers food for thought and confidence in what they’re putting into the ground.”

 

Certified Sustainable malt being utilised at Rocky Ridge in WA, the result of a cross-industry partnership.

 

While the percentage of the beer, spirits and farming worlds that are the focus of Good Grain is tiny, it is growing. Stu says they've seen a clear rise in demand for such malts from their customers, and larger operations have been working to introduce new products with sustainability at their heart, from Bintani's Certified Sustainable malt to the Dexter Malt collaborative venture between Voyager and Cryer Malt.

“We’ve got all the pieces there," he says. "We’ve got farmers that want to be using sustainable farming methods; farmers are environmentalists at heart but stuck in this commodity-based system and feel there’s no way out of what they’re doing. They don’t want to be getting dressed in Hazmat suits.

“We’ve got passionate brewers, big and small, that want to be using these products. I know that when consumers get that message they’ll see value in beers made with these kind of products. It’s not difficult; it’s pretty easy."

He's been impressed by the people that have already flocked to the initiative even before it's been formally launched.

“The thing I’m most excited about is the people that have associated with it: big and small brewers, maltsters, Sustainable Table," Stu says. "Obviously, there’s huge benefits to the environment through sustainability but the group of passionate people that this has attracted has got me really excited. 

Cryer E
Lallemand 1

"It’s good that it’s industry-led, a bottom-up approach. Let’s be on the front foot. Regardless of whether you’re a big or small brewer, or a big or hobby farmer, let’s work together. This isn’t about our own agendas, this is for good.”

He acknowledges the very real economic challenges faced by the industry right now, and described the slightly higher cost of using such grains – at least for now – as "the elephant in the room", but adds: "Longer term what’s the cost if we don’t change our farming practices? More fertilisers and more crops that aren’t resilient to climate change.

"The reason it’s more expensive is due to the devastation farmers have been doing to their land. You can’t just wake up one day and [switch to regenerative farming] overnight. It took Chris seven, eight, nine, ten years to bring his paddocks back."

When you look at what's happening on a daily basis around the world – war in Ukraine, the rise of demagogues, climate change, the cost-of-living crisis – it's enough to turn you to drink. 

But maybe, by choosing the right drink made with ingredients that are fostering positive changes for the planet, one day that might not be such a bad option after all.


*Full disclosure: The Crafty Pint is among them too, and has offered to support the Good Grain initiative however we can. Learn more here.

https://craftypint.s3.amazonaws.com/crafty/learn/Sustainability-icon-230620-122751-230706-153400.png

Find similar articles in our Sustainability section, supported by Bintani

If you enjoy The Crafty Pint, you can become a supporter of our independent journalism.

You can make a donation or sign up for our beer club, The Crafty Cabal, and gain access to exclusive events, giveaways and special deals.

WA Beer & Brewing Conference 2024 1
CoCon Famiglia Affairs 2024
Lallemand 1
Bintani- Updated Behind The Brew- E