It is enough to horrify any beer drinker, yet it has happened to us all at some point. Whether it has been a pint knocked over before it has been finished or, goodness forbid, before it has even been started; that half-pint you just cannot (or perhaps should not) finish; or noticing that bottle of beer at the back of the fridge has passed its expiry date. We have all seen good beer gone to waste.

On a much larger scale, industrial beer waste is expected to rise considerably as a result of COVID-19.

As we celebrate Zero Waste Week, we focus on steps the brewing industry can take (and has taken) to reduce waste.

What is beer waste?

Humanity has been brewing beer for thousands of years. Globally, around 200 billion hectolitres of beer are produced annually. However, the environmental footprint of brewing beer is sobering. Each step of the brewing process produces waste.

It has been estimated that for every 1,000 tonnes of beer made, up to 173 tonnes of solid waste may be produced (including spent grain, hops, sugars, proteins and yeast). In Scotland alone, the annual by-product waste produced as a result of brewing beer is around 53,682 tonnes. In the EU, it is estimated that breweries discard around 3.4m tonnes of unspent grain.

It also takes a significant amount of water to brew beer. Many in the industry accept that the beer-to-water ratio is around four and a half barrels of water to make one barrel of beer. Some estimates are much higher. Beer packaging, transportation and storage also contribute to the environmental impact.

With further environmental legislation and targets being introduced globally, the brewing industry, which is often credited for its innovation, faces the challenge of increasing its sustainability and reducing waste.

Reducing beer waste

Rather than simply throwing out what might otherwise be classed as brewing waste, some beer by-products have been turned into valuable ingredients for use in other industries. In cosmetics, beer has been infused into numerous beauty products. In the nutrition industry, spent grain can be used in the production of cereal bars and baked goods.

One of the most common uses of brewing by-products, including spent grain, is for animal feed for the farming industry. Beer waste makes excellent feed and recent studies have suggested that including spent grain in cattle feed can lower methane levels by up to 13% and can help reduce the use of soy in the feed.

Expired beer can also be given a second lease of life by being converted into energy. By being fed into an anaerobic digester, beer can be transformed into biogas which can help reduce energy demands. Further beer waste, such as leftover barley, can also be converted into carbon that can be used for domestic heating, barbeque fuel, and providing filtration in developing countries.

Brewers can also help tackle waste based on what they use to brew the beer. Globally, an astonishing one-third of food produced ends up going to waste. While the technique stretches back thousands of years, making beer from leftover bread helps reduce food waste and replaces some of the malted barley which would otherwise be used by brewers.

For those who are still balking at the thought of not being able to savour and enjoy beer before it goes off, some distilleries have been repurposing spoilt beer in order to make spirits. While pasteurised beer can last for around three to four weeks following delivery, unpasteurised beers, including most ales and IPAs, have a much shorter shelf life. Even after their sell-by date, such beers are essentially fermented grain – the key ingredients of spirits (such as gin and whisky). While the yield goes down when distilling with beer – for every 100 litres of beer it is possible to distill around 8 litres of gin – this helps reduce beer waste, and can often infuse the spirit with particular beer flavours.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, distillers have also used spoilt beer for another purpose – making hand sanitiser. Rather than mashing and fermenting grains from scratch, using spoilt beer allows for much quicker production, albeit the process yields less ethanol.

On the packaging side, brewers have long debated the benefits of cans vs bottles. While both tend to be recyclable, cans tend to be more readily recycled globally. Further, cans are smaller and lighter than bottles, making them much more efficient to deliver than bottles.

Dealing with beer waste during COVID-19

The global outbreak of COVID-19 has also increased the volume of waste beer in 2020. The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) has estimated that as much as a staggering 70 million pints of beer have been spoilt in the UK due to the closure of the hospitality industry in the fight against COVID-19.

In response to increased beer waste in 2020, the BBPA has created a cross-industry platform allowing publicans to contact breweries and brand owners to obtain permission and guidance on how to destroy beer and cider that has spoilt due to COVID-19. The platform allows for recording the destruction of the beer, allows drinks companies to reclaim duty, and for reimbursement or provision of credit to the publican.

HMRC have also introduced temporary, eased measures to assist in the destruction of spoilt beer, if no alternative is available. This is in order to comply with social distancing guidelines and to speed up the process of reclaiming duty on unsellable beer. Under the temporary rules, evidence must be retained for the destruction of any beer resulting in numerous heart-breaking videos being posted online of kegs of beer being emptied down the drain.

In order to reduce waste, and the environmental effect of spoilt beer, disposal to the sewer should only be considered as a last resort where re-purposing of beer is not possible, and only with the agreement of the brand owner and the local water authority. Any other methods of disposing beer should be used, where it is safe to do so.

Can we get to Zero Waste?

As we are encouraged to reduce the amount of waste we produce through Zero Waste Week, those in the brewing industry should also be encouraged to review the processes through which beer is produced in order to limit beer waste.

While the effects of COVID-19 will be a setback in relation to the volume of beer spoilt, there are a number of options available to reduce waste, whether in terms of the ingredients used, packaging or re-purposing that which would normally be considered waste materials. It is clear that, due to the innovation of both the brewing industry and collaboration across multiple industries, significant advances have been taken to clean up a millennia old industry.

Let’s raise a toast to that.