Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Mendocino County was the first brewery in the world to use solar. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

It’s not just what’s in the can that matters. For Anderson Valley Brewing Company it’s about being good stewards of the land.

The Mendocino County brewery could have stopped years ago when in 2005 it became the first brewery in the world to install solar. Instead, the craft brewery continues to be on the leading edge of sustainability.

Most recently the current operators changed the packaging to eliminate plastic.

“We moved all packaging to the most sustainable packaging we could. All beer is in cans now with cardboard exterior wraps that allowed us to eliminate plastic,” Kevin McGee, CEO and president of the company, said. “We had to develop the packaging because it didn’t exist. We had to invest in a new packaging equipment to get the cans into the boxes.”

While he knows there is a cost savings to get rid of bottles and plastic, McGee hasn’t crunched the numbers to know that dollar figure.

“It was something we did because we knew sustainability-wise it was smart to do,” McGee said.

The switch to cans from bottles means the number of trucks needed to ship product has been reduced by 60%, McGee said. Weight is the big difference.

In keeping with the company’s quest to have as little waste as possible end up in a landfill, the bottling line was upcycled by being sold to a local winery.

Plastic is no longer part of Anderson Valley’s packaging. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Industry insights

Beer making isn’t necessarily an environmentally friendly business. It takes a ton of energy and water.

The Brewers Association’s “Energy Usage, GHG Reduction, Efficiency and Land Management Manual” says, “Refrigeration generally creates the largest electrical load, while brewing consumes the largest amount of natural gas.”

The Brewers Association represents more than 5,400 craft brewers.

“Energy used in a brewery breaks down into two primary units. Thermal energy in the form of natural gas is used to generate hot water and steam, which is then used in brewing, packaging and general building heating. Electrical energy is used to power all equipment, with the largest user being refrigeration,” the report says. “Thermal sources average 70% of the energy consumed in the brewery; however, it usually only accounts for 30% of the actual energy cost. Based on this, efforts to reduce electrical energy should be given top priority when considering energy reduction opportunities, as they account for the largest opportunity.”

The trade group launched its sustainability subcommittee in 2013. One outcome was a guide focusing on energy, water, wastewater, carbon dioxide and solid waste.

The group in 2014 wanted to prove to craft breweries that change could affect their bottom line. In a pilot program that year “savings ranged from $35,000 to $235,000 annually for small to larger craft breweries.”

A couple enjoys a beer in the large garden at AVBC. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

AVBC keeps evolving

 Anderson Valley Brewing Company (AVBC) knows it is leaving money on the table by continuing to operate a solar system that is nearly 20 years old.

That is why a $2 million project is on the drawing board. Exactly when the greenlight will be given to start construction remains a moving target. Plans were finalized in summer 2020, but then the world was shut down—including the Boonville brewery, and sales plummeted. It is still in a bit of a recovery mode.

When the new panels get installed, the solar production will go from powering 50% of the operations today to producing 110% of what the brewery needs, McGee said. He anticipates the excess will be sold to Sonoma Clean Power in Santa Rosa.

The arrays cover the brewhouse and a carport. Now the output is less than 400,000 kilowatt hours annually, with future panels forecast to deliver 861,000 kilowatt hours a year.

The plan calls for all of the more than 700 panels to be replaced, with an expansion to a neighboring building and elsewhere on the 30-acre parcel.

Once started, construction should take about three months. This includes building an on-site battery storage system.

“It will reduce our ongoing costs immediately,” McGee said. “It would pay for itself between eight and 10 years.”

Partnering with like-minded organizations is also a top priority. Coastal Ale, which was released this year, has 5% of its gross profits from packaged ales going to the Surfrider Foundation.

On its website the nonprofit says it is “dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s ocean, waves and beaches, for all people, through a powerful activist network.”

Anderson Valley is looking for other organizations to do the same thing.

A little history

McGee created a nanobrewery in his Healdsburg garage in 2007. Now his Healdsburg Beer Company is considered a sister brewery to Anderson Valley Brewing Company, which is owned by his father.

Michael McGee Sr. bought AVBC in 2019 from HMB Holdings. That group had purchased it from Ken Allen who founded Anderson Valley in 1987.

McGee, the CEO of Anderson, was employed by Santa Rosa’s Jackson Family Wines for six years where he was a  business strategist and personal legal counsel to Jess Jackson. After Jackson’s death in 2011, McGee started a consulting firm that focused on fixing problems for businesses.

The goal with Anderson Valley Brewing is for it to be in the McGee family for multiple generations. For now it’s dad as owner, McGee as CEO, and his wife, Katee, as creative director.

Three ponds filter the wastewater at Anderson Valley Brewing Co. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Proven practices

The University of Vermont published a report a few years ago saying for every barrel of beer produced it took three to seven barrels of water to make it.

Anderson Valley draws its water from the 10 wells on its land. All of the gray wastewater is released back on the property to recharge the aquifer.

This is done by an on-site wastewater treatment plant that has three ponds behind the main buildings that are in different stages of purification.

“We have a fully outfitted lab that we use for quality control and operations for the brewery and use that to monitor the state of the ponds,” McGee said. “We have reporting requirements.”

Allen, the original owner and founder of AVBC, was ahead of his time with the solar and ponds.

In 2020, a nitrogen generator was installed to take nitrogen from the ambient air that is then used instead of carbon dioxide. While McGee didn’t say how much it cost, he said it paid for itself in eight months.

He said a good deal of CO2 used at the brewery had nothing to do with carbonization, but instead was used to move liquid through the pipes. That’s now done with nitrogen.

All of the brewing waste like spent grains and yeast go to a local farmer for livestock feed.

“We are trying to be as self-sustaining as we can,” McGee said in reference to all of the brewery’s environmental initiatives.

Note: A version of this story first appeared in the North Bay Business Journal.

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