Sustainable Plant of the Year

Sustainable Plant of the Year: New Belgium Brewing Co. Hits the Spot

September 1, 2010
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Finding a fun way to discuss carbon footprints in manufacturing and personal lifestyle requires a delicate balance, but New Belgium Brewing has found a way to strike the right note.

Bicycle rims suspended from the ceiling add a decorative touch to Brewhouse #2 at New Belgium Brewing Co. Source: Tom Reimann Photography.


Instead of lifting, a robotic arm guides cases of beer onto a pallet infeed and orients them to create the correct shipping pattern. Source: Tom Reimann Photography.

Proselytizing requires diplomacy and finesse. A shrill note squelches any hope of inspiring people and organizations to change.

The founders of New Belgium Brewing Co. (NBBC) understood the perils of activism when they established the Fort Collins, CO beer company in 1991. The founding principles of driving social, environmental and cultural change were tempered with a requirement to have fun. Judging by the craft brewery’s still-bullish growth and its designation as Food Engineering’s Sustainable Plant of the Year, the formula works. 

Environmentalism comes with the territory on Colorado’s Front Range, where residents live in the afternoon shadows of the Rocky Mountains. Add in youthful enthusiasm-Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University’s 25,000 student body-and the conditions for socially and environmentally responsible practices are ripe. “In the Fort Collins community and the places we sell beer, we strive to be socially responsible and to serve as advocates for best business practices,” says Kim Jordan, NBBC’s CEO and, along with her since-retired former husband Jeff Lebesch, cofounder.

While dozens of specialty and limited edition beers are brewed, the brewery’s identity is entwined with Fat Tire, an amber ale featuring a bicycle on its label. The bike is meant to evoke Belgian roots, though it’s right at home in a town where 7 percent of residents are believed to commute on two wheels. “We’ve coupled our brand image with bicycling because we believe biking can help address greenhouse gas [GHG] issues,” Jordan explains, “and we use the Tour de Fat and other events as a playful way to bring people in. We make a splash and hope to create a ripple.”

Sustainability wasn’t part of the business lexicon when Jordan and Lebesch started bottling Fat Tire in their basement, using brew tanks fabricated from sheet metal and outfitting them with a homemade economizer that captured vent heat to warm water for the next batch. Four years later, they moved into the present location on the banks of the Cache La Poudre River, building a brewhouse with a supplier-outfitted condenser for heat recovery. To further boost quality and consistency, Opto 22 controls were installed, with most of the initial coding done by Lebesch, an electrical engineer. Sales growth provided revenue to invest in wind-power credits, cogenerators and other energy-efficient technologies, “but our approach was fairly ad hoc,” says Jordan. “As the company grew, we realized it would be more effective to actually have a plan.”

While NBBC has not deviated from its original principles, the methods and people who operate the brewery have become more formal and professional. Production managers and continuous-improvement experts from outside the craft-brewing community have been recruited. As they reshape the manufacturing practices and identify projects with the best returns and highest impact, they’re careful not to squelch staff involvement. Sustainable production is not merely a feel-good effort; it’s a pocketbook issue for NBBC’s 350 workers: An employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) owns 41 percent of NBBC’s stock.

Sunshine is the norm on Colorado’s Front Range, and that’s a good thing for New Belgium’s solar array, which started producing electricity in January. Source: Tom Reimann Photography.

Quenching America's thirst

The world’s largest brewery is 70 miles to the south in Boulder, and Fort Collins hosts another mega-brewery. NBBC belongs to the craft-beer category, a bright spot in today’s beer market. Craft brewing didn’t start here, but the Front Range has proven fertile ground. Colorado currently boasts 103 breweries, including 100 that more closely resemble NBBC than the Miller-Coors and Anheuser-Busch operations. Total US beer consumption declined 2.7 percent in the first half of 2010, the Brewers Association reports, but craft-beer sales enjoyed double-digit growth. Thanks in part to expanding distribution, NBBC is exceeding the category’s growth rate, averaging 13.4 percent over the last five years. It ranks as the third largest craft brewer, behind Boston Beer Co. (Samuel Adams) and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., last year’s Sustainable Plant of the Year.

NBBC’s production is projected at 630,000 barrels (bbl) this year, well below the 2 million bbl ceiling the Brewers Association set for craft beers but light years beyond its 1991 output of 220 bbl. Lebesch was wrestling with the artisan image and the need for reliable controls and repeatability when he was laying the groundwork for the current brewery. “It was almost a philosophical decision to automate, though from a marketing perspective, it could have been a problem,” remembers Igor Valuyev, who first met Lebesch in 1994. Layers of MES and other information systems have been added in the last 15 years, but the original premise of automating machines and freeing people to make decisions still drives the organization. “If you don’t have the data, you don’t know how you can improve,” notes Valuyev, who has served as chief electrical and automation engineer since 2000. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) software has enhanced the automation system significantly. Valuyev recruited Orbis Information Systems in Dublin, Ireland, a firm with roots in the Guinness brewery, to integrate a system from Wonderware. “They not only brought code but brewing expertise,” he says. The system, which significantly enhances NBBC’s ability to track raw materials from the field to the bottle and allows better process sequencing and peak load shedding, was honored with a Best EMI Application award at the 2008 Wonderware Invensys Open. It is being integrated with a lab information system.

Simply collecting more data accomplishes little, points out Valuyev. It must be viewed and interpreted by operators who have been trained to use SPC and control charts to home in on the process’ key variables. With data collection now automated, workers no longer are bogged down with data logging and instead can focus on making informed decisions, he says. Critical review of the hundreds of taken measurements isolated 20 key variables, enabling workers to focus on the true indicators of quality outcomes. Operators now know when and, just as importantly, when not to react to change. “The person who analyzes the data best is the person on the floor,” Valuyev believes.

Process optimization necessarily has taken a backseat to overcoming capacity constraints for the last decade, though the brewery is committed to best-in-class strategy in equipment and systems installations. When a second brewhouse was built in 2002, NBBC installed the Merlin system, becoming one of the first US breweries to use the energy-efficient system. At 200 bbl, the system brews twice as much beer as NBBC’s first brewhouse (both supplied by Steinecker), but the larger batches may consume less energy. Instead of heating the wort from the outside in, Merlin circulates the liquid over a large heating surface, rapidly boiling the wort while operating at lower steam temperatures.

Also in 2002, NBBC made its first serious foray into locally generated renewable energy. While ESOP shareholders voted in 1998 to purchase energy from a wind farm in Medicine Bow, WY, the plant started exploiting the potential in its own waste stream four years later. An anaerobic digester to treat wastewater and capture the resulting biogas was built on NBBC’s 50-acre site, and a 250 kW engine from Continental Energy Systems was installed inside the brewery. The low-sulfur gas is 75 percent methane and only requires moisture reduction to power the engine, according to Treatment Manager Brandon Weaver. Waste heat helps warm the premises and the microbes in the digester, where a snug 90°F set point is maintained. A second engine is planned, Weaver adds, which will enable the brewery to engage in peak shaving and generate more than 15 percent of its total electricity. Currently, the treatment plant is flaring off excess biogas.

When a new packaging hall came on line in 2007, NBBC seized the opportunity to introduce technical innovations that save water, electricity and other resources. The 55,000-sq.-ft. hall features R-38 insulation in the ceiling, R-38 structural insulated panels for walls, recycled and reused materials in the carpets and wood trim, and numerous skylights and solar tubes tied to lighting controls that raise and lower illumination from T-5 fluorescents, depending on the availability of natural light

Fill speeds more than doubled to 700 bottles per minute compared to NBBC’s old packaging operation, but higher speed is only part of the technical improvement. It was the first North American installation of an electronic filler system from KHS. Besides more precise fill levels, quicker changeovers and better oxygen control, the system reuses water from the rinsing process to clean bottles prior to coding with a laser-and-wax unit, according to Engineering Director Jim Spencer. Carbon dioxide used to clean unfilled bottles also is recovered for secondary use. A hot water recovery tank is tied to the CIP system.

The packaging hall also hosts KHS’s first robotic/mechanical palletizer, a system that still needed industrial hardening when it arrived. “It’s cool when it’s running good, which is most of the time,” Spencer notes. The weight of a case of beer would require more strength than most three-axis arms can muster to lift and extend. Engineers resolved the challenge by using an end-of-arm tool that spins, turns or guides incoming cases, depending on the pallet pattern being built. The cases are never lifted off an infeed conveyor.

Another innovation is the case packer that tightly wraps flats around 12-packs instead of placing bottles into a preformed box. The machine helps lower breakage rates and eliminates the need for cardboard spacers, reducing material use, Spencer reports.

The packaging hall now supports NBBC’s latest foray in renewable energy. Half of the rooftop is covered with 870 solar panels in a 200 kW array that satisfies about 2 percent of total electrical demand. With the local chamber of commerce guaranteeing 300 sunny days a year, Fort Collins is solar friendly. The NBBC array is purportedly the largest privately owned solar system in the state.

NBBC employee Ken Petroski bleeds a line prior to transferring beer to a chiller in the brewery’s fermentation cellar. Source: Tom Reimann Photography.

Channeled enthusiasm

Since the packaging hall came on line, NBBC staff has taken ownership, handling all maintenance and diagnostics on the 108-valve filler and other equipment, Spencer says. Operators have taken the initiative to propose improvements, such as reprogramming the controls so downstream conveyors automatically shut down when an upstream fault cuts off product flow.

Channeling the improvement suggestions of a young staff (median age: 34) that is engaged and, through the ESOP, financially invested in the company became a priority several years ago. In an environment where workers are encouraged to voice opinions and offer suggestions, the challenge was to impose order on continuous improvement projects without stifling enthusiasm. The formalized solution is called Bright Ideas.

An organization’s time and resources are limited, and NBBC’s management was being overwhelmed by staff project proposals. Bright Ideas meetings were created to identify, prioritize and measure the results of those proposals, explains Jennifer Orgolini, who served as COO at Bright Ideas’ inception. Orgolini now is NBBC’s sustainability steward. “We probably have 50 Bright Ideas projects going on right now,” adds Operations Director Mark Fischer, a manufacturing professional who began introducing lean principles when he joined NBBC in 2002. The program took off two years later when Paul Pettinger, a Six Sigma master black belt, assumed the position of quality assurance chief. “There was some hesitation about bringing in a professional quality person,” states Pettinger, who has served as an evaluator for the Malcolm Baldrige Awards, but no cultural clashes occurred.

Staff buy-in to the effectiveness of continuous-improvement and quality concepts like lean and Six Sigma was essential. Also critical was training in these approaches. One Pettinger initiative involved bringing a Six Sigma trainer in house to work with interested staffers. A score initially signed up, and more have followed. Currently, NBBC has about 40 green belts and two certified black belts.

A structured approach to analyzing processes, considering alternatives and measuring the consequences of change plays out in projects big and small. A planned 20,000-sq.-ft. material-storage area in packaging was dropped when the team determined a better solution was just-in-time materials delivery, with no more than a five-hour supply on hand to meet production needs. A decision to switch to convenience charging of lift trucks eliminated the need for a battery room. As an outgrowth of a compressed-air review, staffers are evaluating a CIP change that would pump nitrogen into tanks and immediately begin the cleaning cycle, instead of first evacuating carbon dioxide while maintaining pressure. “If it works, it will shave hours off the process and lower our carbon footprint,” says Fischer.

NBBC employee Brent Radke draws a sour-beer sample from an oak cask. Brewed in April 2009, the ale is a youngster, only halfway through its aging cycle. Source: Tom Reimann Photography.

Community leadership

Warts-and-all reporting of its own sustainability efforts reflects the company’s commitment to transparency in external and internal communications. In 2007, NBBC commissioned the Climate Conservancy to conduct a lifecycle assessment of the carbon footprint of a six-pack of Fat Tire. Brewery operations accounted for 173 grams of carbon, or 5.4 percent of the total, and the company is committed to reducing the contribution by one quarter. The analysis also dramatized the influence of factors largely beyond NBBC’s control, with two-thirds GHG emissions attributable to glass and malt production and shipment, as well as retailers’ refrigeration systems. Limiting sustainability efforts to brewery operations would have marginal impact, so the company casts a wider net, taking an active role in community projects, outreach programs and lobbying for programs often opposed by the food and beverage industry.     

Orgolini is on the steering committee of the Fort Collins Zero Energy District (FortZED), a sustainable energy demonstration project that has received $15.4 million in US Department of Energy grants. Smart grid enabling technology such as advanced meters in homes and phasor measurement units receives the bulk of the funding, but FortZED also aims to bolster the case for distributed energy. NBBC plays a prominent role in that effort, with its second CHP engine expected to shave demand during peak periods. The brewery’s solar array and cogen system are contributors to FortZED’s focus on locally produced, renewable energy sources. NBBC is investing more than $3 million in projects related to FortZED, but “what is the deferred cost of not investing in our grid and instead paying for another coal-fired plant?” Orgolini rhetorically asks.

She is one of a core group of “missionaries,” staffers charged with identifying possible sustainability and production-improvement projects that can contribute to the company’s long-term business success and mission fulfillment. Their proposals are presented at staff meetings where coworkers are invited to express concerns and make comments. “Input from our coworkers is the first step in the sustainability strategy,” says Jordan.

NBBC also serves as an incubator for technologies not yet ready for prime time. Four years ago, a 9,200-gal. water tank and space for a pilot plant were provided to Oberon FMR, a Colorado start-up that siphoned process wastewater into a bioreactor that created high-protein meal for fish farms. A year later, engineers and maintenance staffers helped Solix Biofuels piggyback an algae-to-biodiesel project onto the brewery’s wastewater treatment plant. “When we are approached with an idea that is valid,” Orgolini says, “I bring it to our team and ask, ‘Do you want to help them with your time?’” Both those projects have since moved to locations with larger raw-material streams as they continue on the commercial-development trail.

Community outreach is approached on multiple fronts. A dollar from every keg sale is channeled to a grant program that dispenses $500-$5,000 to groups involved in water stewardship, public transit and bicycle advocacy, sustainable agriculture and youth environmental education. More visible is the “eventing team,” composed of about a dozen staff members. When the brewery donates beer for a nonprofit group’s fundraiser, the eventing team will help “green up their event” and engage in grassroots advocacy, explains Orgolini, encouraging people to take steps to lower their carbon footprints. Tour de Fat is the team’s centerpiece: a 13-city “bicycle ballyhoo” designed to get people out of their cars and onto their bicycles.

Workers and visitors are apt to arrive on two wheels at New Belgium Brewing. Promoting bicycle use extends far beyond the brewery’s flagship Fat Tire amber beer. Source: Kevin T. Higgins.

Container waste is an issue that requires collaborative solutions. NBBC partnered with the city and a bicycle courier service in 2003 to collect bottles from local taverns and bring them to the brewery, where they’re combined with the brewery’s waste and channeled into a new-glass recycling program. As a result of a staff Six Sigma program targeting bottle breakage two years ago, the bike courier now contributes the majority of the recycled glass. Bottling line breakage was slashed 41 percent last year, and the improved performance is being maintained.

Beyond that, management is an advocate for state or national bottle-deposit legislation and maintains a dialogue with other craft brewers to sell beer in returnable bottles. “That’s an area of advocacy where you have to bring other people into the conversation and work with partners,” says Jordan. To work, all the brewers would have to use the same bottles. Another idea NBBC is promoting is growlers, the 64-oz. refillable containers that are staging a minor comeback in some urban neighborhoods. However, the patchwork of state and local laws regarding transport of alcohol in open containers works against a growler resurgence.

Another Fort Collins craft brewer already had staked out the on-premise sales channel when NBBC was getting started, so the brewery focused on retail sales. But on-premise sales now account for more than 40 percent of NBBC’s sales, and the installation of a new kegging line in June will provide capacity for greater growth. In-house green belts hope to institute JIT for kegs.

NBBC is serious about producing a quality product as efficiently and waste-free as possible. People throughout the organization are serious about addressing GHG and other environmental issues. Those goals have been constant for 19 years; the only change is in approach. “We want people to follow a standardized procedure but also think outside the box and look for ways to tweak the process and improve it,” notes Fischer.

“Beer is just inherently fun,” Jordan reflects. “People are interested in seeing what we do, so we have a built-in platform for talking about the environment and sustainability. We have an opportunity, and we don’t want to squander it.”

Petroleum apologists and climate-change deniers would be uncomfortable working at NBBC. Likewise, social scolds and ascetics wouldn’t mix well with their NBBC colleagues. Saving the planet is serious business, but it’s best tackled a step at a time and discussed over a tall, cold one.  

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