The Alaskan Brewing Co. is going green, but instead of looking to solar or wind energy, it has turned to a very familiar source: beer.
The Juneau-based brewer has installed a unique boiler system to cut its fuel costs. It purchased a $1.8 million furnace that burns the company's spent grain — the waste accumulated from the brewing process — to power the majority of the brewery's operations.
Company officials now joke they are now serving "beer-powered beer."
What to do with spent grain was seemingly solved decades ago by breweries operating in the Lower 48. Most send the used grain, a good source of protein, to nearby farms and ranches to be used as animal feed.
But there are only 37 farms in southeast Alaska and 680 in the entire state as of 2011, and the problem of what to do with the excess spent grain — made up of the residual malt and barley — became more problematic after the brewery expanded in 1995.
The Alaskan Brewing Co. had to resort to shipping its spent grain to buyers in the Lower 48. Shipping costs for Juneau businesses are especially high because there are no roads leading in or out of the city; everything has to be flown or shipped in. However, the grain is a relatively wet by-product of the brewing process, so it needs to be dried before it is shipped — another expensive process.
But the company, which makes about 150,000 barrels of beer a year that is distributed in 14 states, was barely turning a profit by selling its spent grain. Alaskan Brewery gets $60 for every ton of it sent to farms in the Lower 48, but it costs them $30 to ship each ton.
So four years ago, officials at the brewery started looking at whether it could use spent grain as a renewable energy source and reduce costs.
While breweries around the world use spent grain as a co-fuel in energy recovery systems, "nobody was burning spent grain as a sole fuel source for an energy recovery system, for a steam boiler," says Brandon Smith, the company's brewing operations and engineering manager.
It contracted with a North Dakota company to build the boiler system after the project was awarded nearly $500,000 in a grant from the federal Rural Energy for America Program.
The craft brewery is expecting big savings once the system is fully operational in about a month's time. Smith estimates that the spent grain steam boiler will offset the company's yearly energy costs by 70 percent, which amounts to about $450,000 a year.
Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's largest brewer, has been repurposing spent grain for the past century, selling it to farmers. Mike Beck, director of utilities support at Anheuser-Busch InBev, said spent grains are not currently a viable energy source for its breweries. However, Beck noted that the company regularly investigates new technologies.