CLEARWATER — Gas is an inevitable byproduct of beer, whether you’re drinking a keg or brewing one.
Usually, it’s just waste. But the operators of Big Storm Brewing Co. off 49th Street N in Clearwater have found a way to make use of the carbon dioxide released in the brewing process, capturing the gas in barrels and purifying it to carbonate and package more beer.
“This is the rare intersection where what is good for the environment is also good for business,” said LJ Govoni, Big Storm’s president.
At most small breweries, carbon dioxide is emitted from large fermenting tanks, which are silvery and shaped like the tips of pencils. The gas passes through hoses into buckets of water (brewers watch the bubbles to track the phases of beer-making).
“It’s like belching,” Govoni said.
Big Storm began trapping some carbon dioxide in barrels in January. The containers are hooked to a refrigerator-sized machine at the back of the brewery that filters the gas and strips out moisture. The end product is used in carbonation, helping to give finished beer its fizzy lift.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, one culprit of global warming. But brewery emissions are not the kind that scientists say people need to rapidly curb to head off the most destructive consequences of climate change (and they are miniscule in comparison). Those come from burning fossil fuels, which puts excess carbon into the atmosphere from material that has been trapped underground for millennia, said Andrew MacIntosh, a food science professor at the University of Florida.
Fermentation generates carbon dioxide when microorganisms break down sugar in barley, an essential step in making alcohol. “It is similar to breathing. Whatever eats the barley will be returning the CO2 back into the cycle,” MacIntosh said.
Not all carbon dioxide is bad; in fact, some is necessary in the atmosphere.
Even if it’s not denting the problem of global warming directly, MacIntosh said, Big Storm’s effort will help the environment.
“It’s efficient, and it means that we don’t have to use less environmentally-friendly ways to generate the CO2,” he said.
The emissions from breweries are already close to pure, making capture and reuse fairly simple. But MacIntosh said the system could still offer lessons for capturing trickier carbon, which some scientists say will be necessary to lessen global warming.
“The way that we get to the solutions to some of these big problems is to look first at what is the low-hanging fruit,” MacIntosh said.
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Craft brewing in Florida has more than a $3 billion impact on the economy, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group. MacIntosh expects more places will try to reuse carbon dioxide like Big Storm soon. Proof Brewing Company in Tallahassee already deploys a similar system.
The carbon-capture equipment is made by Earthly Labs, a company in Texas. Govoni said Big Storm is unique because it also has a distillery, where it will help Earthly Labs study an expansion beyond breweries.
Susan Glickman, a longtime clean energy advocate and director of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action, said the brewery is setting an example.
“It’s exciting to hear about an independent, locally owned company like Big Storm getting out in front of this problem,” she said. “What they learn will help others do the same.”
The carbon-capture system’s cost is in the six figures, according to Govoni. Big Storm is on track to be the state’s largest independent brewery by the end of the year, he said.
Recycling lowers the amount of gas the company buys from outside vendors, but it isn’t yet enough to carbonate all Big Storm beer.
The cost savings are only one benefit. The carbon dioxide from inside the brewery is purer than anything Big Storm can buy, according to head brewer Joel Moore.
For customers, he said, that makes for tastier beer.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.