EFC steers NC breweries to sustainability

Improving water usage in the craft beer industry is the focus of a UNC Environmental Finance Center project.

Graphic with glass of beer, waterfall and greenery
Inspired by an initiative in New England, the the UNC Environmental Finance Center decided to pursue work with craft breweries in North Carolina because of its emphasis on water issues. (Graphic by Andrew Jacobs/UNC Creative)

Your next sip of North Carolina craft beer may be brewed in a more sustainable way thanks to work by the UNC Environmental Finance Center. 

Producing one gallon of beer, or eight pints, often requires up to 10 gallons of water. Combined with the “trub” produced during the brewing process — excess hops and other additives, like fruit for sour beers — and the fact that water utilities can handle only a certain amount of strain at a time, breweries make life more complicated for the utilities, especially in small towns. 

While the brewing industry is rapidly expanding in North Carolina — more than doubling in size from 2019 to 2023 and supporting more than 75,000 jobs — not all breweries invest the same resources into treating this problem. That’s where the EFC comes in. 

In partnership with a team at East Carolina University, the EFC is conducting water and energy efficiency audits for 10 North Carolina breweries and providing a list of improvements aimed at sustainability. From there, the EFC will help breweries find grants or other financial resources to help them tackle the projects. 

Those breweries span the state, including Appalachian Mountain Brewery in Boone, Mad Mole Brewing in Wilmington, Dry Falls Brewing Co. in Hendersonville and Tarboro Brewing in Tarboro.  

“Some breweries have said, ‘This was exactly the math equation that I needed to show my partners in order to get this change made,’” said Justin Nolan, project director for the EFC. 

“Large numbers of the breweries we’ve gone to have had good practices or were trying to implement them. But the economic realities have meant they don’t have extra money to drop on a substantial environmental project. We can do the audit, give them the information and work to hopefully connect them with grants.” 

The EFC, housed in the School of Government, was founded in 1998 with the goal of helping governments and other organizations provide environmental programs and services in fair and financially sustainable ways.  

The center is part of Pollution Prevention, or P2, an Environment Protection Agency program that provides grants to centers across the country focused on protecting the environment. Inspired by an initiative in New England, the EFC decided to pursue similar work with breweries in North Carolina because of its emphasis on water issues. 

The center was also seeking to further strengthen the relationships they have in rural areas of the state outside of local governments. 

For Dano Ferons and Mad Mole Brewing, the question wasn’t where to start but what else they could do. 

Ferons’ background is in marine science, and his dad runs a water district in California, so water has always been on his mind. The opportunity to see how he and Mad Mole could continue to improve was valuable. 

“They’re really getting out and educating breweries that there are options,” Ferons said of the EFC. “It’s been really cool to see how they’ve been able to get in touch with everybody, reach out and have that support system in place. They’re very good about getting back with pertinent information, what you need and then answering follow-up questions in case there are other things you want to think about.” 

When it comes to water quality and access, both utilities and businesses need assistance. Nolan and the EFC know this is a gateway into becoming a broader resource for communities across North Carolina. 

“This is one of the first steps in becoming more holistic,” Nolan said. “We’re going to try to help everybody in the town and, theoretically, the rising tide lifts all boats.”