The brewery’s new Swell Lager and Trail Pale Ale beers have a carbon footprint of -40gCO2e and -30gCO2e per pint respectively: in contrast to typical pints of beer, that produce at least 350g of CO2e emissions (while many craft IPAs start at 500g CO2e).
The beer are carbon negative – meaning each pint removes more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than it produces.
They’re not the first carbon negative beers to hit the market, but, unlike others, they don’t use carbon offsets to achieve their goal (carbon offsetting has become controversial because businesses reduce the carbon footprint of products through activities unrelated to their production – such as planting trees in another part of the world.)
Barley shake-up: 'Addressing your biggest problem is the fastest way to create the biggest resolution'
Founded in 2014, Gipsy Hill Brewery is one of the largest independent breweries in London, with 34 employees producing some 16740hl of beer a year.
Its new carbon negative brews are based on two main technologies: regenerative barley and recaptured hops.
The beers are the only ones in the world to be made using certified regenerative barley, sourced exclusively from Wildfarmed, which works with farmers to implement regenerative practices such as intercropping, cover cropping, and reduced tillage, which improve soil health, reduce erosion and sequester carbon.
These practices mean that the process of farming the barley sequesters more carbon in the soil than it releases into the atmosphere.
Gipsy Hill then combines the barley with recaptured hops. Recaptured hops are the hop material that has been removed after fermentation from a previous batch of beer and then reused to bitter and flavour a new batch of beer (They would usually be thrown away in a typical brewing process, meaning greenhouse gas emissions from their use are zero).
In setting out to create a more sustainable beer, co-founder and managing director Sam McMeekin says addressing its barley sourcing was an obvious priority.
“Per litre, the largest contributor to our CO2e (carbon) footprint is our barley," he told this publication. "So addressing that directly is where we could potentially have the largest impact on our CO2e emissions – addressing your largest problem is usually the fastest way to create the biggest resolution.
"But, there’s more to it than that. By reinventing our barley supply chain, we have not only brought our largest contributor of CO2e down, we were actually able to make it negative and be a source of CO2e sequestration (i.e. we were able to turn it not just from positive to a lower amount, but from positive to a large negative).”
Hops may not have as big an impact on carbon emissions as barley, but the brewery realised there was 'huge residual value' in an existing waste product.
“We were able to figure out how to recapture that in a form that allowed us to re-use it and extract that value. Because we are using a waste product, we have, essentially, reduced our CO2e from hops to zero in these beers. It’s also been a difficult project to get across the line, involving our suppliers and huge analytical machines that have produced gas chromatographic analysis of our hops. It’s a world first commercial innovation, to my knowledge.”
So, it's as simple as switching suppliers?
Creating the carbon negative beers has not been an easy task, says McMeekin.
“To break out of widely available, homogenous and industrially farmed products and switch to regeneratively farmed, naturally heterogeneous products, and figure out how to get them processed in a way that still hits our required specification as well as take on the liability for their quality, has been a huge effort - both from us and the Wildfarmed team," he said.
"Indeed, we still rely on industrial barley for the majority of our brewing, but we are hoping to continue to move away from it over time and as the availability of the regenerative products increases."
Wildfarmed – which has ‘set a new standard for regenerative agriculture’ - works with more than 50 farmers across the country from Northumberland to Cornwall: and is actively looking for farmers, landowners, bakeries, restaurants and chefs to collaborate with.
Wildfarmed flour is used by restaurants such as Silo, Franco Manca, Manteca and Hide, and is now available in Marks & Spencer, Ocado, Fortnum & Mason and Abel & Cole. Wildfarmed’s variety of flours can be used to create bread, pastries, noodles, pizza and pasta.
Gipsy Hill is Wildfarmed's exclusive brewing partner: a partnership which is crucial for brewing its carbon negative beers.
"It has been very hard to source ingredients from regenerative agriculture," says McMeekin. "Not only for making it commercially viable, but also finding a supplier who calculates the GHG emissions of their crops to allow us to complete our study. I believe we’re working with one of the only people in the country who produces regenerative barley."
Another key consideration was the taste, quality and mouthfeel of the brew when incorporating different raw materials.
“For us, taste and quality is paramount, so there was never any question about getting it to taste right. We had to research and develop about ten batches to get it to a place where we were happy and ready for release.”
‘Our target is to triple the size of our carbon negative footprint’
The complete carbon lifecycle of the beers has been independently analysed by Zevero, a specialist carbon accounting firm. Of course, barley and hops are not the only contributors to greenhouse gas emissions across the lifecycle of a beer product, but the gains made with hops and barley have been enough to take the overall emissions into negative territory.
“It has not been easy to focus on this part [barley] of our carbon footprint," said McMeekin.
"Re-inventing our supply chain is much more complicated than focusing on smaller things that have tiny gains but strong stories - recycled cardboard and recycled packaging, for example. As their impact on our footprint is small, we haven’t focused so much on those, although we’ve still done a lot of them too.
"Of course, now we have addressed the biggest source of our footprint, we are able to focus on the next biggest area of impact. This will continue to drop our carbon footprint further. Our internal target is to triple the size of our carbon negative footprint, with further decarbonising of our operations and transport. We will be working with Zevero to help us hit these targets.
More important, however, is the proof-of-concept that the new beers deliver.
Regenerative agriculture gives the food and beverage industry a ‘unique’ opportunity to have a negative CO2 input in their supply chain - rather than being a source of CO2e emissions.
“I believe that if we can regeneratively farm the majority of our food and drinks’ raw materials, we can inset enormous amounts of CO2e emissions from food and drink manufacturing, potentially turning the whole industry’s carbon footprint to zero or negative CO2e, which is a wild idea.”
A pricey pint? Actually, no...
The new brews are now available in a number of locations, including Gipsy Hill’s taproom and sister bar in South London, The Understudy at the National Theatre, Kerb Street food markets, Seven Dials Market and a selection of Youngs venues around the UK.
A pint retails from £6 - £7.50, depending on the venue: a price tag that is not at all out of place in London.
And surprisingly, the set-up cost for brewing carbon negative beers ‘isn’t huge’ – the most significant factors being the time, research and development.
It’s nice to think that such a promising proof-of-concept could be easy to leverage across the industry – particularly given the gains to be made in sustainability.
And, theoretically, it is. But Gipsy Hill brewery has had to revamp how it sources raw materials – ‘the efforts we have made to revolutionise our supply chain are what’s really made the difference’ – and that’s what could prove to be a sticking point elsewhere.
“Bigger breweries, craft or macro, are unable to invest in such expensive ingredients for their core range products, as their costs for raw materials have been reduced to such a low level," said McMeekin. "They use their size to negotiate cheaper raw materials (industrially farmed of course), and build their business model around those margins. Instead of driving sales through product quality and real sustainability efforts, they drive sales through marketing budget and drive sustainability initiatives through offset projects, which we do little of.
“Of course, due to their size, they can run very efficient manufacturing plants, much more efficient than us, and their gas, CO2 and electricity per litre is certainly lower than ours. But none of those efforts are a source of sequestered emissions, they are just a reduction in emissions per litre. For them, getting their CO2e footprint / litre to zero will only be able to be achieved by offsetting, not insetting."