Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Cows are Drunk and My Beer Tastes like Cow Patty…it Must be Earth Day!

It has come to the attention of Your Genteel Moderator that some of his refined readers believe he has been unkind in consistently taking companies to task for greenwashing, i.e. spinning their actions or processes as environmentally friendly when there is at least some evidence to the contrary. Having reviewed past Blogposts, there has certainly been a good deal to say about corporate greenwashing, and little have I focused on those actions by companies that do indeed act in ways that represent real, meaningful and effective commitment to the environment. It is therefore with great pleasure that I stitch together this post which covers two of my favourite things: Vermont and Beer.

Looks like those Down East Yankees at the Long Trail Brewing Company have got the green coming and going. The privately held Long Trail Brewery of Bridgewater VT doesn’t release detailed financials but with nearly 90,000 barrels of installed capacity, they stand solidly in the upper ranks of America’s independent craft brewers, have grown solidly and steadily since their 1989 debut, and were just this month ranked (by sales) 22 out of 1,406 small, independent craft breweries across the country. With 19 years of successive growth, expansion plans telegraphed by permits the company has obtained, and continuing rumors of some kind of Anheuser-Busch link-up afoot, we can safely say that this is a business-savvy and successful company, if perhaps another Ben & Jerry’s corporate sell-out in the making.

So when a company like Long Trail (the largest to yet do so) signs on to Central Vermont Public Services “Cow Power” program and begins utilizing electricity generated by the same cows that it flogs the hops and malt leftovers from beer production to as feed, we really are moving into an area of seemingly solid green economics and science. Because not only does electricity generation from the methane released from cow manure represent use of a “green” fuel, it also helps diminish a significant source of so-called greenhouse gas. According to an Earthsave report (ah, those wonderful environmental campaigners unhindered by inconveniences like the truth), animal agriculture is the single largest source of human activity related methane gas emissions. The EPA suggests that it is the third largest such source, following landfills and natural gas systems. In any event, according to multiple sources animal agriculture is a major source of methane, a leading “greenhouse gas”, so diminishing the emission of methane by using cow manure as fuel to generate electricity must be beneficial (even if it simply replaces methane with CO2). Finally, there is a substantial benefit simply from consuming the manure as fuel. You can only spread so much muck on your fields and maintenance of manure slurry is a major environmental issue, and cost, for dairy farmers, so much so that foreign dairy farmers are moving to the US to benefit from less severe environmental regulations, among other things.

Long Trail Principal Andy Pherson must presume that demonstrably and seriously going green will in fact attract more customers and sell more beer. Coming from a small, independent, Vermont craft brewery, this has the intuitive ring of truth to it. Long Trail’s portfolio of ales are not trading on a price proposition. Building increased energy expenditures into the premium charged for their beer, or at least mentally (let’s not toss around any GAP contravention allegations) writing some portion of those costs off to marketing expenditures makes good sense for a company that has long cultivated an independent, eco-friendly image. And there’s the rub for most larger companies. When the Long Trail Brewery of Bridgewater VT does something green like contract for premium electricity (it will allegedly raise the electricity costs by some $ 10,000 per annum), it sounds credible, whether the company has a track record of environmental commitment (and Long Trail does), or not. When Shell puts a number of earthy-crunchy scientists on its TV ads saying how much the company cares about the environment, well, I think they are contributing more methane gas to the environment.

The difference between greenwashing and actually generating positive investor or consumer reaction to meaningful green action seems directly related to the company’s “methane meter” reading. The credibility of the green activity has to be solid. Virgin Airways flying from Amsterdam to London on 20% babassu nut bio-fuel ( see March 5 blog entry) may well advance the development of aviation bio-fuels, but it doesn’t make Virgin “green” and it has the wafting scent of another palm oil environmental disaster in the making. When a company has a comprehensive program in place aimed at diminishing its environmental impact, and the doing so costs them money, it becomes credible and tangible.

The Bloated Plutocrat was not interested. “Beer? I don’t drink beer and unless Vermont miraculously develops a credible wine industry anytime soon, I’m not very interested in the state either. There was that charming Bing Crosby movie of course, but the skiing is much better in the Rockies in any event. As for CVPS creating electricity from cow manure, well Bully for them!” The Bleeding Heart on the other hand hasn’t been so pleased since the civil union legislation went through in Vermont. “ This is exactly what we mean when we talk about “the green economy”! This is the type of change that Senator Obama is talking about – changing the way we do business, changing the way we live, and changing our purchasing behavior. I do hope that I can find Long Trail beers in Fairfield County.”

Your Genteel Moderator must admit to bias in this matter. Having spent a good deal of time in Vermont, where our family has had roots since the middle of the 19th century, and being somewhat fond of Long Trail’s IPA, rather than question the real impact of manure driven electrical generation, I will focus on further study of the company’s portfolio and remind my respected readers to be careful of the carousing beer fed cows (let us hope that Central Vermont Kobe beef is not next on the menu) in the greater Bridgewater area…

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