Brewing Sustainably

Michigan beer-maker Bell’s Brewery uses geothermal energy and builds a new, 200-barrel brewhouse that ups output even as it increases efficiency.

It’s Thursday. lunch time at the Eccentric Café. At the bar are men in suits and men in overalls. The nearby tables are crowded with a young family and an elderly couple at the Bell’s Brewery restaurant and brew pub in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan. The mood of the pub seems to represent the brewing company’s philosophy: always remain connected to the people who drink the beer, the natural ingredients that go into each batch, and how both influence and are influenced by the environment.

The Eccentric Cafe, the brewpub at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI. Photo: Samantha Simmons.

These tenets are how Bell’s Brewery ensures that it’s making the best possible beer in the most responsible way, and they are exemplified in its latest project: the company’s most ambitious expansion to date. Opening May 2012, the larger brewhouse at Bell’s incorporates some of the beverage industry’s newest and most efficient technologies and not only increases capacity but also is designed, for the first time, to draw the public in.

Members of the beverage industry share the same types of costs and potential for waste, namely water and electricity. For Bell’s, this led to rethinking the maintenance program in an effort to cut down on wasted energy and increase its equipment’s uptime. But it didn’t look to brewing best practices. Instead the maintenance methodology came from the commercial airline industry. In an industry where most failures are critical ones, any breakage becomes completely unacceptable.Since 1985, Bell’s Brewery has been consistent in making the quality of its beer its top priority—and the driving force behind every other initiative. Which isn’t to say that the philosophy behind the more recent energy efficiency programs wasn’t there at the start. “Sustainability is part of the company culture and has been for a long time,” says sustainability coordinator Evan Meffert. “It didn’t get a lot of attention when we were smaller because our focus was on getting quality beer out and building our brand.” As an industry, the past five years have seen some of the bigger brewing companies getting more aggressive in the publication of their green efforts. Bell’s adheres to the idea that sustainability programs offer tripartite benefits—environmental, social, and economical—and Meffert always is mindful of selecting projects that have a solid return on investment.

Evan Meffert is the sustainability coordinator at Bell’s Brewery. Photo: Samantha Simmons.

Bell’s applied that ideal to its production. “You don’t wait for things to break, then fix them,” Meffert says. “We wanted preventative and predictive systems in place to mitigate failures before they happen.” This approach has found its way into other production companies, and it applies well to the food-and-beverage industry. As it pertains to sustainability, the program greatly reduces waste. “There is a lot of wasted air, energy, natural gas, and water when equipment isn’t maintained,” Meffert explains. “From a sustainability standpoint, this is in our best interest.” Meffert has spearheaded other programs in his four years with Bell’s, including an evaluation of the brewery’s solid-waste management and recycling program—which led to a 93-percent landfill-diversion rate for the production facility—an 8,000-square-foot green roof on the conditioning warehouse, and a composting program at the Eccentric Café downtown.

But by far the most impressive and most visible example of the values and culture of Bell’s Brewery is the recent expansion of its facilities, which saw the company’s production capabilities go from 180,000 barrels a year to more than 500,000. The project was a two-year process involving local contractors and design firms, and it was necessary to accommodate a growing company and increasing demand for its products.

Meffert says. “Strong relationships and service are also company values, and we’re not going to move into an area we can’t effectively service.” The new 200-barrel brewhouse should make possible further expansion into new regions. The preexisting 50-barrel facility will be used for some of the specialty and seasonal craft beers, while the larger facility will produce the company’s larger runs and its most popular beers, such as the Oberon and Two Hearted Ale.Byce & Associates, which has a long-standing relationship with the brewery (this is the fifth Bell’s addition the local engineering firm has completed), handled the full range of engineering needs of the project. “The biggest goal [Bell’s] had was to increase productivity, and this expansion will quadruple their output capabilities,” says James Escamilla, president and CEO of Byce & Associates. Indeed, the brewery’s staff and production output has grown at a rate of 20 percent per year for the past ten years. Currently, you can find Bell’s beer in 18 states, as far northwest as Minnesota and as far southeast as Florida, with Arizona as the only western outpost. The company has been careful not to grow too quickly. “We wanted to grow organically, and we’ve had to say no to some people that want our brands in their state,”

The expansion incorporated cutting-edge brewing technology, including an advanced steam boiler and automated grain-handling system, but one of its most unique aspects is its focus on the community. “For the first time, the public was going to be invited in,” says Jeff Crites, the project manager from Slocum Architects, the Kalamazoo firm that designed the current Bell’s headquarters. “Bell’s wanted this to be a showpiece and asked us to design something other than just an industrial plant.”

Slocum’s principal in charge, Jon Rambow, adds, “Bell’s is a very local-oriented company, active in the community and philanthropic by nature.” To this end, the brewery staff educated the Slocum design team about the brewing process and how the plant flowed, in order to identify the best way to bring in visitors. The human-scale emphasis became the building entrance, as Slocum worked to create a welcoming appearance by using materials such as cedar and nonindustrial forms such as a sloped roof. Now, when tours begin, visitors easily can identify the entrance—not always apparent with industrial structures—and feel welcomed into this newly expanded model of green building and better brewing.

Check out our behind-the-scenes video of Bell’s Brewery here: