Solar Brews: Atlas Brew Works



The most impactful beer shortage in United States history occurred over 100 years before the Declaration of Independence was created.  The Beer Institute asserts that the reason the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in the first place was because they ran out of beer aboard the Mayflower (a detail that would have made the Schoolhouse Rock rendering rather different).

“We could not now take the time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer,” writes a passenger in their diary.  The importance of beer in the U.S. hasn’t changed much since those settlers arrived in 1620, but there are signs that climate change could be the next cause of an alarming shortage.  Craft breweries like Atlas Brew Works have committed to sustainability to do their part in combating climate change right here in the Nation’s Capital.

From grains to glass, making beer leaves a heavy environmental footprint.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the amount of electricity used to produce heat and power in a brewery is relatively high compared to other industries in the U.S.  With this in mind founder and CEO of Atlas Brew Works, Justin Cox, sought to make the beer production process a little easier on the planet by becoming the District’s first and only fully solar-powered brewery.

“It’s strange in that people who like craft beer tend to be environmentally-focused on some level, but breweries get a pass for some reason,” said Cox in a phone interview.  

Atlas has a large unobstructed roof atop its Ivy City warehouse ideal for solar panels.  At 67.5 kilowatts (KW), it’s one of the largest solar arrays in the District. Since their installation in 2015 the panels have saved 204 megawatt hours (MWh).  To put these numbers into perspective, that’s enough energy to power the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree for over 16 years.

We are in the middle of an energy-intensive craft beer renaissance in America: There have never been as many breweries in the U.S. as there are today, yet most use a massive amount of nonrenewable energy in order to produce a barrel of beer.  

“We’re heating things up and cooling things down all day long,” Cox explained.  

In a manual published by the Brewers Association, the average relative energy use for breweries of all sizes ranges from 50 to 66-kilowatt hours per barrel of beer (kWh/bbl).  In March Atlas Brew Works averaged only 0.33 kWh/bbl using solar energy.   Though Atlas is much smaller in size in relation to other breweries, that 0.33 kWh/bbl ain’t too shabby for the 380 barrels they cook up each month on average.   

If you put the energy-efficient numbers aside, however, there is still an environmental threat looming over the beer industry.  A recent study found that barley production could be sharply affected by the shifting climate within this century.  Under four different weather scenarios researchers created for 2010 to 2099, barley growers would see yield losses that range from 3 percent to 17 percent.  

What this means for beer drinkers is that the price of beer will increase as barley becomes scarcer, adding insult to injury.  If barley gets more expensive, so will America’s favorite alcoholic drink.

Like many breweries, Atlas Brew Works keeps tabs on the effect of climate change through regular agricultural reports from the Brewers’ Association.  “We know that it’s coming and I don’t know what we will do about that honestly,” said Cox.

Another concern Cox has for the beer market pertains to another ingredient essential to craft beer: hops.  According to Cox, there are hops farms in the Pacific Northwest being converted into marijuana farms. “It’s kind of a double whammy on the hops side in that the hops fields will be affected by global warming and the fact that we’re losing acreage to pot,” said Cox.  “I’m hoping people will see this trend coming and maybe plant some more acreage or be doing something to help mitigate that,” he continued.

It’s hard to imagine hops going anywhere when IPAs are the trendy beer of choice for hipsters and average beer drinkers alike.  Cox is counting on it. “Hopefully people love hoppy beer and hops are such a large ingredient in beers that we make,” he said. Four out of five of Atlas’ flagship brews alone–District Common, Dance of Days, Ponzi and Rowdy–use hops.

The future is looking pretty optimistic for Atlas and their hoppy creations as they prepare to open a second location in Navy Yard near Nationals Park in 2020.  The new facility will be double the size of their current space in Ivy City. Though the new building doesn’t have a roof that can accommodate solar panels, Cox says they’re “looking at energy offset partners to figure out how we can source solar for our electricity use,” ensuring that as they expand, their brand will stay true to being “District brewed and solar powered” like it says on the can.

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