Drink Wine or Beer for Least Environmental Impact?

Last month I came across this article on treehugger raising the question of whether drinking wine or beer was less harmful environmentally.  When I read the full piece I was a little disappointed as I had imagined it would cover aspects regarding the production – growing conditions, fertiliser use, energy used in wine making versus malting/brewing.  I started to think that vines could be grown locally with few inputs or mechanisation and the wine-making could be achieved with limited energy use whereas growing barley was going to rely on mechanisation, transport, energy for malting/drying and then all the energy to mash and boil.  However, the article covered none of this, the only factors considered were around transportation – of raw ingredients to the production facility and the final transportation to the consumer.  Therefore I thought I’d look a bit further into the subject.

After a little internet research, I found that the question is difficult to answer categorically.  There are too many variables in the production methods and supply routes that different beers and wines go through from production to consumers.  However, there are some useful resources out there giving some data to work with…

Dr Vino’s wine blog offers some great research here. In his research he gives some carbon emission figures for a few different bottles of wine using a model he created with Pablo Päster, who coincidentally, was the author of the treehugger piece.  For a bottle of Yellow Tail from South East Australia travelling to Chicago via ship across the Pacific and truck at either end, he calculates a total CO2 figure of 3.4kg of which 2.2kg is the transport to Chicago.  The second wine he looks at is from Joly, a biodynamic producer in the Loire region of France.  Quality control is important for this wine and it is therefore transported in refridgerated conditions by road, sea and road, this increases the energy use.  The total CO2 figure when it arrives in Chicago is 2.1kg.  The third choice differs by not being based on a real wine, it is from a hypothetical producer in the Napa Valley and is dispatched from the producer by courier direct to the consumer.  It is subsequently transported by air leading to high CO2 outputs due to the inefficiency of air freight.  The total CO2 figure for this bottle is 4.5kg.  The research highlights the different efficiencies of road versus ship transportation leading to a situation where it is more efficient to ship wine from France to the US east coast than truck it from the west coast.

From the figures above, it is clear that the emissions from transporting a bottle of wine can greatly outweigh those involved in its production.  When you think of the complexities of national and international distribution chains, it is also clear that similar wines could be transported differently due to variations in route, transport type, warehouse locations etc.

When it comes to beer, a Guardian blog piece estimates the carbon footprint of a bottle of beer at about 500g for a local brewery and 900g for a long distance foreign one.  This basically agrees with an in-depth study that the Colorado based New Belgium Brewery did for one of their beers which calculated a figure of 3.2kg for a six-pack.  You can read about their study here.  It has some really nice data breaking down the footprint across the production and distribution process.  In their study, the largest contributor (28%) to the total footprint was the refrigeration of the product at the retail outlet while distribution accounted for only 8% of the total.  Looking at only the production process, the glass bottles were the largest contributor accounting for 34% of production CO2, the barley/malt production was next (29%) while brewing accounted for only 6% of production.

An important issue when considering the wine vs. beer question is the relative amounts that would be consumed.  Wine is usually much stronger in alcohol than beer and is therefore likely to be drunk in smaller quantities.  An average bottle of wine has the same total alcohol content as 5 small bottles of average beer.  If we compare the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine with 5 bottles of beer, a wine from the other side of the world could have a footprint similar to 5 bottles of local beer.  The footprint of imported foreign beer is definitely looking worse than that of wine.

In conclusion, with a bottled product, if we take into account the larger volume of beer needed for the same alcohol content as wine, wine is likely to have a smaller carbon footprint than beer before transportation to the consumer.  To reduce the carbon footprint, there are a few things we can do…  Generally, choosing products from local producers is best.  Stronger wine/beer means relatively less weight and glass to transport/produce.  Alternatives to disposable glass (eg wine boxes, beer cans, kegs, re-usable containers, etc.) can reduce the transportation/production footprint.  Driving a 6 mile (10km) round-trip for a bottle of wine could put out the same CO2 as shipping that bottle from Australia.  The best thing for beer drinkers is – Learn to home-brew!

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