To get a glimpse into the future of craft beer in a low-emissions Aotearoa, look no further than a small brewery in Northland, making big changes to the way our hoppy staple is produced.

So, what does that low-emissions future look like? Sawmill’s owner Mike Sutherland has some ideas.

It’s really important to share knowledge on how to get started. The outcome of the cumulative work is so much bigger than the relatively small amount of time or money that a business needs to commit to make the changes needed.

Mike Sutherland, Sawmill Brewery Owner

Sawmill Brewery has been independently operating in Matakana for 17 years and has made sustainability and efficiency a core part of their identity. They are New Zealand’s first, and only, B-Corp certified brewery and have introduced initiatives and changes to their operations that are leading the way for their peers.

Sawmill Brewery is currently completing an Energy Transition Plan through LUMEN, which will help the brewery make informed investment decisions to support their decarbonisation journey.

Through the project, technically and commercially viable options have been mapped to reduce energy-related emissions of the existing brewhouse over the next 20 years, while factoring in future expansion plans.

Over the next six months, Sawmill will be reviewing the findings of the study and working towards implementing their preferred option.

Making positive change

12 years in the competitive New Zealand craft beer industry, which now consists of over 200 individual businesses, has given Mike an appreciation for the creative and innovative nature of brewers.

Craft beer has continued to push the boundaries in terms of style and flavour, to the point where there isn’t much more to change. While some see this as a challenge to produce the next style craze, Mike instead saw an opportunity for innovation in how brewers approach their processes.

“Ensuring our business is as efficient as possible is critical to who we are, and how we operate our business,” says Mike.

“Beer is a wonderful mix of art, science and engineering, and decarbonising gives us an opportunity to be more innovative than ever.

“I think that should be really exciting for us as brewers – we need to challenge ourselves to be smarter, help develop new ways of doing things that can serve the dual purpose of cutting costs and future-proofing our business.

“To me, it is important that our industry moves now, to support the positive change we need to look after people and our environment.”

Sawmill’s decarbonisation journey

In addition to waste reduction and water conservation practices, Sawmill has optimised and improved its processes to improve energy efficiency and reduce the demand for fossil fuels.

The installation of a heat recovery system in the Matakana brewery saves around 1.5 million litres of water and 6,000 kg of LPG every year, by recycling the water used to chill wort back into the hot water tank.

Solar panels installed in 2019 were also generating up to 97% of the breweries power, prior to a brewery fire in 2019 which damaged the system.

“The big-ticket stuff is still to come, as the first part of our transition pathway. In the meantime, we’re always doing what we can to improve our practices and make that information available to other businesses,” says Mike.

The main energy consuming operations at the Matakana site are related to beer production and refrigeration processes. LPG, used in both the brewery and kitchen, is responsible for most of the site’s energy related emissions, and accounts for 65% of overall energy consumption. Electricity is used for other processes such as cooling, pumping liquids, and running equipment.

The findings of the project have outlined relative costs and return on investment as well as opportunities for energy efficiency and fuel switching.

Energy efficiency opportunities include a potential transformer upgrade, the reinstallation of solar PV with additional capacity, kettle vapour heat recovery, and the installation of energy efficient GEA equipment.

Alternatively, fuel switching opportunities include biogas cofiring with LPG in the existing boiler or replacing the existing boiler with a new 500kW electric version.

Through the process, the Sawmill team have armed themselves with the knowledge to make the most effective and transformative changes for their decarbonisation project.

Decarbonisation starts with motivation

The need for businesses to reduce their emissions and ‘do their bit’ for the climate is constantly in competition with other priorities. When Mike Sutherland first started to work on decarbonising the Sawmill brewery, he didn’t ask himself why, as a business, they should put this work first. Instead, he tried to think of a single reason why they shouldn’t.

By taking the time to research articles, studies, and documentaries about climate change, and understanding the impact of energy related emissions on our planet, Mike was motivated to start making changes within his business.

“As brewers, there is an element of science and research involved in what we do, and who we are,” says Mike.

For a lot of us, understanding more about the global situation, and the role that we play within that to reduce our own impact, that’s pretty motivating!

“But different people are motivated by different values or a drive for reducing costs.

“In our industry, our cost structure is heavily intertwined with our energy use – whether it’s fossil-fuelled or from the grid. That means that any improvements to processes that result in energy reduction will make them more profitable.”

The engagement with the issue, and knowledge that growing a more energy efficient and profitable business, was not only valued by the Sawmill team, but also their customers and community.

Harnessing the power of your staff

At Sawmill, Mike has also made a conscious effort to ensure sustainability is a priority for staff and believes that what they are working on together makes their role more than just a ‘job’.

Sustainability and energy efficiency work is part of educating the whole team. Everyone is included in the initiatives that are started at the company, and as a result, have an awareness of the sector wide issues and solutions. Staff take these skills home with them and will continue to put them into practice no matter where they go.

“We’re always challenging them to look for opportunities for us to do more, and we know they’re proud to be working for a business that’s conscious of how we participate in our industry and the wider economy,” says Mike.

Letting your products tell your story

Recent research undertaken by EECA has shown that 82% of New Zealand consumers want businesses to do more to reduce their environmental impact. This means that craft beer drinkers are more switched on to where ingredients are sourced, the impact that the brewing process has on the environment, and what is being done by the brewery to reduce that impact.

Mike has increasingly noticed an appetite for a ‘story’ about their business and products, saying that, “In craft beer, we’re lucky because the way we create products is so unique and everchanging. With every new product, you have a new opportunity to share your story, and tell your customers who you are.”

With artwork and a short blurb on the side of a can or bottle, there is the potential to tell customers about your brand values and identity. However, it’s not just consumers that are expecting change.

Retailers in New Zealand have their own sustainability initiatives in place, and they are increasingly considering their suppliers, and whether they reflect their own values. If a supplier is supportive of what you’re doing, it’ll work in your favour.

Making the future of craft beer a reality

EECA’s Brewing Decarbonisation Pathway is supporting other breweries in their transition to a low emissions business. The Pathway is also helping to futureproof against climate change, and the challenges that the industry is collectively facing.
By fostering collaborative, proactive solutions to industry-wide challenges, the Brewing Decarbonisation Pathway aims to take the learnings from other brewers, and industries and reduce competition between breweries for the same services, resources, and opportunities.

“If you look over to other countries like the US, the industry is on such a different scale, and the innovation is far beyond what we are doing here in New Zealand,” says Mike.

“Craft beer is such a young industry here, there’s not a whole lot of expertise, and that means people can only do what they know. With what EECA’s doing it should help us to get some momentum,” says Mike.

Mike’s top tips to get started

  • Find something to motivate you – whether it’s money, a drive to make positive change, or even fear.
  • Research, research, research – look into how emissions contribute to climate change, and what climate change is doing to our planet, biodiversity and communities.
  • Start measuring your energy use, and your energy costs - These two are very interconnected in our industry.
  • Talk to your customers – consumers are becoming much more switched on to brands that are doing their bit to have a positive environmental or social impact.
  • Get creative – we’re an innovative and resilient bunch, and we have the opportunity to make really positive change to the way we operate.

EECA has worked with Sawmill to identify decarbonisation opportunities and develop resources that benefit the whole brewing sector.

Learn more