Heineken brewery: repurposing stale beers and cider for 'green electricity'

P.J. Tierney, head brewer at Heineken Ireland, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

Donie Hosford has been working at Heineken Ireland’s brewery on Cork’s Leitrim Street for more than 35 years — the Hosford family as a whole for a lot longer.

More than 160 years, to be precise. Since 1856, four generations of Hosfords have grafted in the famed old Murphy’s Brewery, which was taken over by Heineken Ireland in 1983 and became the Dutch giant’s Irish headquarters.

Photos of Donie’s great-grandfather and grandfather adorn the illustrative walls of the famous brewery’s hallowed history — snapshots of time immortalised in a rich tapestry of old photos that are as much part of the brewery’s walls as the bricks and mortar that hold them up.

Workers such as Donie, his cousin, Barry Hosford, and countless more families from Cork’s northside and beyond have qualities embedded within that cannot be taught — agility, pride and nimbleness to rise to any challenge.

They have more than met Heineken Ireland’s latest challenge — converting hundreds of thousands of litres of unused beer and cider from Ireland’s bars and cellars into green electricity, animal feed and fertiliser for the land.

With the Covid-19 pandemic raging, more than 100,000 already opened kegs of beer and cider lay idle for weeks in the cellars of Irish bars and pubs.

With no end to the lockdown in sight, Heineken Ireland decided on an ambitious corporate strategy that would recall that unused beer and apply it to its commitment to sustainability.

By funding the sustainable “repurposing” of the expired draught beer and cider in opened kegs, it will be used to create green electricity through a process called anaerobic digestion.

With an Irish sustainable power partner, Heineken Ireland aims to produce enough green energy to power the equivalent of a medium-sized town — more than 8,500 homes — for a day.

After that process, there will be further repurposing of the beer and cider into animal feed and fertiliser.

Head brewer, PJ Tierney, said: “You could break it down into three blocks — the first being the physical removal of the kegs from the pubs and getting them back here. There is a whole distribution project set up to physically get them back to us.”

Then it was all hands to battle stations as a live situation room and headquarters was built from scratch.

“Step-two is actually emptying the kegs. We’ve never done anything on this scale before, so we had to put in a whole new workspace to do so. Our engineering team played a blinder to get that all set up within 10 days, which was then all built by local contractors in a few weeks."

“From the outset, we were determined the beer would not go down the drain. We calculated at a bare minimum there would be 30,000 kegs coming back, but as the situation developed we knew that would rise. We soon realised it would be more than 100,000 the longer the pandemic went on.”

That excess beer would not find its way into the bellies of thirsty pubgoers, so it was dedicated to the firm’s sustainability strategy, Mr Tierney said.

Harry O’Mahony, Tony Isherwood, and Bernard Palmer working on decanting returned kegs which will be reprocessed into green energy, animal feed, and fertilizer at Heineken Ireland, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Harry O’Mahony, Tony Isherwood, and Bernard Palmer working on decanting returned kegs which will be reprocessed into green energy, animal feed, and fertilizer at Heineken Ireland, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

“Phase-three is making sure to repurpose the beer from a sustainability point of view. We did a lot of investigative work to see what the best use of it would be. Currently on site, because of how our production runs, we already have surplus yeast at the end of fermentation, and we already have spent grains at the end of brewing, so they automatically go for animal feed. We asked ourselves if the beer itself could also go for animal feed, which it could."

“We also knew that any material with a food base can go for anaerobic digestion, which is effectively bacteria eating the foodstuff, naturally giving off gas when doing so. That gas is caught and goes back into the electricity network.”

Environmental health safety engineer, Eoghan Harkin, worked to make sure from a nutritional point of view that the beer that goes to land is nutritionally fit for the purpose, Mr Tierney said.

“It’s not spraying it wherever you want, it’s about calculating growing conditions, what’s in the field itself, the pH conditions, and how it gets spread.”

The entire process is not a profitable one for Heineken Ireland — on the contrary, the firm incurred massive costs in doing so.

But it is worth it, according to Mr Tierney: “We’ve been on the sustainability journey for years. It’s probably only in the past five years that the 'sustainability' tag is on it, but as long as I’ve been here, which is 25 years, we’ve been trying to reduce water, electrical, thermal, and making transport more efficient. It is a win-win. It makes business sense, but it is also beneficial for the environment. Heineken is a global organisation, so while we may not be water-stressed here, we do work in water-stressed countries. That philosophy of saving water is spread around the organisation."

“In the past, the company has put its money where its mouth is, not hiding behind the easiest financial decision to make financially, but doing what is right whatever the financial implications.

“It is a natural product, the raw materials come from the ground, you have water, barley and hops — the last thing you want to be doing is damaging your own products. Climate change is a huge factor in our business. If the growing seasons are affected, that impacts the barley, the hops, water scarcity. Sustainability is a no-brainer from a business standpoint, as well as an ethical one,” said Mr Tierney.

Effectively 95% of the business went overnight when the grips of the pandemic tightened, but the firm reacted very quickly, Mr Tierney said.

Corporations the world over now float buzzwords such as 'agility' and 'nimbleness' as key components of business strategy.

Donie Hosford, whose family have worked in the brewery since 1856 working on changing the spheres in the kegs at Heineken Ireland, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Donie Hosford, whose family have worked in the brewery since 1856 working on changing the spheres in the kegs at Heineken Ireland, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

In Cork, those words are not needed — the workforce at Murphy’s Brewery and Heineken Ireland has been practising those qualities as a given since time immemorial, Mr Tierney said.

“Over the last number of weeks, we are not brewing or kegging, but we are as busy as ever. People like Donie Hosford are stars. You don’t become successful with strategies unless you have a brilliant workforce that buys into it. The sense of pride here from workers like Donie is what you’ll get across the board here in the brewery. It’s one of the best things about working here actually — I’m from Cork, most of those working here are from Cork, and there is a huge sense of pride and camaraderie among the community here."

“No matter what the challenge is — whether it was Storm Ophelia or Emma, or the Beast From The East, the workforce here was quick to let us know they were up for the challenge, and were willing to do whatever it took to overcome those challenges. When you talk about sustainability, our workers have bought into it wholeheartedly, and it makes you hugely proud as a Cork person,” he said.

It is not just self-congratulations from Heineken Ireland regarding its sustainability strategy — it is recognised as an industry leader among peers.

Heineken Ireland has achieved several significant milestones under its ‘Brewing a Better World’ sustainability programme. In 2019, they received the Sustainability Project Impact Award’ at the Bord Bia Food and Drink Awards.

The award was in recognition of the scale of the positive impact of ‘Brewing a Better World’, which has seen the company deliver a 58% reduction in carbon emissions.

But what happens next? The 100,000-plus opened kegs need to be replaced in bars ready for customers longing for a cold, fresh pint.

Heineken Ireland’s 90-strong in-house technical, dispensing and quality team has been visiting all 7,000 customers — at a rate of more than 1,000 outlets per week — to clean every beer and cider dispensing line across the country. A cleaning operation of this scale and speed has never been undertaken before, the firm said.

Sharon Walsh, commercial director at Heineken Ireland, said it is “deploying this vast in-house quality operation and committing to replacing and bearing the cost of unused product to the tune of 10 million fresh pints”.

She added: “This is a large investment for our business at a challenging time for us all but it will be worth it to ensure that everyone’s first pint back at their local is at the peak quality and freshness consumers expect. As we all look forward to welcoming customers back and take the learnings from other international Heineken markets, we are confident that the re-opening of the vital pub sector can, and will, be a safe one and that, once again, the Irish pub will serve as a comfortable and enjoyable space for responsible socialising.”

Workers like the Hosfords and their fellow multi-generational families up and down the country will make sure that happens.

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