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Outside building image of Free Range Brewery in Charlotte, North Carolina
Image of the outside of the Free Range Brewing Company in Camp North End, Charlotte, NC

By Justin Nolan, Project Director, UNC Environmental Finance Center

The craft beer industry is exploding across North Carolina, from around 200 breweries in 2019 to 430 in 2023. According to a recent study on the beer industry’s economic impact, it supports more than 75,000 jobs and contributes over $12.8 billion to the North Carolina economy. But with all this money being made, too few people are asking the question: how does that explosion affect the water utilities?

The craft beer industry is highly reliant on source water. As craft brewing sees a massive increase in its presence in North Carolina, the impact will be felt across all water sources in reasonable proximity to the craft brewer. Because of this, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Environmental Finance Center is building inroads to determine how big a footprint the brewing industry has in our backyard. One way we have begun to pursue this work is by applying for and receiving a Pollution Prevention Grant to begin work that would connect us with North Carolina’s many breweries, meaderies, and cideries.

The EPA’s Pollution Prevention (P2) program funds organizations like the Environmental Finance Center to provide free technical assistance to businesses with an outsized environmental impact. Some organizations use it to work with highly problematic organizations such as meat processing plants, factories, and pharmaceutical production sites. However, after hearing about another EFC in our network doing exciting and impactful work with breweries in New England, we decided to use the money to build a similar impact mitigation program and help these businesses reduce their footprint while also helping them save money through efficiency.

Beginning in October 2022, the EFC planned energy and water audits for ten breweries state-wide. Since then, we have finished audits for three, with two more coming up this month and five planned for the Spring. We have built relationships with various industry organizations, such as the NC Craft Brewers Guild, and learned a lot about the relationship of breweries to water policy.  Many of these breweries reside in or near the same underserved rural communities the UNC EFC has either already done work with or has plans to work with in the future. The fellowship we have built with key local businesses only enriches our connections to the towns we work in. Often, the stories voiced by these brewers offer new insights into how local water policy touches the lives of local businesses and gives us a new lever with which to improve the quality of life in the town. Generally, if we can help one of a small utility’s largest customers be more efficient and clean in their output, we, in turn, help the small utility itself. P2 can help small towns avoid sacrificing water quality for economic development.

The more we learn about these breweries, the more we realize that many of them already had amazing ideas and a lot of passion for environmental efforts but did not necessarily have the time, energy, or capacity to put their ideas into action or find money to pay for efficiency upgrades. Even some of the smallest breweries we’ve visited have immediately made significant investments to reduce energy use once they saw the business case we provide at the end of every audit.

The UNC EFC still has a lot of work to do on this grant before it’s completed, but we foresee enormous value as we connect with breweries in every corner of the state.  We have already done work everywhere, from the capital to the high country to the coastal plain, and are only halfway done! As we progress through this work, expect to see some blog spotlights on breweries that are setting exemplary standards for balancing profit and environmental impact mitigation. We will also host two webinars on finding funding resources and reducing water usage in your brewery. Subscribe to our events calendar to learn of our upcoming events. The UNC EFC even plans to do in-depth case studies on some exciting efforts being put together at breweries across the state. The sky is the limit on this project. As North Carolina opens its 425th brewery this year, the UNC EFC will work hand in hand with as many of them as possible to ensure that our state fosters economic growth and a bright environmental future.


Need technical assistance? The Environmental Finance Center Network is here to help!

The Environmental Finance Center Network offers free one-on-one technical, managerial, and financial assistance for small water and wastewater systems. To read more about technical assistance or to express interest in our support, fill out our interest form:


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