Brewers seem to have a special affinity for the environment. Maybe it's all that time spent outdoors, smelling fresh-grown hops and grains. Or maybe it's the beer buzz.
Regardless, some of the greenest businesses around are brewers, especially smaller outfits and those that produce organic or natural beers like Wolaver's, Peak and New Belgium breweries.
But in a rather dramatic about-face, one of the biggest corporate brewers in the world appears to have gone green.
MillerCoors is announcing that several of its breweries are now completely landfill-free.
How did they get there?
Coors: The Not-So-Green Brewer
Things weren't always so hippie-dippy at MillerCoors. In the 1970s, Coors was under investigation for unfair labor practices and for illegally discriminating against blacks, Latinos, women and other workers. The company was also the target of boycott by gay and lesbian groups for their bigoted business practices.
Though Coors eventually cleaned up its act, the Coors family remains vocally and financially supportive of conservative causes, including their backing of The Heritage Foundation and other right-wing, anti-environmental organizations.
Since 2007, Coors has operated under a joint venture with SABMiller, and their U.S. operations are now known as MillerCoors.
MillerCoors: The Green Years
The change in the organization started small. A shop floor technician at the MillerCoors brewery in Trenton, Ohio, named Kelly Harris got the ball -- or, perhaps, the keg -- rolling.
"Back in 2008, the company set a goal to reduce landfill by 15 percent over five years, and I thought, you know, I think we can do a little better," Harris told CNBC. "When I set a goal for myself, I'm a very competitive person."
After conducting research, Harris developed and implemented a waste-reduction plan that by 2010 led the MillerCoors brewery in Trenton to become the company's first landfill-free facility and the world's first zero-waste mega-brewery.
Buoyed by his success, Harris soon helped three other MillerCoors breweries -- in Eden, N.C.; Irwindale, Calif.; and Shenandoah, Va. -- to also achieve landfill-free status.
Golden: The Big Challenge
Harris' next challenge was his most daunting: the company's famous brewery in Golden, Colo., site of the largest brewery in the United States.
"When I pulled [into Golden] the first day, I was like 'Kelly, what have you gotten yourself into?'" Harris told CNBC. "But I made a promise to [chairman] Pete Coors, [who] asked me personally to come to Golden. I said 'We'll get it done, I promise.' I've gave that man my word and I'm a man of my word."
Beginning in 2011, MillerCoors began reducing the municipal waste sent from the Golden brewery to landfill by implementing process improvements and nearly $1 million in new infrastructure and equipment, including new choppers, bailers and compactors, according to a company statement.
The brewery is reusing or recycling 100 percent of its waste, including all glass, paperboard, plastics and metal. Even garbage such as cafeteria waste and floor sweepings are sent to a waste-to-energy facility and used as an alternative fuel source to generate electricity.
Is it Greenwashing?
"I tell [co-workers] 'when you retire 20 years from now, you'll look back and say, yeah I did that.' That's what really motivates people, the pride with it -- especially when you're first in the beer industry," Harris said. "I think it shocked a lot of people. People are just amazed that it got done."
MillerCoors CEO Tom Long was almost as effusive: "Environmental stewardship is part of our company DNA, and we challenge ourselves daily to be more sustainable throughout our operations," Long said in a statement. "Through our commitment to continuously improving, we've found a way to eliminate trips to the landfill and developed a zero-waste model that's scalable to our other facilities."
It's hard to tell if this effort is really born of some corporo-genetic "environmental stewardship," simple greenwashing, or if MillerCoors found a smart way to lower costs. Maybe it's all three.
But even a hardened cynic has to respect the fact that, whether for good public relations or for saving some cash, there are people in corporate America who are willing to put some money and energy into going green -- and for that, we have to say thanks.