Granite Geek: Using your own industrial waste is a no-brainer; why isn’t it done more often?

  • The sign outside the Vulgar Brewery in downtown Franklin. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • The valve that helps hold back carbon dioxide (CO2) which is naturally released by yeast, back into the brewing process at Vulgar Brewery in Franklin. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Vulgar co-owner and brewmaster Damon Lewis points to the valve that helps hold back carbon dioxide (CO2) released by yeast as part of the brewing process for the beer. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Concord Monitor

  • Vulgar owner and brewmaster Damon Lewis works the canning machinery at the brewery in downtown Franklin. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Vulgar owner and brewmaster Damon Lewis points to the valve that holds back carbon dioxide (CO2) released by yeast in the brewing process of their beer. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Lewis puts his finger in the valve that helps hold back carbon dioxide (CO2) released by yeast.

  • Vulgar owner and brewmaster Damon Lewis puts his hand in the valve that holds back carbon dioxide (CO2) naturally released by yeast. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

Monitor staff
Published: 2/27/2023 4:11:38 PM

It’s hard to think of an environmental action that makes more sense than a business using its own waste product to replace something it otherwise has to buy. It makes sense even when it has a goofy name like “spunding.”

That’s the term brewers use when using the carbon dioxide released by their yeast to carbonate the beer, instead of releasing the CO2 and later adding it from an outside source. I recently learned it because Vulgar Brewing Co. in Franklin was recognized by the New Hampshire Sustainable Craft Beverage Program for adopting the process.

“It helps our environmental impact. … It’ s not a lot, but every small step helps,” said Damon Lewis, co-owner and brewmaster of the pub brewery.

All home and commercial brewers are rolling their eyes right now, because while spunding is new to me, it is a well-known part of beer-making. It might even be mandatory in Germany due to their purity laws. (“Spunding” is a German term; if Italians had popularized the process it would have a much more beautiful name.)

Spunding intrigued me as a very small example of what I hope is a major trend: How realizing the climate damage from our standard economic practices can provide the incentive to do something that should have been happening all along.

A large-scale example of this is making use of the excess heat generated by all sorts of industrial processes, from burning fossil fuels to operating internet server farms.

The standard practice is to release that heat into the air and then create whatever heat you need by burning something else. Everybody knows this is stupid and wasteful but the cost of building and maintaining systems to use waste heat usually don’t generate enough dollar return, so the strangers who are gambling with your stock to make an easy buck (sorry, I mean “the investors”) get mad if you do it.

Concern about climate change is changing that equation, at least to an extent. That can only be a good thing, even if we all wish it would happen a lot faster.

Vulgar – a name chosen for its meaning as “the language of the common folk” although the risque overtones probably don’t hurt – is a small brewing operation. They made about 250 barrels last year and have the capacity for twice that. The brewery and adjoining restaurant serves pizza and pub food along with 10 or so beers on tap.

Spunding didn’t take much equipment for Vulgar, just adding a valve that cost “a few hundred bucks,” which raises the pressure on their brewing vats so the CO2 is driven back into the beer, so to speak. The move was cheap because Vulgar was prepared.

“It requires vats to have a little higher pressure rating. When we bought ours they already came that way,” said Lewis. If the company had had to buy new brewing tanks, it would have been a major investment.

If spunding is so great, why don’t all beer-makers do it? Sometimes there are brewing reasons involving flavors and textures and things called esters that I know nothing about (I have made exactly one batch of homebrew in my life and, boy, was it awful). But mostly it’s economics.

It’s cheaper and more straightforward and easier to control the process if you inject the CO2. And industry lives and dies on “cheaper and easier to control,” regardless of whether that does damage to the outside world.

The last point is the key. Since the start of the industrial revolution, it has been standard practice to ignore “externalities,” the economists’ term for costs that aren’t born by the industry in question. If it’s not a number in a firm’s double-entry bookkeeping, it plays no role in deciding how they’ll proceed.

The goal of environmental laws and regulations is to take “externalities” like pollution and turn them into costs so the invisible hand of the marketplace will solve them. Organizations like the Sustainable Craft Beverage Program can also help counterbalance the tyranny of cost accounting.

I like to think that the growing understanding about the the climate emergency is making more people realize the effect of centuries of accumulated externalities, making it easier for us to accept the up-front expense of changing industrial and commercial habits.

But then, I’m an optimist. Not enough of an optimist to try making my own beer again, but enough to hope that my granddaughter will live in a better world.

Email the Granite Geek!

Readers! Do you have a TV that can make use of NEXTGEN TV, the new over-the-air digital technology? Some stations in Boston have begun broadcasting with it (but not WMUR, at least not yet) and I’d like to hear opinions from anybody who has experienced it. If that’s you, drop me a line:

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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