Beer vs. Wine? It's a Tossup.

By Nina Shen Rastogi
Thursday, September 24, 2009

Q I'm hosting a dinner party next week, and I'll be serving both beer and wine alongside the meal. Which has the lower carbon footprint?

A It's hard to come up with a simple answer for this one, because so many factors affect the calculation: Where was your beverage made? What's it packaged in, and how did that package get to you? How was it stored at the point of sale? Accounting for all these variables can make your head spin, and the best available research suggests that parsing out the difference might not be worth the headache.

In 2007, an analyst for the U.K.-based Food Climate Research Network attempted to tally the nation's emissions related to alcohol consumption. Across the three categories considered -- beer, wine and spirits -- the research didn't find significant differences in greenhouse gas intensity.

American drinking habits differ from those of our friends across the pond. Still, until someone undertakes a similarly comprehensive study on booze and the environment in the United States, the British data may be the best we have. So you might as well stick with your preferred tipple and then make the greenest choices.

When it comes to beer, the Lantern has already weighed in on bottles vs. cans: If your beer is brewed close to home and your town has a good recycling program, choose glass; if it comes from far away, stick with aluminum. A pulled pint of draft beer will always be the best choice for the planet.

A recent carbon footprint analysis of Fat Tire amber ale highlights a few other areas that deserve attention. Producing and assembling the ingredients -- malt, hops and water -- created 678 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent, or about 21 percent of the total footprint for a bottled six-pack. A chunk of that, 244 grams, comes from the production of synthetic fertilizers for the barley and related soil emissions, so the authors suggest that switching to organic barley could make a considerable impact.

Refrigeration, both in the store and at home, represented another third of Fat Tire's footprint. All things being equal, then, beers that don't need to be refrigerated, such as strong beers and standard ales, should have a lower footprint than lighter beers that are best kept cold.

Okay, so how about choosing a greener chardonnay or merlot?

First, check how it's stoppered. Though oenophiles are constantly debating the performance merits of natural corks, synthetic corks and aluminum screw-tops, the World Wildlife Fund wants consumers to go natural, saying that the commercial investment helps preserve threatened forests and their attendant ecosystems. Natural cork stoppers should also be less energy-intensive to manufacture than plastic or metal closures.

Food miles are probably a more important consideration for wine, because the bottles themselves are heavy and can travel a long way from the vineyard to your dining table. The British study estimates that about 35 percent of wine's emissions stem from distribution.

One of the easiest things you can do is look for wine that comes in lighter and larger packages. Some wineries ship their libations in bulk containers, to be bottled closer to the point of consumption. Others are reducing the amount of glass in their bottles, a practice known as "lightweighting." Finally, there's the much-maligned wine-in-a-box, which is actually a vacuum-sealed plastic bag inside a cardboard container. Once the box is opened, the wine inside stays drinkable for much longer than it would in a bottle. So if you want to lessen the impact of your drinking, get ready to swallow your pride, as well.

Send environmental queries to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com.

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