The Sustainable Tin Shed

  • by Ian Schmidt

Sustainability is a bit of a buzz word in Australia, more so in the rest of the world.  Ask someone what it means and you will get some blank looks, maybe a comment about black balloons or carbon neutrality, maybe even financial viability.

The most often quoted definition comes from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development: 

“sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  

In reality, it means different things to different people depending on what you are doing. Here at The Shed we distil whisky, amongst other things, and distilling is right up there when it comes to generating a carbon footprint and greenhouse gasses.  

A single fermentation of our standard daily wash produces approximately 140kg of carbon di-oxide. We do three ferments a week in an easy week. Of course, we can argue that the C02 gets absorbed by the next crop of barley when growing so the gas is a circular equation and not generating new C02, just recirculating the old stuff and there is some merit in that argument.

A distillery spends most of its time heating stuff. If it isn’t heating it, then it is busy cooling it.

Both processes use a lot of energy. In our case it is electricity, and we have a roof covered in solar panels to keep the energy bills under control. The solar panels just take the sting out of the bills, but it is renewable power and for the shortfall we buy in additional renewable energy via the grid. When we can afford it, we will put a roof over the carpark and cover it with solar panels. Our still is essentially a 60kw electric kettle that runs flat out for 56 hours a week. That is a lot of electricity.

Once we have the still hot, we use a lot of water to condense the alcohol vapour.  In a typical week we run about 40,000 litres of water through our condenser. That’s fine when the rain falls and the rivers are in flood, but in the driest state in the driest inhabited continent on the planet, come the next drought people will be throwing rocks at us. To save on water we recycle our cooling water, cooling it down with the aid of an air chiller. That is essentially a truck radiator that blows the heat out the window. In winter we aim the fans inside so we can heat the building with waste heat, in summer we aim the hot air out the door. In our new site in Nairne we will be running the hot water under the concrete deck to heat the floor and cool the water at the same time, thus double dipping on energy savings.

Mashing requires heating the malt to around 65C in water. Rather than use 144 KW of energy to heat the mash water, we run fresh water through the condenser and re-use the otherwise waste heat in the mash tun. Similarly, we have just installed a purpose-built heat exchanger so we can re-use the waste heat from the pot ale to pre-heat the next wash run, saving about 60kw of energy a wash run in the still. The cold pot ale is then treated on site before being released into the local sewer in the worst-case scenario. If our scale of operations were larger, the pot ale and draff could be made into animal feed pellets or run through a bio digester to create gasses that can be burnt to fuel boilers to produce the energy to run the distillery. As it is our protein rich draff is fed to cattle where it boosts milk production by as much as 5% and our pot ale is given to a local farmer to help fatten his livestock and frequently used as a natural fertiliser.

That about covers waste, energy use and CO2 production in the basic processes involved, but that is only the start of the sustainability argument. The true sustainability equation takes into account the impact on the environment of the car you drive, the clothes you wear, the packaging and shipping solutions we use. To this end we will be phasing out our existing presentation packaging. It turns out that the magnets we use in the cartons can be recycled, but the complexity of removing the magnets makes recycling them impractical. The next generation of Iniquity packaging will feature versatility and recyclability and less foil. A large portion of the greenhouse gasses produced in the making of whisky are generated on farm, burning diesel to produce the crops of barley. There is not a lot we can do to reduce this, but it is heartening to note that broad acre grain producers are doing their bit to achieve sustainability too.

Ask any marketing guru and they will advise we use a heavy bottle because it feels like you are getting more for your money and gives the impression of luxury.  The same with embossed gold foil and other decoration. The sustainability engineer on the other hand will want us to use lightweight glass and plain packaging, if not a miniature wine bladder as it is low impact on the environment.  We will be changing over to locally made, lightweight glass bottles that utilise a high percentage of recycled glass with minimal transport costs.

Sustainability is a balancing act and the hardest thing to juggle is financial sustainability, or viability. Using second hand wine packaging for your product may be good for the environment, but it won’t look too good on the shelf and we may never sell another bottle. Covering the carpark in solar panels may also be good for the environment, but it is no good if we have no funds left to pay for laying down barrels.

Here at The Shed we are chipping away at sustainability, doing what we can, while we can.

We will get there in the end, probably sooner rather than later because we are all breathing the same air and drinking the same water, plus it just makes good economic sense for us to be as sustainable as possible as it saves money.  

People easily understand that efficiency is a big part of achieving sustainability. Few people readily realise that it is also a big part of the flavour of a whisky. Not only is it inefficient to leave some sugar in the mash tun when mashing, but it isn’t good for the product either as you are leaving a goodly amount of flavour behind with that sugar.

The thing that will make the biggest gains in sustainability is the attitude of the buying public because you influence our politicians and their policies, and by demanding sustainable products you force the producers down the sustainability path too.

Ian Schmidt
May 2023


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