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New Belgium Brewing takes on a Colorado coal mine

The famous brewery inadvertently got on the wrong side of workers at a local mine because of its stands against fracking.

One of the U.S.'s biggest and greenest breweries is facing a boycott in a town in Colorado. The company provided support for climate change campaigners in the state that threaten to shut down a coal mine, and the mining industry is not happy.

New Belgium Brewing Co., based in Fort Collins, just north of Colarado's state capital Denver, has become famous for its quirky ales and love of fat tire bicycles. The 24-year-old craft brewer also has aligned itself with some of the world's more radical green brands, such as Patagonia and Lush, in openly calling for a ban against fracking.

As well as supporting anti-fracking rallies, the company in recent years has funded a number of projects run by the non-profit WildEarth Guardians, which aims to improve the health of watersheds in the state.

With water being the most important ingredient for all brewers, New Belgium stated it is keen to preserve its local source, much of which is provided by snowmelt from the nearby Rocky Mountains.

But when news of its charitable donations to WildEarth Guardians emerged last month, the northwestern coal mining town of Craig launched a full scale boycott against New Belgium beer that still hasn't been lifted.

Hundreds of Craig residents depend on a nearby coal mine for work, which is under threat from closure after WildEarth Guardians sued the Department of the Interior over an inadequate environmental impact assessment.

In May, judges found officials had given the green light to an expansion of the mine without considering the full environmental impacts of burning more coal. Last week the Department of the Interior said it would not appeal the ruling.

Last month, bars, off licences and restaurants in Craig stripped New Belgium beers off their shelves in protest and they have not returned. Craig also has turned its back on a number of other smaller breweries in the area that donated $25 gift vouchers to WildEarth Guardians, according to local reports.

Dana Villeneuve, sustainability specialist at New Belgium, said the company is acutely aware of the financial and reputational risks it faces. Not least because of the significant amounts of fossil fuels it gobbles up to produce its beer.

Despite having invested heavily in energy efficiency technologies and getting a fifth of its power from renewable sources, New Belgium is frequently accused of hypocrisy for taking an anti-coal and anti-fracking stance while still relying on fossil fuel power.

"We work very hard to be very, very frank about how much coal and natural gas we use to make our beer because we think it would be incredibly hypocritical of us to do otherwise," said Villeneuve. "And simultaneously we believe in advocating for a future where renewables are a bigger piece of the pie."

However, she accepts this transparency won't win over everyone. "When it comes to an issue like fracking, we have definitely gotten our hand slapped for supporting anti-fracking campaigns," she said.

The boycott unsurprisingly has made things tough for New Belgium's sales staff. As the company is employee-owned, everyone is at risk of feeling the commercial hit.

But how much of an impact has the boycott really had on the company's bottom line? New Belgium is the U.S.'s fourth largest brewing company and on the verge of major expansion. Later this year it will open its second facility, based in Asheville, North Carolina, from which it will expand its presence in the U.S. market and potentially start exporting overseas.

As in Fort Collins, the Asheville plant is expected to be highly energy-efficient, and the company is looking into adding a number of additional green technologies such as rainwater harvesting and anaerobic digestion.

However, if the boycott is not affecting New Belgium's expansion plans, it has been felt in other ways. WildEarth Guardians' list of business supporters has dwindled from 605 to 151, according to local press reports, as other firms attempt to steer clear of the threat of further boycotts.

With tension between those business committed to decarbonization and those committed to fossil fuels occasionally spilling out of the world of policy and into the world of commerce, marketing and battles over resources, we can expect plenty more firms to find themselves in a similar position to New Belgium in the coming years.

But Villeneuve said New Belgium has no plans give up its support for environmental projects anytime soon. The company says it accepts that shale gas will be needed as a bridge fuel towards a greater use of renewable energy, but that it wants local areas to be allowed to regulate where drilling occurs. It has also called for strict regulation around fracking to protect human and environmental health. "We support events about fracking in order to create a healthy dialogue resulting in further research that will benefit the environment, community stakeholders and the natural gas industry itself," the company said in a statement.

Jessica Shankleman is on the Climate and Clean Energy Leaders tour of the United States, funded by the U.S. Department of State. This article has been edited since it first published to match changes to its BusinessGreen original.

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