Denver Beer Co(2): How The Clinic, the brewery and the CDPHE teamed up to grow pot and save the planet

Denver Beer Co(2): How The Clinic, the brewery and the CDPHE teamed up to grow pot and save the planet

Two of Colorado's favorite industries just got a lot greener...

CultureMarch 11, 2020 By Will Brendza

Once in a while, an opportunity arises that satisfies economic, environmental and recreational ends. It’s rare, but when that happens; when something clicks and businesses can come together to benefit each other, benefit their customers and benefit the environment, it can transform industries.

Which, might be exactly what’s happening between Denver Beer Company’s Canworks facility and The Clinic’s grow operation in Denver. These two small businesses, in partnership with Earthly Labs and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE), have joined forces to make the process of brewing beer more environmentally friendly, while simultaneously helping to grow happy, healthy weed plants.

It might just be the most “Colorado” innovation in recent history. But what could be more badass than taking a loose end from Colorado’s booming craft beer industry and tying it into the state’s exploding cannabis industry?  

“We should be thinking about our waste streams as commodities,” says Kaitlin Urso, the environmental consultant and small business assistance program specialist for the CDPHE.

Urso helped spearhead this progressive pilot project by bringing Denver Beer Co, The Clinic and Earthly Labs together. Having previously worked as a small business sustainability consultant for breweries like Denver Beer Company, and now working to consult cannabis companies, Urso was the perfect facilitator for a project like this.

“I saw a super exciting opportunity to link these industries together, to take a one-way stream of carbon dioxide from one, and turn it into a commodity for another,” Urso says.

At the Denver Beer Canworks facility in Sunnyside, I got to see what that meant for myself. Charlie Berger, one of the co-owners of Denver Beer Company showed me around their brewing and canning facility. When we got to the fermentation tanks he pointed to a blue bucket on the ground, with a large hose running into it. The bucket was filled with frothing, bubbling water.

“That’s all carbon dioxide being released,” Berger explains. “That’s how most breweries will release it. And that’s nothing,” he notes, nodding towards the churning water. “When it’s really going, there’s a lot more CO2 coming out of there.”

The process of fermenting beer releases a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2). So much, in fact, that, according to New Belgium, it would take a single, fully-grown tree almost two months to offset the CO2 produced by the production of a single six-pack. At Denver Beer alone, they estimate that there’s well-over 100,000 pounds of CO2 being released from their fermentation process. And that’s just a single brewery out of 400 in this state.

Berger then pointed to a hose on the ground and we followed it to a machine with a couple of large tanks beside it. This, Berger explained, was Earthly Labs’ proprietary carbon capture and compression system: where the magic really happens.

That machine dries the gas and scrubs it of contaminants, then compresses it into a liquid.

Kaitlin Urso, Amy George, Brian Cusworth and Charlie Berger, standing around Earthly Labs' magic machine. 

“So we're capturing that CO2 in this tank and we put that on a truck and drive it over to The Clinic,” Berger says.

Denver Beer uses some of that CO2 in house, for their own carbonation process. Not only does that save them money (since they don’t have to purchase that CO2 from a third-party), and not only does that reduce their carbon footprint (because that third-party doesn’t have to drive to deliver it) but it also means they can make better beer, too.

Urso explains that, conventionally, most of the CO2 used by both breweries and cannabis growers is the product of fossil fuel combustion at power plants. They capture that gas, scrub it and then sell it to companies like Denver Beer Co and The Clinic, in tanks that have to be delivered by a distributor from a distributing facility.

By contrast, the CO2 being captured at Denver Beer Co is a natural product and it’s extremely pure — purer even than commercially available beverage-grade CO2, according to Urso. Which is good for the beer and great for the plants. And it doesn’t have to ride around in a distribution truck for hours on end for hundreds of miles — instead it comes from just up the road.

“So we'll get this 500 pound CO2 tank from Denver Beer, about once a week,” says Brian Cusworth, director of operations at The Clinic.

Cusworth and The Clinic’s head grower, Chris Baca, showed me their CO2 storage room at their massive grow operation just seven miles south of Denver Beer. Two of the three tanks they had in use, were rented from a third-party provider.

The third tank, though, looked exactly like the one I’d just seen at Denver Beer Co. They simply alternate the two tanks, replacing the empty one for the full one.

Kaitlin Urso, Chris Baca, Amy George, Brian Cusworth and Charlie Berger at The Clinic's CO2 room. Image courtesy of The Clinic. 

“What's cool about this is we are able to invest in our own equipment,” Cusworth explains. The third-party industrial providers don’t allow growers to purchase the CO2 tanks they deliver. Instead, The Clinic has to rent them for a little over $1,000 a month — on top of the regulatory fees associated with every delivery.

That adds up. But, since Earthly Labs created their own proprietary system, and these small businesses are able to invest in their own equipment, they’re in the process of liberating themselves from that commercial dependency — shedding the shackles of their rent and flying solo. Which, Cusworth says, will cut overhead significantly and make a return on investment in just 18 months.

“The whole goal, is to move everything over to this,” Cusworth says, looking at the Earthly Labs CO2 tank. “To use our own stuff.”

From the CO2 storage room, Baca explains, the liquid CO2 (compressed at Denver Beer Company) runs through a vaporizer and is returned to a gaseous form. It’s then pumped via white hoses through the entire grow.

We followed that white hose into a large room full of small cannabis plants: the veg room. This is where the cannabis plants all start off, Baca explains, they clone them from mother plants, plant those clones and allow them to … well, veg.

“You'll see those CO2 lines spread out all around the floor,” Baca says. That CO2 is then circulated by strategically placed fans and inhaled by the happy-grow-lucky plants.

The Clinic has five full tables of sapling marijuana plants that have all grown up on Denver Beer’s CO2. They may yet be babies, but so far, they look really healthy, Baca says. He’s keeping extremely close tabs on these plants as they grow, monitoring them, tracking their growth and productivity and when he’s done, he’ll compile all of that data into a comprehensive pilot phase assessment.

It’s an experiment. No commercial grow operation has ever used CO2 captured from craft beer before, and the guys at The Clinic are making damn sure they approach this like scientists. The results could literally change the way their industry gets one of its most important ingredients.

The final pot product of this harmonious-sustainable-carbon-capture-system, is probably going to be ready (conveniently) around July 4th. That’s when all this comes to fruition: when the flower of this undertaking blossoms into a beautiful, sticky, bud, raised on beer-born CO2. You’ll be able to find it at any of The Clinic’s dispensaries when that day finally comes.

This Earthly Labs carbon capture system could revolutionize two of Colorado’s favorite industries. They have developed a scaled down, affordable carbon capture system that any small brewery could easily install. It gives brewers the opportunity to use cleaner, self-produced CO2 in their brewing process and grants them the option to sell any excess CO2 they have left over. And they don’t just have to sell that CO2 to a grow op (although, notably, that’s the coolest thing to do with it). It can also be sold to hop growers, vegetable farmers, even other breweries.

For growers, this represents a brand-new way to locally source the CO2 they use; to get a higher purity of CO2 and to save money on the cost of purchasing CO2 from a distributor and renting that distributor’s equipment.

And who knows? In blind taste tests, the beer brewed with this cleaner CO2 proved to be more aromatic and flavorful. Maybe, just maybe, if luck is on everyone’s side, that beer-produced-CO2 will have a similar effect on the bud it helps to grow. That would be pretty rad.

But we’ll just have to wait until July, when The Clinic’s beer-bud hits their dispensary’s shelves and when the data from this progressive sustainable pilot project comes out. 

Image courtesy of Denver Beer Co.