Why Northern California businesses aren’t bubbly about shortage of CO2
Despite an excessive amount of carbon dioxide, or CO2, in the atmosphere changing the Earth’s climate, in the North Bay and around the country the same gas is in short supply, creating problems for breweries, wineries, contractors and the health care industry.
“Right now you read or hear about CO2 almost always in a negative context, but it’s necessary for a lot of applications,” said Rich Gottwald, CEO of the Compressed Gas Association.
Dry ice is the frozen form of CO2, and wineries use it during harvest. Spread over grapes, the heavier gas displaces oxygen to keep the produce from spoiling.
“For this year’s harvest we had 30% less (CO2) to sell,” explained Glen Irving, sales manager with Complete Welders Supply in Napa.
The company makes dry ice at its Napa, Rohnert Park and Stockton locations and supplies North Bay wineries, microbreweries, metal fabricators, laboratories, universities and an Air Force base.
“The past three months have been very tight, but we are just about out of the worst of it. There are all kinds of issues that affect CO2 supply. Regionally one of those issues is the use of CO2 during the harvest season for grapes by wineries,” Mike Guilford, head brewer and production manager at HenHouse Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, told the Business Journal
Breweries feel tapped out
In the big scheme of things, the almost 9,000 brewers in the United States use a fraction of the CO2 consumed in the business world. Nonetheless, without that gas it would mean having to drink flat beer, thus making it a vital ingredient in every can, bottle and keg.
“The beverage industry is a fairly low user of CO2, and breweries are fairly small. Small brewers are at the far end of the supply chain,” said Chuck Skypeck, technical brewing projects manager at the Brewers Association. “It is expensive to move. It needs to stay cold. The best way to travel is by rail.”
The trade association representative noted most breweries are not adjacent to train tracks, thus necessitating the delivery by tanker truck, which adds to the cost.
Brendan Moylan is dealing with a spike in CO2 prices for his breweries — Marin Brewing Co. in Larkspur and Moylan’s Brewing Co. in Novato. He’s been operating them for 33 and 26 years, respectively.
“As something as simple as a cylinder of gas was $2 or $3 a month for rental. Now they are charging $20 a month rental. It’s not nickels and dimes; it is dollars and dollars,” Moylan said. “We were profitable at the breweries for a number of years. They have not been for the last couple of years for a number of reasons and CO2 is one of them.”
The small portable CO2 cylinders are exchanged between client and gas distributor. They often are used when breweries go to festivals and other off-site venues. Moylan said his refillable containers at the breweries can hold hundreds of pounds of the gas, and it costs $1,000 to fill one.
“We have been impacted by the CO2 shortage — short term in the last couple of weeks, as well as last year and every time in between there,” Peter Kruger, chief operating officer at Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Cloverdale, told the Business Journal in early November.
At HenHouse, which has its production facility in Santa Rosa and a tasting room there and in Petaluma, the cost of CO2 has increased 60% this year.
Carbon dioxide recapture
Breweries not only consume CO2 but also produce it during production.
Guilford, who manages production at the Sonoma County brewery, is taking a proactive approach to the carbon dioxide issue because he doesn’t anticipate the supply chain returning to pre-pandemic levels, nor the price coming down.
“We recently purchased a CO2 recapture system. It will be installed by the end of the year and will allow us to capture some of the CO2 that is coming off our fermentations,” Guilford explained. “This used to be a technology that only very large breweries used to be able to possess. But Earthly Labs out of Austin, Texas, has produced a unit that is perfect for our size brewery. Basically, during fermentation, yeast is eating sugar and creates about equal amounts of alcohol and CO2. Right now, most of that CO2 is just released to the atmosphere. What we will be able to do is capture that CO2, turn it back into a liquid, and store it until we need to use it.”
This means HenHouse won’t have to buy as much CO2, it will be using a cleaner product because it won’t be sourced from a refinery, and the company will reduce its carbon footprint.
Guilford didn’t put a price tag on the recapture system, but said it should pay for itself in about three years.