CO2 contaminated by the Mississippi volcano puts pressure on local brewers

A nationwide shortage of carbon dioxide might not seem like a big deal, unless you rely on that gas to pressurize lines and kegs and deliver the tiny bubbles that make a beer a beer.

No-Li Brewhouse owner John Bryant said carbon dioxide is used virtually everywhere in the brewing process. So it came as a shock as the cost of CO2 has tripled in the past 24 months.

The fault lies with supply chain problems and an extinct volcano in Mississippi.

Called the Jackson Dome, the volcano sits approximately 2,900 feet below the city of Jackson, specifically below the Mississippi Coliseum. It contains a huge CO2 tank that is exploited, stored and delivered to industries across the country, including brewers.

The shortage began in mid-2020, when production of ethanol, of which carbon dioxide is a by-product, slowed as more people stayed home. This summer, the problem became more acute when the CO2 in the Jackson Dome was contaminated with gas from a nearby mine.

“We hope to be patient,” Bryant said when asked if the shortage will cause prices for his beers to rise. “We don’t control prices at the store level. This is dictated by our distributors ”.

No-Li is the seventh-largest brewer in the state, Bryant said.

“It is important for people to know that we are doing our best,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like it’s No-Li against the world when you’re trying to control your costs, but we try.”

Breweries rely on CO2 not only for those bubbles that beer drinkers expect, but also to move beer between tanks or to kegs and canning lines and to purge oxygen from tanks.

“The heat and the apartment are not where it is,” Bob Pease, president and CEO of the Brewers Association, which represents small independent craft breweries, told the Washington Post. “It’s a key ingredient”.

Another factor was the maintenance shutdowns of several ammonia plants which are the main producers of CO2, according to the association, as well as the usually higher demand in the summer months.

This is the time when the industry sees an increase in sales of beer and soda and experiences the need for more dry ice, which also uses CO2 in its production.

Sean Owens, owner of Common Language Brewing Co., 926 W. Sprague Ave. in Spokane, said he gets his carbon dioxide from the same local source as No-Li.

It plans to produce around 350 barrels of beer this year, up from No-Li’s 18,000.

“Fortunately, we’re not seeing many shortcomings on our part, even though our costs have increased considerably,” Owens said. “But I have friends in other places that are a little more rural. They are trying to figure it out. It’s a challenge.”

Owens also sources local grains from the Palouse, which has isolated him from higher shipping costs.

“In the brewing industry, you rely on good water, wheat and yeast,” he said. “The costs for everything have gone up.”

The largest breweries rely on systems that can recover or recycle carbon dioxide within the system.

“It’s great if you can reuse it,” Owens said. “But that equipment is out of reach for most small breweries.”

Bryant, at No-Li, wasn’t ready to say when, but confirmed that his brewery is looking to upgrade its brewing process to do just that: recycle its CO2.

“We are actively working on this,” Bryant said. “We are trying to do the things that the greatest brewers in the world do. We are quite excited about it. “

As with any upgrade, the cost of the system “is a pretty high dollar amount,” he said. “But for those responsible for the environment, these are the things you need to do.”

The Brewers Association earlier this year released guidelines for brewers to help them get the most out of their carbon dioxide, including making sure there are no leaks in their lines.

At the same time the industry faced a CO2 shortage, Ball Corp., the largest can supplier, quintupled its minimum order, forcing many breweries to look for different suppliers, often at a higher cost.

Other successes have included rising costs for labor, transportation, and other ingredients.

“Our members have faced a long series of challenges and we have found ways to overcome them for the most part,” said Pease. “We will try to help our members overcome this problem.”

Bryant said he’s been trying to run No-Li’s business plan over a period of years, hoping supply chain shortages and cost spikes will normalize in the long run.

“We want customers to know that No-Li is doing everything possible to keep prices available,” he said. “We will do everything we can to fight like hell for this.”

Thomas Clouse can be reached at (509) 459-5495 or at tomc@spokesman.com.

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