Could Craft Breweries Help Lead The Way In Water Conservation?

Pacific Standard
January 2, 2018

As water shortages increase across the country, beer companies are adapting to this new reality in innovative ways.

At the Other Half Brewery Company in Brooklyn on a frigid morning in January of 2017, hundreds of people waited in line at dawn to buy the latest India pale ale, although the brewery wouldn’t open until 10 a.m. Across the United States, craft beer enthusiasts wait like this for hours, or even camp out, to purchase six-packs of a limited-edition offering from a favorite brewery, even though each bottle may cost as much as a bottle of fine wine.

Since 1980, the number of breweries in the U.S. has blown up from fewer than 100 to more than 5,300 thanks to the growth of small, independent breweries. These craft breweries are an integral part of a larger cultural movement that includes their smaller cousins, microbreweries and brewpubs.

To most people, the choice of a beverage, whether bottled water or craft beer, seems innocent enough. But to craft brewers and their fans, it’s a statement embodying cultural, ethical, ideological, and environmental values. Craft beer is hip hops. And this attitude is helping to fuel environmental innovation in the industry. With the country and the world facing increasing strain on water resources, beer companies, including craft brewers, are learning how to do more with less water.

The Water Footprint Of Beer

Whether small or large, brewers need a lot of water to brew a gallon of beer. All brewers understand that water shortages threaten their businesses. The aspiration to be sustainable is driven both by a public relations strategy to portray themselves as environmentally friendly and by a concern about the bottom line. Because brewers are selling a product that’s mostly water, they need to figure out how to build resilience into their supply chains.

Until recently, the brewing process needed five or six gallons of water for every gallon of beer. That number is decreasing across the spectrum of beer manufacturers. The ratio of water-to-beer at Oregon’s Full Sail Brewing Company, a small craft brewer, is now less than three-to-one, perhaps the lowest in the industry. The world’s largest beer producers, Molson Coors and AB InBev (Anheuser-Busch), are getting close to three-to-one as well.

But these numbers capture the water used only in the immediate production process. Looking broadly at the water footprint, which is water used in the entire supply chain, yields very different numbers because it includes the water needed by farmers to grow the barley, wheat, and hops. A 2009 study by the World Wildlife Fund and brewer SABMiller (now part of AB InBev) found that the water footprint for beer ranged from 45 to 155 liters per liter of beer (11 to 40 gallons per gallon of beer) produced, depending on whether local crop cultivation was irrigated or dry-land farmed.

This has meant that brewers have begun to look outside their breweries to the fields to increase conservation. A stunning success in reducing beer’s water footprint involves a partnership among MillerCoors (a subsidiary of Molson Coors), barley farmers in Idaho, and the Nature Conservancy. The goal was to protect Silver Creek, a world-famous trout stream near Ketchum, Idaho, by reducing the surrounding farmers’ use of water. Modernizing irrigation systems has reduced the consumption of well water pumped from the aquifer, thus protecting flow levels in Silver Creek by helping to maintain the existing water table. Local barley farmers have now cut water use by 550 million gallons a year, according to MillerCoors.

The Silver Creek story illustrates a scalable solution to reducing the footprint of beer production and, simultaneously, protecting critical ecosystems. But it will take a lot of money, as well as the long-term commitment of brewers, to be successful. Large, well-capitalized brewers are better positioned to finance expensive agricultural modernization projects than most craft brewers. But craft brewers have an important role to play too.

Craft Goes Green

Craft brewers have not taken a back seat to the global giants in developing innovative approaches to reducing both water consumption and the impact of their waste streams. For most brewers, the biggest waste problem comes from the malting and lautering processes, which produce a byproduct of spent grains. The traditional solution was to truck the spent grains to a landfill and send the nasty water to a municipal treatment plant.

Full Sail Brewing Company has a particularly striking commitment to going green. It recycles its spent grain and yeast solids by passing them to local dairy farmers as feed for cows. It also has a hot-water recovery system that reuses leftover hot water in the brew house, thus saving more than three million gallons of water a year.

But its most significant conservation program may be its on-site water treatment plant, which pre-treats organic matter, thus improving the quality of the water it sends to the municipal treatment plant. It takes the biosolids produced by its plant and gives them to local farmers for soil amendment and fertilizer. Full Sail Brewing’s executive brewmaster, James Emmerson, explained the company’s motivation: “Because we’re a small, independent brewery in a very competitive environment, we need to be sure that our business decisions are responsible and careful of our limited resources.”

Other craft brewers have adopted cutting-edge technologies to reduce their water consumption, extract useful material from their waste stream, and improve their bottom lines. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company uses a fuel cell that runs on the methane byproduct of the brewery to generate electricity to power the company’s headquarters. Avery Brewing Company in Colorado donates weak wort, a sugary wastewater, to the city of Boulder, which uses the wort to break down the nitrogen in its wastewater treatment plant.

Lagunitas Brewing Company uses an EcoVolt Membrane Bioreactor (MBR), an electrical process that promotes anaerobic digestion, to remove up to 90 percent of pollutants from Lagunitas’ wastewater stream. “We were throwing away money by trucking water to a treatment facility,” said Leon Sharyon, Lagunitas’ chief financial officer. “The EcoVolt MBR helped us to slash our utility costs by capturing the energy in our wastewater and treating water on-site. Now we can expand the reuse applications for our water on-site.” With this system, Lagunitas expects to reduce its water footprint by 40 percent.

Finding Enough Water

Demographers predict that the Earth’s population will climb from seven billion to nine billion by mid-century and that half of that population will be vulnerable to water shortages. Climate scientists expect more erratic weather patterns with increasingly frequent extreme events. Warmer temperatures mean a smaller snowpack in mountains, earlier snowmelt of what snow there is, and more evaporation of water from the surface of lakes and reservoirs. While the demand for water is rising, the supply is declining.

Craft brewers have recently struggled with water shortages in the American West. During the California drought, the city of Chico asked Sierra Nevada Brewing to reduce its water usage by more than 30 percent. The company got a reprieve only after agreeing to substantial reductions in the water the company used for landscaping and in its restaurant.

Bear Republic Brewing Company in Sonoma County had to curtail its plans for a major expansion of its plant in Cloverdale because the city could not provide it with enough water. That forced Bear Republic to cut back production and resulted in revenue losses of $4,500 per day for the nine months that water restrictions were in place.

The company considered moving the plant, but that would have been “devastating,” explained the company’s owner, Richard R. Norgrove Sr., “not only for the community but for our 157 employees.” Instead, the company spent $4 million on a water treatment system that purifies its wastewater, which it uses to clean its equipment. From a business perspective, using recycled water to brew beer ensures brewers have a consistent supply of water.

From Toilet To Beer Tap

When we take a drink of water, few of us want to think about where the water came from or what it was used for. Drinking water that was previously used generates a visceral response in many people, who think: “Toilet to tap? Yuck!” The reality is we all drink water that’s been used before. If you think about it, we’re drinking the same water the dinosaurs did. The water we have is all the water we will ever have.

The World Water Council has predicted that drinking water from sewage will become common within a few decades. And it’s already being done in a few places. In 2007, the Orange County Water District in Southern California opened a plant that treats sewage with traditional microfiltration, then further cleanses it with reverse osmosis, and disinfects it with ultraviolet light and peroxide.

The district puts the treated sewage water back into its aquifer for later drinking in a process known as indirect potable reuse. Direct potable reuse, where water is treated and then piped straight to customers, has been a harder sell, even though the technology is proven. But craft brewers may help change how people feel about drinking recycled water.

Clean Water Services operates the largest water treatment program in Oregon. In 2014, it launched a pilot project called Pure Water Brew that provided highly treated water to Oregon Brew Crew, an association of home brewers, and challenged them to make beer with it. Using only water from the treatment plant, 25 home brewers entered the 2015 contest, which was judged by experts, who selected a Best in Show and other winners. Craft-beer aficionados obsess about all aspects of an offering, including its ABV or alcohol by volume. Appealing to that obsession, the label on cans of Pure Water Brew proclaimed: “100% EBV or effluent by volume.”

The purpose behind Pure Water Brew was twofold: to expand the use of recycled water and to change the way people think about wastewater. “What we’re really trying to do here is to start a conversation about the nature of water, and there’s no better way to start a conversation than over a beer,” said Clean Water Services spokesman Mark Jockers.

In 2014 and 2015, Clean Water Services took Pure Water Brew to the country’s largest water industry conferences. The message quickly resonated beyond water professionals. In 2016, brewers from Florida, California, and Wisconsin joined Clean Water Services at a national conference. One cheeky entry from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District was labeled “Activated Sludge Wheat Ale.”

Commercial craft brewers also have begun using recycled water. In California, Half Moon Bay Brewing Company experimented with making its Mavericks Tunnel Vision IPA using gray water (from sinks, showers, and washing machines), which it treated with the same technology used by NASA. In a blind taste test, an expert panel couldn’t tell the difference. Half Moon Bay’s owner, Lenny Mendonca, said, “If I can demonstrate to people that not only is [beer made with gray water] good, but it’s great, then why wouldn’t you use that water for everything else?”

In Arizona, the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department is working with the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild, which has more than 80 members, to determine who can make the best-tasting beer using recycled water. They even took the show on the road with a mobile treatment plant in October—in partnership with engineering firm CH2M, they teamed up with three Denver-area breweries to make the first craft beer with recycled water in Colorado.

In 2017, Stone Brewing of Escondido, California, produced five barrels of Full Circle Pale Ale from the city of San Diego’s Pure Water Facility, which treats wastewater to drinking-water standards. At the taste testing, San Diego officials, including Mayor Kevin Faulconer, expressed hope that the experiment would help the public embrace the city’s ambitious program to obtain one-third of San Diego’s water from recycled water by 2035.

So far, no commercial brewer has marketed a beer made from reclaimed water. But these beers were never intended for mass consumption. They were produced in pilot studies to show proof of concept: Beer made with recycled water is safe and tasty.

So how do we overcome “Yuck!”? Establishing the legitimacy of direct potable reuse of water will depend on the public’s trust and confidence in the water provider and in water treatment technology. Scientists and water professionals understand that water purification technology can make it safe to drink treated sewage. Their voices are important ones, but they appeal to the head, not the heart. Far more persuasive will be the experience of friends sharing a cold one at a community forum on water. The recent competitions open a conversation with the general public, who are often unfamiliar with, or skeptical of, using treated water for drinking water.

Brewing With Alka-Seltzer

When California’s drought threatened the ability of Lagunitas Brewing Company to continue to withdraw water from the Russian River, the company faced a problem. Its only option was to switch to groundwater, which contains heavy minerals. The company’s head brewer contemptuously dismissed that idea: “It would be like brewing with Alka-Seltzer.”

Brewers insist that the flavor of beer depends on the water used to make it. Beer once had a different taste from river to river, what the French call terroir—flavor from a certain plot of land. But with so many rivers cleaned up, the art of brewing is now a question of determining what to put into water to produce beer with the desired flavor. Anyone want a grapefruit IPA? A blood-orange ale? A sour beer?

For craft brewers, the desire to control the taste actually makes treated wastewater a perfect medium. The treatment process gives the water a bland taste, which brewers can easily modify.

Craft brewers can further their commitment to sustainability by reusing municipal water. A glass of cold craft beer made with recycled water could go a long way in changing how people think about reusing water. And as for consumers who enjoy craft beer, instead of responding to the idea with “Yuck!” let’s raise a cold one and celebrate the disruption of craft brewers creating ever more interesting and flavorful beers while becoming a model of environmental stewardship.

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