California Drought Puts Pressure On California’s Craft Breweries

While Minnesotans have been struggling with too much of the cold, wet stuff (I won’t say the s-word, it’s bad luck), Californians have been suffering from the opposite. This past year was the driest in history for California, which has affected many regions, namely Sonoma County along the Russian River.

Russian River Valley // Map courtesy of Wikipedia

Russian River Valley // Map courtesy of Wikipedia

The Russian River is a 110-mile waterway that provides drinking water to more than half a million people. This drought has caused the river, and surrounding lakes, to reach staggeringly low levels. If rain fall doesn’t pick up in spring and early summer, restrictions on water use may be enforced.

Sonoma County breweries that use 100% Russian River water are starting to seriously consider backup plans for water supplies if the drought does not let up. One of the nations most predominant craft breweries, Lagunitas Brewing Company, is nervous that they might have to switch to well water.

“If [Sonoma County] shifts us over to groundwater, we’d have to sacrifice our nice water supply—that unique, signature, clean Russian River water,” said Jeremy Marshall, head brewer at Lagunitas in an interview with NPR.

What’s so wrong with groundwater? The problem is the heavy amount of minerals that don’t mix well with beer. Marshall said in the same interview with NPR, “It would be like brewing with Alka-Seltzer.” The minerals could create an astringent taste in beers that are usually crisp and hoppy. Marshall described the flavor as “kind of planky, like [a] Popsicle stick” that could appear.

In an interview with The Growler last year, Damian McConn, head brewer of Summit Brewing, spoke about the importance of using quality local water in the brewing process. Of course it matters for the consistency of the beer’s taste, but it also matters to the community.

“The whole idea of local is becoming more and more important, whether it’s barley, hops, or the local water supply. Breweries are becoming more and more aggressive about the quality of their water and about sustainability,” said McConn. “It’s just as important as securing your malting contracts and just as important as looking after your hops. You’ve got to have good quality water, and you’ve got to have it for quite some time to come if you’re going to build a business.”

Related Post: The Water Issue

When a brewery uses a rough average of six pints of water for every pint of beer produced, or 20 million gallons annually, they need to have a constant source that won’t break the bank—or river bank in Lagunitas’ case.

Breweries intentionally open near large water sources, like the Russian River or Lake Superior for their freshness and in the hopes that the supply will balance the demand. For these businesses to thrive they depend on the community and resources around them, but what happens when the resources dry up?

Because of Lagunitas’ size, bolstered by their second brewery in Chicago, they have options to fortify their water or even temporarily move all brewing operations to Chicago. But smaller breweries, such as the Bear Republic Brewing Company who also use only Russian River water, don’t have any back up plan if water supplies become scarce.

Although there were heavy rains recently, Southern California will need to see much more rain to replenish the critically low reservoirs and bring water to the breweries who are starting to feel the pressure.

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