The thirsty business of beer: How breweries are confronting the industry’s water problem

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Inside the average brewhouse, it takes seven gallons of water to produce one gallon of beer. At less efficient breweries, the ratio can go as high as 10 to one.

The pentagon is worried about water.

A 2012 National Security Assessment called climate change-induced water shortages the greatest threat to global security. The report warned of impacts on food and energy production, which would lead to political instability and mass migrations as water conflicts erupt between farmers and city dwellers, ethnic groups, and upstream and downstream users of the same river. Drought-related fire hazards and dust storms could hamper military operations and damage sensitive equipment.

Diminishing aquifers and reservoirs have already left one in seven people on the planet without safe drinking water. Drought was so bad last year in the Brazilian city of São Paulo—home to 20 million people—that city officials nearly restricted water access to just two days a week and residents drilled through basement floors in an attempt to access groundwater. In United Arab Emirates, the government is investing in desalinization plants because it lacks fresh water. Crown prince General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan last year admitted to The Guardian, “For us, water is more important than oil.”

Events forewarned in the security assessment are already happening right here in the United States. Although it was recently pummeled by downpours, California is still feeling the repercussions of a severe, four-year drought—something this year’s El Niño rains likely won’t be sufficient to overcome. 2013 was the driest year since the state began recording rainfall in 1849; studies of old-growth tree rings indicate that it was the driest in 500 years. Wells are running dry. Reservoirs are at just 30-percent capacity. And the already stressed Colorado River, which supplies water for tens of millions of people, is experiencing reduced water flow.

The sustained drought prompted California Governor Jerry Brown to declare a statewide water emergency and introduce severe, mandatory cuts in water use. The executive order requires statewide savings to average 25 percent. Because the cuts are apportioned based on the volume of water used, some municipalities must reduce their water consumption by as much as 36 percent.

As the Pentagon predicted, shortages and restrictions are causing strife within the state. The needs of city dwellers are being pitted against those of agricultural interests in the Central Valley. Environmentalists are battling both groups in an effort to preserve wild habitats. And interstate disputes have erupted over water allocations along the Colorado River.

So, what does this all mean for beer?

The nation’s brewery count has hit an all-time high of over 4,100, and with breweries opening at the rate of two per day, there is no end in sight to this unprecedented growth spurt. Between brewhouse use and the needs of agriculture to supply raw materials, brewing is a water-intensive industry. If water shortages such as those being experienced in California become the norm, it will unavoidably impact the United States’ burgeoning beer industry.

Beer is 90- to- 95-percent water. Water is used in every step of the brewing process; only a small amount actually makes it into the package. Inside the average brewhouse, it takes seven gallons of water to produce one gallon of beer. At less efficient breweries, the ratio can go as high as 10 to one. Cleaning uses the most water—three to eight gallons per gallon of beer—and additional water is needed for cooling and packaging. Much of the water used in breweries is lost to evaporation or is simply sent down the drain.

The tension between water supply and demand is already impacting brewers in drought-stricken California, which has more craft breweries than any other state—over 600, with another 250 in the works. Together, they produce 3.5 million barrels of beer. Assuming the average seven-to-one ratio, that amounts to 24.5 million gallons of water used. Granted, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.1 trillion gallons used by the California almond industry. But in a time of scarcity, it is still a lot of water.

Some California breweries are struggling to cope with the tough water restrictions. Sierra Nevada was asked last year by the City of Chico to reduce its water usage by 32 percent—this after it had already made reductions of 25 percent. Arguing that further cuts would hurt production, the brewery was given a reprieve. The city exempted water used for brewing in exchange for even larger reductions in water used for landscaping and at Sierra Nevada’s restaurant. The company recently opened a second brewing facility in North Carolina. While water concerns were not the primary reason for this move, it’s easy to imagine that it might have been a factor.

Other breweries are digging wells, building wastewater treatment plants, and delaying planned expansions. Some are even considering leaving the state. Bear Republic Brewing  Company owner Richard R. Norgrove Sr. said moving his brewery would be “devastating” to his employees in an Associated Press article published last October. But, he added, “we also have to look to the outside world to see where we’re going to build our long-term growth if we can’t do it here.”

Bear Republic was on course for a major expansion until the city of Cloverdale informed them that it didn’t have enough water to sustain the brewery’s operations. Instead of expanding, the brewery contracted. Bear Republic was forced to withdraw from 15 U.S. markets and four countries. The brewery reported revenue losses of $4,500 per day during the nine-plus months that water restrictions were in place. They responded by paying the city nearly $500,000 for future water credits. The cash infusion allowed Cloverdale to dig two new wells, insuring increased water availability in the future.

Wastewater disposal is another concern. In smaller municipalities, the volume of brewery effluent can overwhelm sewer and water treatment capacities. Brau Brothers Brewing Company moved to Marshall, Minnesota, from its original home in Lucan for this very reason. Additionally, brewery wastewater can be too high in particulates and have an improper pH for treatment facilities to handle. This forces breweries to either pre-treat their water or pay stiff surcharges, both expensive propositions.

The brewhouse is not the only place where water comes into play. In fact, when the water used to grow the agricultural ingredients needed to make the beer is factored in, the aforementioned water to beer ratio can increase nearly 10-fold. AB InBev reports that 90 percent of its water input comes from water used for agriculture. Barley needs 15 to 17 inches of water through its growth cycle to maintain the plumpness and protein levels required to become brewing malt. Water applications for some hop varieties can exceed 50 to 60 inches annually.

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Water applications for some hop varieties can exceed 50 to 60 inches annually

Brewers are stepping up to meet the water challenge. Efficiency measures large and small have enabled some breweries to cut water-to-beer ratios in half. Larger breweries are conducting research to lessen water demands on the agricultural side. One area in particular being examined is leaks. Leaks are a huge source of water waste at breweries. Something as simple as a leaking valve can cost a brewery up to four dollars an hour in wasted water. Installing flow meters to continuously monitor water use is a simple fix that has allowed even small brewers to identify and remediate waste due to leaks.

Equipment upgrades and process adjustments have further increased water-use efficiency. Things such as float valves to monitor vessel fill levels and closed-loop cooling systems that recirculate water used to chill wort and maintain fermenter temperatures produce significant savings. Some large volume breweries, including Alaskan Brewing and Full Sail Brewing Company, are installing mash filters, which much improve the extraction of wort from grain, meaning less liquid is left behind. Alaskan Brewing reports that with the filter, they use nearly two million fewer gallons of water annually.

Installation of our MBR Wastewater System. #bearrepublic #craftbeer #wastewater

A photo posted by Bear Republic (@bearrepublic) on

Many larger brewers are also investing in extensive wastewater treatment facilities. In addition to pre-purchasing water credits, Bear Republic invested $4 million in a system that uses electrically active microbes to purify wastewater, allowing the brewery to recycle up to 25 percent of the water it uses for equipment cleaning. An $8 million dollar treatment system enabled Stone Brewing to achieve a three-to-one water-to-beer ratio. Any water not recycled through these systems is rendered safe for municipal water treatment facilities.

Because of their worldwide reach, massive raw materials needs, and immense resources, large brewers like AB InBev are in a unique position to effect global, agricultural-based water impacts. AB InBev is working with barley farmers in Idaho to develop an irrigation scheduler program called AgriMet that links data to a web and mobile application for optimizing irrigation use. Results show a nine- to- 20-percent reduction in water use for participants. The brewery is also sponsoring other agricultural water use reduction projects in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Mexico, Russia, and Uruguay.

If the Pentagon is right, water pressures will only increase as the world continues to warm. Regardless, it’s clear that the brewing industry must continue expanding efforts to reduce its water use to ensure that lovely liquid keeps flowing.

Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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