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.

Next page: What are breweries doing about it?

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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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