The Water Issue

Brewers join forces

Brewers around the nation got in on protecting water this past April, when the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) brought together more than 20 craft breweries nationwide to launch the Brewers for Clean Water Campaign. This initiative aims to leverage the phenomenal growth of the craft brewing industry to draw attention to water issues in the United States. On June 12, the group sent a letter to America’s Homebrewer-in-Chief, asking President Obama to finalize guidelines that call for greater protections for streams and wetlands in headwater regions and to clarify which water bodies are covered by the Clean Water Act.

Breweries like New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Half Acre, Goose Island, and more signed on in recognition that while hops and malt can be sourced elsewhere, breweries rely on local water.

Why water matters

Summit Brewing Company of St. Paul was one of the first notable craft breweries on the scene in Minnesota when it opened in 1986, working its way up to 5,000 barrels a year by 1991. This year, says head brewer Damian McConn, Summit will produce 120,000 barrels. They are the second largest brewery in Minnesota and one of the top 50 in the United States, in terms of production.

Damian McConn, born in Ireland, holds an honors degree in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He brewed at Ireland’s first craft brewery and at Guinness in London.5 He knows beer and water. And Summit will use about 20 million gallons of it this year.

Breweries are becoming more and more aggressive about the quality of their water and about sustainability. I think we’ll see more of that. And I think it’s a good thing. 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.”

–Damian McConn, head brewer at Summit.

They go through that water, says McConn, at a ratio of about four to six pints of water for every pint of beer produced. Some suggest the industry average is about eight-to-one.

“The idea is to keep that ratio as low as possible,” says McConn. “Fifteen years ago at Guinness we had a ratio of six-to-one,” he says.

McConn says that European breweries, especially those in urban areas, have been focused on water conservation for years.

“Here in the Upper Midwest, surrounded by 10,000 lakes, we’re not quite to their level of efficiency yet when it comes to water use, but the Colorado boys, and the California boys, they’re big on that. And not just for the environmental reasons, but financial ones, too. The cost of water is not going to come down,” says McConn. Indeed, a recent proposal in the Minnesota legislature would raise the price of water for industries that use more than 1 million gallons annually.

McConn says that while water is critical for beer, even to the extent that it has a measurable effect on taste, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

“Water accounts for 90 to 95 percent of the liquid components of beer, but it’s probably way down the list of things that breweries look at. You’ll hear a lot of talk and research going into hops, malt and barley, but it’s something brewers don’t talk much about. I don’t think it has the same kind of romantic appeal that, say, a hop cone has, but it’s extremely important,” he says.

Summit, says McConn, has a specific water recipe for each brand of beer it brews. That’s not uncommon among larger breweries. Brewers can and very often do tweak the water by adding minerals or even through reverse osmosis, effectively cleansing it of all but its two H’s and one O.

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But, says McConn, there’s another idea out there being promoted more in the U.S. than in Europe, which says you just brew with the water you have.

“It’s the idea that you’re staying closer to the source water of the locality in which your brewery is located, that you’re in tune with what’s going on with the local area, I suppose, to provide a local flavor, a local signature effect of beer. As opposed to trying to mimic the water effect of say, Burton-on-Trent.” Here he’s referencing England’s India Pale Ales, brewed since the 1700s with water from a town straddling the River Trent in England, where high levels of calcium give the beer a distinct flavor.

“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. I think we’ll see more of that. And I think it’s a good thing. I mean, water is an essential ingredient of beer, let’s be honest. 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,” says McConn.

Indeed, with craft breweries growing seemingly exponentially in the United States and Minnesota, the consideration of freshwater will become more and more critical in planning and sustaining a burgeoning industry.

Adam Overland is a writer and editor with the University of Minnesota. 

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  1. […] as beer is roughly 90% water, and quality water is essential to producing quality beer. During an interview with the Growler, Damien McConn, head brewer for Summit Brewing Company in St. Paul, […]

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