Water is a Big Deal, Dude

by Ashley Routson, The Beer Wench

In the brewing industry, water is a BIG deal. But not just because 90% of beer is comprised of it; that’s only half of the story. Water is a big deal because the brewing industry wastes A LOT of it. Depending on the brewery, it takes roughly 3.5 barrels (low end of spectrum) to 10 barrels (high end of spectrum) of water to produce ONE (yes, one) barrel of beer.

Despite the common misconception, water is finite. Although water covers roughly 71% of the earth’s surface, only 3% of it is freshwater, most of which is trapped in ice caps, glaciers and groundwater. The sad reality is that less than 1% of the earth’s water supports ALL life on land. And the even sadder reality is that we humans use 50% of all available freshwater annually.

Several breweries and industry folks have developed an acute awareness of the state of water an its affect on the industry. One such person is the well-known beer cookbook author and active environmentalist, Lucy Saunders. After witnessing the Great Lakes Region experience a drought this past summer, Lucy decided that it was time for the craft brewing industry to take action.

In November of 2009, Lucy organized The Great Lakes Craft Brewers & Water Conservation Conference in Milwaukee, WI. The event had a “star-studded” craft brewer turnout, with speakers from Sierra Nevada, Odell Brewing Co., Great Lakes Brewing Co., New Glarus and more. Even Miller-Coors presented.

Now, I am not going to lie: there was a great deal of information exchanged during the conference, most of which was way over my head. Although I am desperately trying to learn and grasp the science and engineering of brewing, much of it still alludes me. Nonetheless, I was impressed by the presentations.

It is important to note that breweries across the entire spectrum were represented at the conference — large corporate breweries, large craft breweries, moderate sized craft breweries, brewpubs, microbreweries and even contract brewers. This is tremendously important to note because there are no small measures when it comes to water conservation. Every little drop counts. It does not matter how many barrels a brewery produces, water savings are water savings, and although larger breweries have the ability to make a larger impact, there is no “get out of jail free card” for the little guys. All players in the industry should be focusing on water conservation.

After the conference in November, I made it a point to spread the good word on water conservation. I was disappointed, however, by the number of excuses I heard from breweries (all across the U.S.) on why they could not “afford” to conserve water.

Correction, my friends. You cannot afford not to conserve water.

For some breweries, it is easier to formulate excuses and reasons for not conserving water than it is to actually research, develop and implement a water conservation program. Some breweries do not have the choice.

Whether it be mandated by the state, city, county, town or municipality, several breweries around the United States are being forced to re-evaluate waster usage and wastage. Those that chose not to abide by the mandates will be faced with fines and penalties.

Sooner or later, no one will have the choice. As the world’s fresh water resources continue to deplete, water conservation will no longer be an option, but a mandatory requirement.

The proactive breweries who have implemented or are in the process of developing water conservation programs will definitely have a leg up on the rest of the industry.

Unfortunately, not all breweries are created equal. Some breweries have more money than they may know what to do with, while some are panhandling and scraping for change. In a perfect world, every brewery would have its own on site water treatment plant, an abundant supply of water meters, efficient and leak-free equipment, new or retrofitted appliances, a four tank CIP system, high-power flush toilets and urinals, and so on and so forth.

But the world is neither perfect nor fair.

How does one go about implementing water conservation tactics? The first step is easy: Call the water utility company. Get a water audit. They are usually free. The utility company can help the brewery understand:

  • 1. Rate of flow in various areas
  • 2. BOD (biological or biochemical oxygen demand),COD (chemical oxygen demand) and TSS (total suspended solids) levels at various locations;
  • 3. Savings that can be realized by reusing water for a second purpose before discharging and by diverting high-loading effluents.

Some of the major water conservation pioneers in the beer industry include New Belgium (just above 4bbl/bbl, or barrels of water per barrel of beer), Sierra Nevada (right under 6 bbl/bbl) and the Great Lakes Brewing Company (just above 6 bbl/bbl). (Note: stats stolen from the Great Lakes Brewing Company powerpoint presentation).

Speaking of Great Lakes Brewing Company, they are an EXCELLENT example of a brewery that is doing things “right.” GLBC currently has an environmental expert on staff tackling all of its sustainability projects, resulting in the following initiatives.

GLBC has installed solar panels on both its brewery and its brewpub. Bottle pre-rinse water is used for final rinse (savings: 1.1M gal/yr). The vacuum pump has been retrofitted to cycle water (savings: 1.3M gal/yr). The heat exchange mechanism has been optimized (savings: 2M gal/yr). Urinals, toilets and the dishwasher have all been upgraded to high efficiency appliances. Almost all of the food served in the brewpub is local and/or sustainable. The staff is continuously educated about sustainability. In the future, GLBC is looking to recycle its rinse water from fermenter for reuse in next tank and well as a yeast reclamation for feed program to save on sewer bills.

At the 2010 Craft Brewers Conference, Water Conservation had its very own panel. I anticipate there being one at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival as well as another Water Conservation Conference by the end of the year. I strongly encourage all brewers and brewery owners to seek out a water audit and start implementing water conservation policies. Sooner or later, there will not be a choice!

2 Replies to “Water is a Big Deal, Dude”

  1. Hi Ashley,

    thank you, thank you, thank you for all of the positive mentions about GLBC in this posting. We are grateful when our conservation efforts are noticed!

    I think that you live too far away to join us in person, but perhaps you’ll consider hoisting a pint and toasting Mother Earth and our waterways with us virtually on Earth Day. Details of our plans live on our site – please check it out when you are able. Thanks again and I hope to meet you in person one of these days.

    kind regards,

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