Down the drain: the crucial connection between brewing and water conservation

This is the second installment in a series that I’m writing for the Michigan Beer Guide, focusing on great beer and living sustainably. For the Beer Guide, I write under my pen name, Brenda Cooke. This piece is reprinted with the permission of the Michigan Beer Guide. Cheers!

To make excellent beer, you’ve got to start with pure, great-tasting water. Any good brewer, from the head of brewing operations at a national corporation to an occasional dabbler in the kitchen, understands and honors this tenet. In the Great Lakes region, it may seem like we’re blessed with an unlimited supply of this essential ingredient. Yet although the Great Lakes represent over 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, the supply is not boundless. As brewers and craft beer lovers, in order to safeguard this resource for the future, we must view our fortunate location as a responsibility and a privilege rather than a license to waste.

In the process of brewing beer, the leading area of waste is water use. Depending on your source, the industry standard is around six to 12 gallons of water consumed for each gallon of beer produced, with some estimates coming in much higher. “One consulting firm estimated the real water footprint of brewing beer to be 20 gallons of water to yield one gallon of beer, when the water used in malting barley is factored into the equation,” shares Lucy Saunders, beer and food writer and developer of the Web site beercook.com.

Undoubtedly, the most water-intensive component of the brewing process is washing and sanitizing. From brew kettles to utensils to hoses to fermenters, everything that comes in contact with the ingredients must be sanitized, and that demands water. Water is also lost in the long boiling process, released in the form of steam. Finally, cooling the wort with a heat exchanger is a favorite method of many brewers. In a heat exchanger, cold water runs through tubing to cool the hot wort. Depending on how the resulting hot water is handled, this method has great potential for either water reuse or for waste.

Although the brewing process inevitably demands significant quantities of water, it’s vital that the brewing industry is at the forefront of efforts to preserve water quality. Since beer itself is over 90 percent water, we must conserve the main ingredient if we’d like to continue to enjoy our favorite beverage.

There are environmental benefits to conserving water, but there is also a financial incentive. A recent article in the Virginia Gazette, entitled “Is brewery water next big issue?,” focused on the subject from an economic standpoint. This article dealt with Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Williamsburg brewery, which uses more than three million gallons of water a day and well over one billion gallons of water each year. Struggling with utility costs, the brewery underwent a consumption analysis. As a result, the Williamsburg brewery implemented new procedures for reclaiming water in brewing and packaging processes, decreasing total water consumption by 20 percent in a just few months.

Sauders further illustrates the economic angle, stating that water rates in Milwaukee County in her home state of Wisconsin will go up by 28 to 36 percent next year. “If some simple operational changes will let brewers save 15 percent, then those costs can be minimized with just a little effort.” Saunders stresses that the cost benefits will quickly make up for any initial investments.

Much to their credit, many craft breweries across the world are already built upon standards of sustainability. Of course, all craft brewers are not automatically staunch environmentalists. However, they are often independent, open-minded and intimately tied to their own regions and communities, three factors that are likely to lead to questioning outdated, wasteful industry models and developing new values and methods.

For example, Long Trail Brewing Co. of Vermont employs unique processes that allow them to use only two gallons of water to make a gallon of beer. At New Belgium in Colorado, the methane produced by process water treatment fuels a combined heat and power engine. Odell Brewing Company in Colorado hopes to use only 2.9 gallons of water for each gallon of beer in 2010.

Although breweries of all sizes are striving to use water efficiently, there will always be room for improvement. “I think it’s too easy to waste water through inattention; using water as a broom instead of using a floor squeegee, for example,” says Saunders. If breweries are going to attain the water efficiency rate recommended by the United Nations of five gallons of water to make a gallon of beer, efficient water use must be a cornerstone of all brewing practices.

Water conservation is an international concern, but recent events focused a spotlight on this issue in states surrounding the Great Lakes. Specifically, about a year ago, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact successfully established new water conservation and environmental protection standards for water use within this region.

“The Great Lakes is the perfect place to showcase the need for water efficiency,” observes Thomas E. Pape, technical advisor to the Alliance for Water Efficiency. “In the past, everyone considered water conservation as an issue only affecting the ‘Wild Wild West.’ Yet the Great Lakes represents the greatest fresh water reserves in the world, and now it is known that even this massive resource is under dire threats,” continues Pape, who is not only a national expert on water conservation, but is also a certified beer judge and an avid homebrewer. “The Great Lakes issues bring forth the shocking truth that every area of the United States needs to be concerned with water efficiency. If the Great Lakes Region has a problem, it proves that our country can no longer assume that a safe and reliable water supply is a constant.”

“We live on a thirsty planet, and there are water wars already raging in other parts of the world,” confirms Saunders. “Local breweries need to be aware of water conservation techniques that can save water and save money.” To that end, Saunders is organizing the Great Lakes Craft Brewers & Water Conservation Conference, scheduled for late October 2009 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“The Great Lakes Compact requires that all businesses in the basin begin conserving water,” explains Saunders. “I’ve been worried about the costs of water, combined with the costs of raw materials and potentially increasing taxes, creating a real financial burden for small craft brewers.  The state of emergency drought we experienced in Wisconsin this year was so severe, it seemed like a good time to reach out.” The conference will focus on the legal and economic impacts of the Great Lakes Compact for craft brewers, with sessions on water conservation, retrofits for water efficiency in small brewhouses, best practices and designs for cost savings and reuse of water.

Craft brewers aren’t the only ones who must be concerned with conserving water. Homebrewers can also respect this precious resource with a few simple changes. Making prudent use of washing and sanitizing water is an easy way to start. For example, spray down the inside of a pot or bucket using a spray bottle filled with sanitizing solution rather than filling the vessel with sanitizing solution. Saunders recommends investing in a pressurized nozzle for your kitchen sink and using burst rinsing for cleaning and sanitation.

If you use a wort chiller, collect the resulting hot, clean water in carboys or camping jugs. You can use this water for cleaning, or allow it to cool and then use it for watering your lawn or gardens. Pape adds that all beer lovers, brewers or not, can also play a huge part in water conservation: consider the hidden water waste in the later cycle of the beer, the disposal. To put it bluntly, with an average disposal rate of 17 pints of water to dispose of one pint of beer, think before you flush.

“The Great Lakes region has many, many, many important issues regarding water, and brewing is one of them,” concludes Pape. “A reliable, pure and safe water supply is vital to beer production. Sustainable brewing practices must include efficient water use. The means of creating the beer and the beer’s total impact on the environment is as important as the taste of the beer itself.”

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