Water usage is not just a subject near and dear to the heart of the average brewery, it is the heart itself. And as more of us become home or craft brewers, adhering to sustainable water usage practices will be absolutely critical.
This month, craft beer magazine The Growler published its water issue, sharing how breweries in the US and Europe are committing themselves to sustainable water usage practices, protecting their product and profit – but also our water and our way of life.
For a closer look on the water usage practices of established breweries – at home and abroad – I turned to Joseph Alton, Editor of The Growler Magazine and Project Director for Minnesota’s outdoor beer festival, The Beer Dabbler.
Often found in the woods or on the water, Alton spared a few minutes to share with us how craft and home brew processes can adapt to include water filtration and usage practices adhered to by established breweries – protecting both their product and our planet:
1. The recent water focused issue of The Growler covered sustainability initiatives being supported by breweries in great detail. In working on this issue, what are some of the key things you learned about water usage in breweries that came as a surprise to you?
Joseph Alton: It was sobering (no pun intended) to learn how much water is used to craft a single pint of beer. Conservative estimates for an industry average are between 6:1 – 8:1 (water:beer) — and that’s not even including the water used in the crop-growing stage, which SABMiller estimates consumes close 90% of the total water used in brewing. Water-to-beer estimates when you include the agricultural side rocket from between 60:1 to 300:1. That is an impressive amount water.
2. In the issue, it is indicated that European breweries are ahead of Americans in terms of water efficiency. Why do you feel American breweries have been a bit slower to adopt more efficient water usage practices?
JA: One reason is our rate of growth. Because of prohibition in the United States in the 20’s, most of our storied breweries closed and never reopened their doors. Europe on the other hand has a brewing industry with centuries of (mostly uninterrupted) brewing history.
The US has been catching up in terms of total number of breweries, breweries per capita, and new breweries, but has a much shorter average age than the average European brewery. Many US breweries are new (in relative terms) and the American “craft beer” industry is sort of a new version of the beer industry as a whole. Everyone is learning this industry together and it seems that progress in terms of things like water conservation are quickly coming into the collective stream of conscience.
Established breweries have a greater opportunity than upstarts to invest their knowledge, experience, and capital into initiatives like sustainability. Another reason is how seriously countries in Europe take their beer. The German Beer Purity Law of 1516 (or Reinheitsgebot, as it’s referred to in Germany) is a prime example and was recently cited in a letter to the German government calling for a moratorium on the practice of fracking so more research could be conducted regarding its effect on the water supply.
3. An interesting point made in your issue was how some breweries are allowing the mineral components of their local water sources to remain present in their final product, almost as a signature. Based on this, where do you see water filtration coming into play – as it relates to large scale brewing?
JA: Choosing specific water for beer is not a new tactic. Breweries have for centuries placed their facilities on beer-friendly water tables and in close proximity to large volumes of water. There is an argument to be made for making beer with the water you have available to you and modifying it as little as possible, but brewing is a science and brewers are very discerning about the quality, balance, and chemical composition of the water they brew with. As water quality changes globally — presumably for the worse – water filtration will likely become a topic of increasing conversation and in some areas likely a necessity.
4. How can the average home brewer benefit by studying the water usage and sustainability practices being championed by breweries?
JA: I guess the most important thing the average home brewer can take away from the conversation is mindfulness.
Be conscience of your water usage in regards to brewing and minimize where possible. If you’re using an immersion chilling process reuse the water used to chill your wort — water your garden, fill the back of your toilet, give the dog a bath post-brew, or you can even fill your washing machine for a load. If you are interested in eliminating even more waste, you could consider a plate chiller (much like those used in commercial breweries) to cut down on waste water.
5. What water usage best practices being supported by larger breweries would be most applicable towards smaller craft breweries and home brewers?
JA: Again, the most important step is being aware of their water usage and conscientiously avoiding waste.
There are several steps that can be taken in process automation and equipment upgrades that lead to limited waste. Many larger breweries have invested in hot water recovery systems to that recapture hot water for reuse in the facility. Commercial grade mash filters can not only reduce the waste of water, but can also increase the extract potential of the malt.
Some breweries (like Sierra Nevada and Full Sail) have gone so far as to add their own ‘voluntary’ water treatment facilities. Full Sail actually recycles the biosolids from their treatment plant and gives them to local farmers who use them for soil amendment and fertilizer so they never consume landfill capacity.
Sierra Nevada built an on-site wastewater treatment facility that takes water from the brewery and pre-treats it before sending it to the municipal water supply. Biogas from Sierra Nevada’s wastewater treatment process is recovered and then used to offset natural gas consumption in their boilers.
JA: Eliminating water waste — wherever possible. The first step is knowing that there is a serious water issue facing our planet. The less available clean water, the more difficult and expensive brewing will be in our future and for generations to come.
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