Every last drop

Jo Caird, on how the thirsty business of brewing


It was 2013 and times were good at Bear Republic Brewing Company. Business was booming at the family-owned California brewery, its distribution network extending to more and more states. Keen to capitalise on growing demand Bear Republic applied to the local authority for an increase in their allocation of water. The request was turned down.  

This news was a blow but wasn’t exactly surprising. California was experiencing what they have since realised was its worst drought in 1,200 years, a combination of low rainfall and record-breaking high temperatures. It wasn’t just Bear Republic that was negatively affected. The city of Cloverdale, where the brewery is based, was put on a list of communities at risk of running out of water entirely within 100 days. Something needed to be done. 

It takes a lot of water to make a pint of beer. There’s the stuff that goes into the beer itself – water typically makes up 90 to 95 per cent of the final product, depending on style – and then there’s all the water required by the brewing process. Between heating, cooling and cleaning, it all really starts to add up. While the most efficient independent breweries might boast water-use ratios of around 3:1, for some in the industry it’s as high as 8:1 – and these figures don’t even take into account the large amounts of water required to grow barley, hops and any other ingredients that go into the mix. 

Brewing’s high demand for water isn’t just a problem in drought-stricken places like California. Even in regions where water is plentiful, there are environmental costs attached to water use. Treating it requires energy, as does pumping it into our homes and businesses. Treated wastewater released back into aquatic ecosystems doesn’t tend to cause too many problems in jurisdictions with strong regulations, like the UK, Europe and the US. 

Even in regions where water is plentiful, there are environmental costs attached to water use

But these protections don’t exist everywhere and even where they do, there are times when wildlife suffers, whether as a result of unavoidable accidents or irresponsible actions by corporations (I’m looking at you, UK water companies who discharged raw sewage into rivers 372,533 times in 2021). In this age of climate crisis, water use in brewing is an issue that neither brewers nor consumers can afford to be complacent about. 

Water conservation has been on the agenda at Bear Republic for a long time. Having bought a neighbouring brewery a couple of years after first setting up in 1995, they found themselves having to truck their wastewater off the property because there was nowhere else to put it. Dealing with this challenge during what COO and master brewer Peter Kruger calls the “baking process” of the company meant that an awareness of the need to be responsible with water became “built into how we did things”. 

So when the City told the brewery that they couldn’t have more than 8 million gallons of water a year – a cap they came within 50,000 litres of reaching in 2013 – Peter and his partners sprang into action, installing water meters with timers throughout the brewery to reduce wastage. 

“Nobody is intentionally wasting resources. They’re doing it because they’ve got other things going on or they just forgot,” he says.

“People in breweries and other places that use a lot of water to manufacture things, they use more water than they have to because it’s easier for them to do so than to do the opposite. Everything I’ve done in terms of our water conservation efforts has been based on flipping that on its head. I want to make it harder for our operators to use more water.”

The new meter system cost Bear Republic less than $75,000 (£60,000) but has saved the brewery nearly a million gallons of water to date, enabling it to cut its water use ratio by around half a point. 

PHOTO: Tamas Pap

They took steps beyond the brewery too, advancing the City of Cloverdale $467,000 in water charges to invest in refurbishing existing wells and building two more. 

“We were growing between 30 and 40 per cent per year and the opportunity costs were so high that we needed to get rid of that obstacle,” Peter explains. They could have moved the brewery to a less drought-prone area but opted to prioritise their strong links with their local community and stay put. Besides, says Peter, “eventually wherever you move, the hurdles are going to follow. It’s just places that haven’t started to tackle those issues [of water scarcity] yet.”

The brewery’s final investment in water conservation, the installation, in 2016, of a $5 million wastewater treatment system, is yet to fulfil its potential. Don’t get me wrong: it’s up and running and going strong, its three-part process removing solids, then using anaerobic followed by aerobic digestion to prepare water for discharge to the sewer. Doing so saves the brewery significant sums of money through the collection of methane, which is then burned to produce heat and power; and by reducing the concentration of the effluent it sends to the city’s treatment plant (businesses are charged based on both the volume and the concentration of the wastewater they produce). 

With a few tweaks, however, the system will one day be able to play an important additional role, producing water clean enough for the brewery’s production processes, potentially driving their water use ratio from 3.25:1 to 2:1. That day might come sooner rather than later: “We’re probably going to need it this summer if California goes into mandatory water restrictions, which I think will happen,” says Peter. 

Bear Republic is not the only US brewery cleaning up its wastewater. Anchor Brewing, San Francisco’s largest brewery, for example, received a $1 million grant from the city’s water agency to build its own water recycling facility with a capacity of 20 million gallons a year (equivalent to the annual consumption of 1,300 San Francisco residents). The system, which went on stream this year, uses bacteria to break down organic material (yeast, carbohydrates, proteins) then filters it using reverse osmosis and disinfects it with ultraviolet light. The treated water is used in cleaning and cooling at the brewery. 

People use more water than they have to because it’s easier for them to do so than to do the opposite

“A lot of breweries have put a lot of investment in water efficiencies over the past few years, but there’s only so far you can go with that,” Anchor’s CEO, Matt Silver, told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. “At some point if you want to go further, you have to go to reuse.”

So far breweries are only looking to wastewater recycling to meet their processing needs but there’s no reason why they couldn’t go further, using treated water as an ingredient too. In 2020, Christine O’Grady, programme coordinator with Advancing Canadian Water Assets (ACWA), a partnership between the City of Calgary and the University of Calgary, approached Village Brewery in Calgary with an unusual proposition: to brew beer with water made from treated sewage as a means of spreading a message about the potential of wastewater treatment. 

The brewery agreed to help, producing a limited batch of its Village Blonde Ale using water that had gone through ACWA’s treatment facility and been tested by a third party. “There’s a mental hurdle to get over of how inherently gross this could be,” Village’s head brewer, Jeremy McLaughlin, said at the time. “But we know that this water is safe, we know that this beer is safe, and we stand by our process.” 

The project was an unmitigated success, says Christine. “The beer was perfect. Village Blonde is a great beer anyways and it tasted exactly the same. I definitely had more than one.” On top of that, she says, “the ‘yuck’ factor associated with it brought a lot of media attention. We called it head on because a part of the innovation was the social change that people have to move through.”

Christine isn’t under any illusions about breweries—or indeed any other food or drink business—using treated wastewater any time soon. The project was simply about moving the dial towards greater acceptance, among both the general public and industry. Measured that way, it “exceeded our wildest expectations”, says Christine, citing approaches ACWA has had from companies enquiring about how wastewater reuse could be incorporated into their business models.

Peter Kruger, for one, is open to the idea. Treated black water—aka sewage, as was used to make the special batch of Village Blonde—would be a “tough sell” to customers, but he can imagine being able to make the argument for using treated grey water, brewery process water that’s only been in contact with food grade ingredients and cleaning products. 

“There is no new water. It’s all going through a loop of getting used and cleaned. It’s just a shorter loop if it’s done here,” he says. “I don’t see why we can’t explain that to customers.”

For Christine, it’s only a matter of time. “I don’t know of a lot of countries that are reusing wastewater for potable purposes but it’s starting to happen,” she says, namechecking Singapore, which meets up to 40 per cent of its water demand—including, during the dry season, for drinking water— with treated water.

Even if you’re able to overcome the ‘yuck’ factor, there are downsides to treating wastewater for reuse. Such systems are energy—and therefore cost and carbon —intensive. In places of water scarcity like California and Singapore, it might make sense for businesses or the state to recycle their water in this way, but elsewhere, where the wet stuff is more available, the sums, both financial and environmental, just don’t add up. 

Technological advances and the increasing threats presented by the climate crisis might change that equation in the future, however. As Peter says of the wastewater system at Bear Republic, “As energy costs rise, it looks better and better. If and when we need to access more water, [reuse] is cheaper than trucking in potable water – which is certainly an option we’ve got in a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type situation.”

There is no new water. It’s all going through a loop of getting used and cleaned

Christine agrees: “Industry will be driving the bus in terms of how they’re going to access what they need to maintain their operating systems, just because water is starting to cost money.”

It’s unlikely we’ll all be quenching our thirst with beer made from treated sewage any time soon, but breweries’ openness to innovation when it comes to water use and conservation is of benefit to us all. Whether that’s recycling water, reducing demand on local authority facilities, installing technology to reduce water consumption or embracing more efficient procedures, every little helps. 

As does knowledge sharing, something the independent craft sector is much better set up to do than companies beholden to shareholders to protect their trade secrets, says Peter. It’s a role he embraces: “It is being honest about what pinch points we’ve had. Maybe you can’t afford sustainability out of the box as a small brewery, but if you know that things are out there when you’re designing your pipe work, your electrical grid, you do certain things that don’t add very much cost at all, that allow you to implement sustainability projects for a fraction of the costs you could have done if you have to go back and retrofit.

“The drivers to do the right thing from a sustainability point of view are getting more intense, which I think is a good thing.”

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