Good News for Greener Brews

U.S. craft breweries cut down on water use

It’s no secret that the American craft beer industry has experienced stratospheric growth in the past decade. The number of craft breweries in the U.S. increased 15% in 2015 to 4,269 breweries—more than at any other time in history, according to the Brewers Assn. Craft breweries create jobs, boost local economics and, of course, produce unique and delicious brews. 

They also consume water. A lot of water.

The average brewery uses 6 to 10 gal of water to brew 1 gal of beer. As a result, breweries discharge approximately 70% of the water they take in as effluent, placing a burden on local municipal treatment plants. The breweries carry a burden, too; they must pay for the water they use and the water they discharge, particularly if it does not meet effluent standards.

For these reasons and others, breweries across the country have taken it upon themselves to reduce their water consumption—including the following three standouts.

Full Sail Brewing

Full Sail Brewing produced its first barrels of beer in 1987 after taking over the long-abandoned Diamond Fruit Cannery in the small town of Hood River, Ore. Water efficiency was a focus “right from the start,” according to Executive Brewmaster Jamie Emmerson. Over the years, the brewery has successfully lowered its water use to 2.5 gal of water per every 1 gal of beer brewed, one of the lowest such ratios in the industry.

Significant moments in the brewery’s journey to sustainability include building its own water treatment plant in 1995 and installing a Meura mash filter in 2011. The mash filter alone enabled the brewery to drop its water usage almost 1 million gal in just one year.

When Full Sail first started operating, it shipped the grain left over from its mashing process to be used as dairy cattle feed. But as dairies in the area consolidated, the brewery was forced to ship the grain farther and farther afield—problematic when diesel prices rose to $4 per gal. 

Emmerson knew that water comprised a large portion of the spent grain the brewery was shipping. If Full Sail could find a way to eliminate that water, it could save money on shipping the grain.

Dewatering equipment was an option, but “you end up then taking that water and putting it through the waste treatment system,” Emmerson said. Instead, the Meura mash filter acts like a giant vertical pressure leaf filter, allowing the brewery to control how much liquid enters it.

“We cut about 70 truckloads of spent grain [per year], just by water weight. We’re hauling the same amount of husk—we’re just not shipping water,” Emmerson said.

Other water-saving measures at the brewery include a hot water recovery system to recapture water used in brewing; a glycol chiller used with the brewery’s heat exchanger to reduce cooling water use; and four 10-hour workdays for employees. 

“We want to be focused on water reuse, in general, because we’re an industry that uses a lot of water,” Emmerson said. “My grandma used to say, ‘Being responsible is doing the right thing when no one’s looking.’ It’s easy to waste, but you end up paying for it one way or another.”

New Belgium Brewery

New Belgium Brewery’s most famous brew, Fat Tire, was inspired by its cofounder’s bicycle trip across Belgium in the late 1980s. The brewery’s Fort Collins, Colo., location opened in 1991, and, this year, it added a second location in Asheville, N.C. It is the fourth-largest craft brewer and eighth-largest brewery in the U.S.

Central to New Belgium lore is a hike its cofounders, Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan, took in Rocky Mountain National Park prior to opening the brewery. There, they discussed what would become the “core values and beliefs” of the business, one of which was environmental stewardship. In 2006, the brewery formalized its goals surrounding energy, water, greenhouse gas emissions and waste in a Sustainability Management System (SMS).

“At that time, we pulled together a number of coworkers from all areas of the brewery to ask ourselves a few big questions: What are the biggest issues the planet is facing today; how does the brewing industry contribute to those problems; and what can New Belgium do to correct the course and improve our impact?” said Dana Villeneuve, a sustainability specialist for New Belgium. “We continually evolve those goals and hold ourselves accountable toward them through the SMS.”

The brewery’s bottling line reuses the water used to rinse bottles for other parts of the filling process, including cooling the pump that vacuum-seals the bottle caps, and externally rinsing the bottles, saving the brewery more than 1 million gal of water per year. New Belgium has reduced its water use in its canning and kegging processes as well. Twenty-eight water submeters throughout the brewery offer constant feedback on water use. And retrofitted restroom water fixtures are a more “visible and relatable” way for visitors to recognize the brewery’s water stewardship, Villeneuve said.

Despite these advances, reducing water use is an ongoing endeavor. The brewery set out to attain a ratio of 3.5 gal of water per every 1 gal of beer brewed by 2015, but its ratio in 2016 has been closer to 3.86:1. Production of more beers, and production of more hoppy beers—which require more water to brew—are reasons the brewery has fallen short of its target. Still, New Belgium continues to make improvements to its processes, and is in the midst of reprogramming the control and operating systems in the brewery, among other upgrades. 

The newer Asheville brewery is a step in the right direction. It is expected to have a lower water-use ratio than that of the Fort Collins brewery because the former was designed with shorter pipe runs.

“It will serve as a great bar to strive for in our Fort Collins operations,” Villeneuve said.

Bell’s Brewery

Brewing since the mid-1980s, Michigan-based Bell’s Brewery has been producing staples like Oberon (an American wheat ale) and Two Hearted (an IPA) for years.

In 2015, Bell’s used 4.3 gal of water per every 1 gal of beer produced, an achievement made possible in part by engineering its vacuum pump—which the brewery uses to pull oxygen out of bottles prior to packaging the beer—to make it less water-intensive.

“The vacuum pump is not, in and of itself, a water saver. But by looking at the items we know to be large water users and asking ourselves if we can make them more efficient—that’s really how we drive our water consumption numbers down,” said Walker Modic, sustainability manager for Bell’s.

The brewery’s CIP, or Clean-In-Place system, aids in further water use reductions.

Tanks need to be cleaned multiple times after they are used for fermenting. “Without a CIP system, each one of those steps consumes a fixed volume of water, and when you’re done using that water, it all goes down the drain,” Modic said. 

Like New Belgium, Bell’s discovered which processes in the brewery were consuming the most water through the use of submetering.

“Before the submeters, it was a huge black box. Our only meter was on the front door where the city would grab our numbers,” Modic said. “We knew how much we used every day, or hour, but we use it in various applications during various times in the process. So we needed a little more granularity to start identifying where we had opportunities to get better.”

While Modic acknowledges that Bell’s is “ahead of the curve” among craft breweries when it comes to water conservation, he also realizes that many of the systems in use in the brewery are not feasible for smaller operations.

“You have to be of a certain size before something like the CIP system is approachable in terms of economies of scale,” he said. “You can’t take your eye off the dollars and cents—even if your worldview is more around the environmental side or social side.”

That said, no brewery should underestimate water’s importance when it comes to producing beer, Modic said: “Bell’s beer brewed with water from a different aquifer would not taste the same as Bell’s beer. Unless we break down all of the brick and mortar that’s grown up around this company, we’re always going to be married to the same watershed.

“That creates a level of obligation that stipulates you use that resource effectively and responsibly. Because if you irreparably damage that system, then you’ve ruined your own business,” he said.

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About the author

Sara Samovalov is associate editor for iWWD. Samovalov can be reached at [email protected] or 847.954.7966.