Inside Arcadia Ales’ brewery, the air is pungent with fermenting beer, and Tim Suprise is talking water. The founder and president of the Battle Creek, Michigan, microbrewery recently signed on to Brewers for Clean Water, a Natural Resources Defense Council program that launched in mid-April.
Surrounded by giant sacks of malt and wooden barrels, a glass of beer appropriately in hand, Suprise told a group of journalists he’s sending a simple message: “You can’t have a sustainable culture or society without our most precious resource, and that’s water.” (Learn more about freshwater.)
Brewing beer is a water-intensive process, as the grains—usually malted barley—have to be steeped in water before yeast is added for fermentation. Breweries that don’t track their water use can take up to 10 barrels of water to make 1 barrel of beer, according to Suprise. (Learn more about beer’s water footprint.)
According to NRDC’s Josh Mogerman, who was also on the media tour, 22 craft breweries have already joined the campaign, which is the first of its kind nationwide. So far, most of the brewers are located in Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin (see the full list).
Craft breweries—defined as small, independent, and traditional—are growing in the U.S., with a 15 percent increase in new businesses between 2011 and 2012, according to the Brewers Association. (Even President Obama is taking a crack at homebrewing with the White House Honey Brown Ale.)
By emphasizing the importance of water to a person’s favorite local brew, Mogerman hopes to create “evangelism” for strengthening the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972. Though the legislation has kept billions of pounds of sewage, chemicals, and trash out of the waterways, there’s still much to be done: One-third of U.S. waterways studied still don’t meet water quality standards, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Can you find a better spokesperson than a craft brewer?” Mogerman said. They’re “totally reliant on the watershed, so protection of water is important to them.”
Testing the Waters
Arcadia Ales takes its water from the Battle Creek city water system, whose main water source is a sandstone aquifer near the city. Battle Creek’s treated wastewater is then released into the Kalamazoo River, a 130-mile (209-kilometer) waterway in western Michigan with a polluted past. Paper mills once dumped PCBs—a type of carcinogenic synthetic chemical—into the water, harming wildlife, especially fish. The river is healthier now, and Suprise is building a new, more water-efficient brewing facility on the banks of the river. (Take a pledge to save a river with Change the Course.)
At the new brewery, his goal is to cut water use by 25 to 30 percent, mostly by recycling wastewater. Historically, water left over after making beer was dumped down the drain, where it ended up at local water-treatment plants.
“Today, we can take that same [wastewater] and put it in a big tote, [and] it’s picked up by a biofuel company and fermented into ethanol,” Suprise said.
That’s “one example of how we as brewers can minimize water usage and wastewater usage.”
Already, the Arcadia Ales team is more mindful of how much water they use to clean tanks and other brewing infrastructure, for example by using flow meters whenever possible, he added. Suprise doesn’t have hard numbers, but he said he’s sure that the brewery is already using less water.
Currently Arcadia’s ratio of barrels of water to beer is about 5-to-6 to 1, though Suprise hopes to bring that number down at the new facility.
All Hands on Deck
Mogerman acknowledges Brewers for Clean Water is “light green,” in that it’s a voluntary program meant to attract supporters for the Clean Water Act.
But just raising the profile of water conservation is crucial, especially since it’s a tough sell for many audiences—including young beer drinkers, according to water experts. (Calculate your water footprint.)
“For me, any partnership that’s going to bring attention to the need for clean water nationally brings value,” said Mark Gold, associate director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
Gold noted that the Clean Water Act regulations haven’t been updated this century. So “trying new ways and developing new partnerships with business becomes all the more important,” said Gold, who has worked with NRDC on other initiatives.
Jason Morrison, program director at the Pacific Institute, which works on water sustainability, noted the fact businesses are supporting water conservation is notable in and of itself.
“I’m old enough to remember the times when almost any piece of federal legislation was vehemently opposed by industry,” Morrison said.
Mike Antos, research manager at the California-based Council for Watershed Health, added by email that any business that’s sensitive to its water use “is a solid win.”
“We need all-hands-on-deck as we try to change how we use water,” he said.
This story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources.