In spring of 2021, Colorado’s New Belgium dropped a limited-edition beer meant to give drinkers a taste of the future. The brewery packaged only about 100 cases of the ale, called Fat Tire Torched Earth. It didn’t make a lot of ISO lists, and it’s unlikely that it stole the show at any bottle shares.
By most accounts, it tastes pretty bad—and that was the point. (“A beer not fit for man nor beast,” writes a reviewer named “Slick T.” on Untappd. “That being said, when, not if, the earth is scorched, this is my go-to.”)
Torched Earth was a glimpse of what beer may taste like once climate change desolates agriculture and depletes the water supply. The statement beer was part of New Belgium’s larger strategy to combat climate change and promote sustainability—not just in their breweries, but in the brewing industry as a whole.
“Many customers know that sustainability is important,” says Katie Wallace, New Belgium’s director of social and environmental impact, “but they don’t 100 percent know what it means.”ADVERTISEMENT
It’s easy to dismiss “sustainability” as a marketing buzzword with no real meat behind it. That’s certainly easier than understanding the cat’s cradle of linked forces—from people and culture to nature and the environment—at the core of the concept. Yet the complexity of the topic stymies easy definition. There are many schools of thought on sustainability, each with its own definition. In the context of brewing, let’s call it a balance among economic viability, environmental health, and social equality. A business is profit-driven—that’s the bottom line. However, a sustainable business has not just the one, but three bottom lines: the profits, the planet, and the people—and it’s typically the first two that get more attention.
Making beer sustainably isn’t easy. From the agriculture that provides the ingredients to the water supply to the energy needed to heat and cool all that water and wort and beer, brewing is costly. Costlier still is small-batch brewing, which is less efficient at every step. Keeping a brewery running and profitable in today’s market is tough—and doing it sustainably is like playing on hard mode. No one is even sure if there’s much demand from consumers for sustainably brewed beer.
“A moral imperative has historically driven sustainability,” says Matt Gacioch, the sustainability ambassador at the Brewers Association. With changing climate altering the way businesses must operate, sustainability will soon be synonymous with survival, he says. The sooner brewers tackle those challenges, the better equipped they’ll be for surviving the next industry-defining upheaval, be it crop failures, water shortages, or scarcity in the workforce.
Gacioch has made a career of helping others play on hard mode. He says that brewers’ “scrappy and creative” nature makes them well-suited to tackle the challenges of the changing industry. If a brewery is making more than 100 barrels of beer a year, he says, they can implement sustainable practices that will also save the brewery money.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to sustainability problems. Instead, there are countless ways that breweries can address sustainability—from process tweaks to massive capital investments and partnerships with local governments. One area that’s of particular importance to beer and brewing is water, and breweries use a lot of that resource.
I was born in California, where water is always a critical issue. It seems like all my 40-plus years here have been under the shadow of drought. In the third grade, we learned the water cycle, along with the importance of brushing our teeth with the faucet off, limiting showers to five minutes, and mnemonics about when we may not need to flush the toilet (“if it’s yellow, let it mellow …”). So I’ve had water on my mind my whole life, and the way brewers approach it fascinates me.ADVERTISEMENT
In 2015, I toured the massive Anheuser-Busch brewery in Van Nuys, California, and two things shocked me about the operation. The first was the scale: The 95-acre facility makes almost 100 different brands, and they measure output in millions of hectoliters per year. The lagering tanks hold almost 5,000 barrels, and malt shipments arrive every day—by the train car. The second thing was how obsessed everyone there was with water usage. The brewery was in the midst of a comprehensive water-use campaign, and it had already reduced water consumption by 30 percent over the preceding years. They called the initiative “The Drive to 2.5”—a statement of their goal of using only 2.5 hectoliters of water for every hectoliter of beer brewed. Called the water-use ratio (or WUR), the goal would have made the brewery one of the most water-efficient in the world. (I was not able to find out whether they ever achieved the goal, or what their WUR is today.)
Among craft breweries, the industry average WUR is typically cited as 7:1 barrels of water used to barrels of beer brewed. Anything below 4:1 is considered relatively sustainable. When I visited the A-B brewery, their WUR was at about 3.2. They’d already made most of the big changes, even replacing the lawn at the visitors’ center with artificial turf and relandscaping the rest of the brewery with drought-tolerant flora. The new focus was on behavioral tweaks from the staff. Banners and posters were hanging all around the plant with slogans such as, “Every drop counts,” “Drive to 2.5,” and reminders that “none of us can make it rain, but we can all use less water.”“Brewers love to use a hose,” brewery General Manager Luis Cayo told me. He preferred when they used a broom.
It was inspiring to see such a large-scale operations making incremental steps to reduce water use. Likewise, smaller breweries have many options that don’t come with huge price tags.
The Brewers Association published a guide—Water and Wastewater: Treatment/Volume Reduction Manual—as an overview for brewers who don’t know where to start. (Find the guide at brewersassociation.org/educational-publications/water-wastewater-sustainability-manual/.) The BA’s Gacioch has more direct advice: “Process improvements are the first step, but the biggest piece is monitoring and measuring.” Knowing where you’re starting from is the only way to track improvements. Once the baseline is understood, the “low-hanging fruit”—such as leak detection and cleaning procedures—can be addressed.
Breweries use an incredible amount of water that never goes into the beer. Most of that goes down the drain as wastewater. This is arguably the brewery’s biggest environmental impact, and it’s the place where water-use-reduction efforts can make the biggest gains.
I’ve been following Firestone Walker’s wastewater-treatment project for six or seven years now; Brewmaster Matt Brynildson calls it a “decade-long story” that’s taken millions of dollars and a close partnership with the local government. Wastewater treatment may seem like the purview of big regional breweries, but smaller operations can play that game, too.ADVERTISEMENT
“Seismic was designed with a focus on water conservation, reclamation, and sustainability,” says Andy Hooper, brewmaster at Seismic Brewing in Santa Rosa, California. The brewery produces about 8,000 barrels per year, and Hooper says their WUR is “hovering just below 3:1.”
It takes consideration at every step of the brewing process to get to such a low WUR, but it’s the reclamation and treatment that make the biggest difference for the brewery. “We take wastewater and turn it back into pure, potable water again,” Hooper says.
Once water hits the brewery’s floor drains, it’s diverted into a holding tank before heading to an anaerobic reactor, where microbes consume all the sugars and proteins left over from the brewing process. Next is aeration and membrane filtration, which renders the water “pondy, but otherwise inoffensive.” For most breweries with on-site wastewater treatment, this is when the water goes into the municipal sewer, but Seismic is just getting started. What comes next are steps of reverse osmosis, chlorination, ultra-violet sterilization, and carbon filtration; these produce what Hooper describes as “immaculate and tasty water.” They use that reclaimed, purified water around the brewery for everything from cleaning and steam generation to cooling—“basically, everything but putting it in the beer.” Brewing with reclaimed water is not currently legal, but Hooper says that “Seismic is ready when that legislation changes.”
A couple hundred miles northeast of Seismic, in the 500-person town of Graeagle, there’s another, smaller brewery with on-site wastewater treatment capabilities. The Ronin Fermentation Project is surrounded by the Plumas National Forest. Without a sewer into which to discharge waste, founder Charlie Johnson built the brewery with water treatment in mind. “I wanted to lead by example,” Johnson says, “so I built a poor man’s water treatment system. Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you can’t take these steps.”
Ronin’s treatment system is similar to Seismic’s but on a smaller scale. First, wastewater goes to a buffering tank, where an automated system monitors the pH and solids content of the wastewater. Most of the solids settle out in the next tank before the water goes on to an anaerobic digester, then a membrane filter. All of this happens under the brewery’s floor, and the resulting gray water is then sent to a septic system and an above-ground leaching field.
Johnson says Ronin’s WUR is about 2.8:1. While the wastewater treatment is a huge piece of driving down that ratio, there are many smaller steps that he took to get there—steps that he says breweries of any size can take.ADVERTISEMENT
Besides the wastewater treatment, Johnson says the biggest impact comes from his small CIP skid (the system that sends wash water and cleaning agents through the brewery). The system allows him to reclaim wash water and chemicals, and it “saves a bunch of money on chems.” The other little step that can make a big difference is simply using flow meters around the brewery. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” Johnsons says, and data is a powerful weapon against waste. He suggests the money saved on wasted water and cleaning chemicals from using a flow meter instead of a brewer’s eyeballs will easily pay for the flow meter.
“We all have a duty to better use the resources we have,” he says.
The looming specter of a future where we’re left to drink dandelion-bittered, smoke-tinged beers such as Torched Earth is one thing. A more immediate reality is that the economics of craft brewing will stop making sense (and cents) as the costs of ingredients and utilities climb, even as highly efficient industrial brewers continue to make palatable products.
However, the possible collapse of the craft segment is just one possible dark future. New Belgium and other regional players such as Sierra Nevada and Allagash are taking the lead on staving off that dystopia.
“Climate change puts all our businesses at risk,” says Wallace at New Belgium. The next step in the company’s fight against a grim future is their Carbon Neutral Tool Kit (see “Carbon Neutral Toolkit Aims to Help Breweries Act on Climate Change,” brewingindustryguide.com). Released in the summer of 2021, the free document aims to help other breweries reduce their carbon footprint and demystify the first steps toward a more sustainable business. It may seem hopeless, or pointless, or too big a problem with solutions that are too hard. Yet even small steps—when enough people take enough of them—can make big changes possible.
As for what steps to take first, Wallace and Gacioch agree: Empower brewery staff to start making more sustainable changes. Get people to think about what they can do and keep the ball moving forward. “Behavioral changes don’t take a big investment,” Wallace says.
As Gacioch puts it: “Find the champion in the company and give them responsibilities.”