There’s been some serious hand-wringing over California’s lingering drought. Ranchers are selling off livestock.  Growers are expected to let nearly 500,000 acres farmland go unplanted. Even last weekend’s  welcomed rain wasn’t enough to lift the official drought state of emergency, nor reverse the decision by water officials to slash allocations to zero for the first time in state history.

California’s farmers and ranchers aren’t the only thirsty food-production niches out there. For San Diego’s craft beer community, worrisome water forecasts could impact their ability to grow their businesses, which is why some are embracing water-saving practices now.

Clare Leschin-Hoar Logo

“We brewed 86,000 barrels of beer in 2013,” said Nick Cain, director of quality, Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits. “This year we’re expecting to produce well over 100,000 barrels — closer to 120,000. Water is essential to what we do. For us, it’s about being more efficient with the water we do use.”

He’s not just talking about water’s role in converting beer’s sexier ingredients like hops, barley and malt into something more delicious. Cain says that’s only a small part of a brewery’s water use. Cold water is used to cool down the wort — the extracted liquid that contains the sugar that will be fermented during the beer-making process. Hot water is used to clean and sanitize equipment used to make beer. More water is needed to rinse the cleaning agents off, and to clean factory floors. Even staff hand-washing and daily use for employees requires water. It all adds up.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Cain says they’ve become increasingly aware of their water usage, and have actively looked for ways to improve.

“We used to flow hot water through the equipment, bring it up to 175 degrees and maintain it for a certain amount of time to sanitize the equipment, and at the end, the hot water would go down the drain. Today, we put in a separate recirculation tank and the water gets recycled through the system. It’s not wasted,” he said.

Every six months, Ballast Point takes a snapshot to track its water use. At the end of 2012, Cain said they were using 7.2 barrels of water to produce one barrel of beer. By mid-2013, they had whittled the number to 5.5 barrels of water to one barrel of beer.

If you think that ratio sounds high, let’s put it in perspective. Beer giant SABMiller is one of the few breweries that has done its own water footprint assessment. Their ratio is 3.82 barrels of water to one barrel of beer. AB InBev, maker of  Budweiser, is a little better, at 3.5 barrels of water to one of beer.

“But that has to do with economies of scale,” said Kai Olson-Sawyer, senior research and policy analyst at the GRACE Communications Foundation, which focuses on water and energy systems, including global water footprints in the food system. “Craft beer tends to be around 6-8 barrels of water to one barrel of beer, but that’s only the direct water footprint. If you add up all the different steps in the supply chain, about 90 percent of the water footprint comes from the grain—mainly barley.”

Olson-Sawyer said some of our other favorite beverages have a heftier water footprint than beer: milk (880 gallons of water to one gallon of milk), wine (1,008 gallons of water) and coffee (880 gallons of water). As does the hamburger you may have ordered along with that tasty pale ale. (It takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef.)

Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association, said the ongoing drought is bringing the topic to the forefront among the state’s 300-plus breweries.

“The drought elevated the level of concern pretty quickly and dramatically,” said McCormick. “Water is the next gold in California, and it’s going to be an ongoing issue. As an industry that uses a fair amount of water, it’s prudent we address it.”

To do so, the California Craft Brewers Association is getting ready to host a series of workshops and will be posting educational videos on their website on how to breweries can be smarter about their water usage, and McCormick said it will be a major topic of discussion at the group’s annual conference in May.

In San Diego, McCormick said Stone Brewing Company is taking the lead on water conservation. The largest of the city’s craft breweries, Stone produced 215,000 barrels of beer last year.  When it comes to water reduction, the company’s already plucked the low-hanging fruit like low-flow toilets, faucets with sensors that automatically shut off, water-smart landscaping and more.

The brewery brings in about 80,000 gallons of water every day, but recycles nearly 50,000 gallons of that, thanks, in part, to some expensive investments like the company’s water treatment facility which includes a membrane bioreactor — designed to process wastewater more quickly; and two reverse osmosis units, which purify the water and removes contaminants.

“When we added the two reverse osmosis units, the recycled water was as clean as the water coming into the brewery on the potable water side,” said Leo Schempp, Stone’s wastewater manager. “We now use the recycled water for heating, cooling and all housekeeping needs.”

Even with all the water Stone is able to recapture and reuse, the drought presents additional production problems, some of which, the company is already seeing.

“Over the last six weeks, the hardness and salt content of the water has increased by 15 percent. That means we have to perform more reverse osmosis on the water, prior it being used on the craft beer. That requires more energy use, and is one of the impacts of the drought that we’re already seeing,” said Schempp. “As the drought continues, San Diego will get more Colorado River water, and less water from other sources. The impact is the salt content will get higher.”

Part of the reason Stone is able address water use so aggressively is its commitment to the issue, but also its sheer size. For smaller brewers like Coronado Brewing Company, how to save on water while growing the business is more elusive. In 2013, the company produced 18,000 barrels of beer, and uses between 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water a day.

“To make a certain amount of beer, you need a certain amount of water,” said Shawn DeWitt, co-founder and director of brewery operations for Coronado Brewing Company. “We have to have water to make our beers and clean our tanks, and there is really no way to reduce our water needs. We are very conscious of any water leaks and we try to only use enough water to complete our tasks. I don’t know where we can conserve.”

And, DeWitt said, lingering drought or future water restrictions could impact their growth.

“We’re actually increasing production. We’re going to need more water. Our concern is the rates we’ll be paying.”

Vince Vasquez, a senior policy analyst for National University System Institute for Policy Research, said he didn’t look at water use in the Economic Impact of Craft Breweries in San Diego published last week, but said it is something he’ll be looking at next.

“At the end of the day, craft beer isn’t a water-thirsty industry like avocado plantations. Yes, beer is more than 90 percent water, but many brewers here are increasingly water-wise,” he said.

If California’s drought continues – they’ll have to be.

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email her

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.