There are four primary ingredients for beer – water, hops, yeast and grain/malt. Of those, hops, yeast and grain get a lot of attention. Water seems to take a backseat. It’s just a carrier for the rest of the ingredients, right? Wrong. Actually, water is just as vital to the ultimate character of the beer in question as anything else.
The Role of Water in Brewing
As mentioned, there’s a notion among drinkers that the water used in the brewing process isn’t really all that important. It’s just something to carry the flavor of the hops and grain, right? No, it’s not. Water forms a critical part of a beer’s flavor profile. In fact, most breweries go to great lengths to mimic the groundwater of particular geographic areas when trying to brew beers that originated there.
For instance, if you wanted to brew a Guinness clone, you’d need to perfectly match the water of Dublin. If you wanted to mimic an original IPA, you’d need water that matched the profile of Burton-on-Trent. So, water is obviously of vital importance to the brewing process. It’s also an essential resource that’s becoming increasingly rare for much of the world. While US residents might be insulated from it, the global water crisis is real, and it’s rising.
The Global Water Crisis
In the US, most of us have easy access to clean, drinkable water right from the tap. However, that’s not the case of much of the world. According to The Water Project, “Clean, safe drinking water is scarce. Today, nearly 1 billion people in the developing world don’t have access to it. Yet we take it for granted, we waste it, and we even pay too much to drink it from little plastic bottles. Water is the foundation of life. And still today, all around the world, far too many people spend their entire day searching for it.”
How does the global water crisis tie into brewing beer? Actually, they go hand in hand. Brewing beer consumes a significant amount of water. A single 10-gallon batch of homebrew might actually require 15 gallons of water or more. Now, scale that up to commercial volumes and you begin to see just how water-intensive the brewing process really is.
Because of the intensive water use of brewing, many breweries are taking steps to source their water more sustainably. No longer are these breweries simply pulling what they want from the municipal supply. So, how are they taking steps to address the problem of water consumption?
Perhaps the single most widely available source of water that is not dependent on underground aquifers is rainwater. In many areas of the US, rainwater is abundant, and can be harvested with a minimum of effort. What’s more, harvesting rainwater does not directly deplete underground aquifers, nor does it directly impact the volume of surface water available for other needs. You’ll find quite a few breweries either already harvesting rainwater, or in the process of creating a collection system.
One of the most obvious is Jester King out of Austin, Texas. The company plans to create a rainwater catchment system that harvests water from the roof of the brewery, as well as the company’s beer hall next door. All water harvested in this way will be purified using ultraviolet light and reverse osmosis to ensure quality. Another brewery getting into the rainwater harvesting act is Virginia’s Pleasure House Brewing.
When it comes to brewing beer, the purity and quality of the water is of paramount importance. Wastewater wouldn’t really seem to fit the bill, but for some enterprising breweries, it actually does. Stone Brewing in San Diego made headlines when the company created a five-barrel batch of pale ale brewed with wastewater from the city – water that originally flowed through toilets, showers and sinks, and was then reclaimed. Ballast Point created a similar beer with waste water at the same time.
Both beers were brewed with reclaimed water from the wastewater system. It actually came from a water treatment plant, and was subjected to multiple purification systems, far more than what would be necessary for the water to be routed into residential taps. The result was very high-quality water that worked well as the base for these pale ales.
In some areas of the country, there is almost as much water in the air as there is in the ground. What’s more, the water carried in the air isn’t subject to ground contaminants or water treatment needs. Think Florida’s sulfur-laden water. For breweries in these areas, there’s another option for responsible water sourcing – reverse osmosis.
The way it works is similar to a home dehumidifier. The system pulls moisture from the atmosphere, condenses it, and then purifies it using reverse osmosis. The result? Clean, drinkable water that’s perfect for brewing with.
While all of these methods result in the creation or capture of clean water for the brewing process without further straining the immediate area’s water supply, it’s not all that must be done. The water needs to be rejuvenated.
If you’ve ever had to drink water that has been boiled, you’re familiar with the flat, lifeless taste it has. In order to be useful to brewers, the water must be rejuvenated with the addition of minerals and salts. The beauty of this system is that because the water has been completely eliminated of other mineral content, brewers have something of a clean slate. By adding salts, they can create a perfect match to water from any geographic region they might want in order to ensure authenticity in their beer.
What are your thoughts on sustainable water sourcing in the brewing industry? What steps would you like to see local breweries take, or what are the breweries in your area doing in this regard?