The popularity of craft beer has been steadily increasing as more people want to support small, local businesses and desire a more complex tasting beer. As demand for craft beer has increased, so has supply. By the end of 2016, there were over 5300 craft breweries in America, with another 2000 in the planning stages—a seventeen percent increase from 2015. The Brewers Association categorizes an American craft brewery as “small” if less than six million barrels a year, “independent” if less than twenty-five percent of the brewery is owned or controlled by a non-craft brewer industry member, or “traditional if the majority of beer derives flavor from traditional brewing ingredients and their fermentation).
While beer lovers the world over can appreciate a good craft beer, behind the industry lies a slew of adverse environmental consequences. One of the most pressing environmental issues craft breweries are facing is the processing and disposal of wastewater. When brewery wastewater is dumped into public waters without being treated, it can cause plant, algae, and bacteria growth, which all lead to reduced oxygen levels and can eventually lead to the eutrophication of a body of water, making it uninhabitable to most aquatic life. This is mostly an effect of the solid waste in brewery wastewater – including spent grains, yeast, and hops – that can weigh up to fifty pounds per barrel of beer produced.
Production and Regulation
Water is the most essential part of the brewing process. Not only does water make up about ninety percent of the actual finished product, it is used in every part of the production process from growing hops to cleaning the equipment after a brew. As a result, one barrel of beer takes about seven barrels of water to create using traditional methods. Accordingly, breweries use an enormous amount of water. The United States produces more than twenty million barrels of beer a year, and although craft breweries only contribute to twenty percent of total U.S. production, the craft brewing industry can potentially place a huge strain on water supplies. However, craft breweries have shown themselves to be sustainably minded and oriented toward conservation. Many craft brewers have been able to decrease the amount of water used in production from seven barrels to just three per barrel of beer.
The Clean Water Act (“CWA”) regulates the discharging of all pollutants discharged into United States waters. The CWA has specific requirements for discharging industrial waste into publically-owned water treatment facilities. Unlike most domestic wastewater, brewery wastewater is high in sugar, alcohol, solids, and temperature which municipal water treatment plants were not designed to process. For this reason, breweries are often required to pre-treat their wastewater before sending it to municipal treatment plants. Violating the Clean Water Act can lead to enormous fines, which can cripple a craft brewery as most are relatively small businesses. Yuengling, a major craft brewery out of Pennsylvania, was recently charged with allegedly violating the CWA by the Department of Justice for not pre-treating its wastewater. Although both parties entered into a consent decree—a settlement agreement where the defendant does not admit liability—the brewery still had to pay 2.8 million dollars in penalties for violating the CWA as part of the settlement. Aside from the CWA, municipal water regulations may also affect craft breweries by limiting certain types of pollution such as: biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), chemical oxygen demand (COD), total suspended solids (TSS), total dissolve solids (TDS), and pH. Such local regulations can also carry huge fines if violated.
Wastewater Treatment Advances
Managing wastewater is one effective way that craft breweries have found to reduce overall water consumption – saving water and simultaneously reducing costs of operations. Bear Republic Brewing Company out of Sonoma, California has installed a bio-electrically enhanced wastewater treatment mechanism called EcoVolt in response to the crippling drought that California breweries are facing. EcoVolt is unique as the first and only industrial-scale, bio-electrically enhanced treatment system. The system introduces electrically active organisms that eliminate up to ninety percent of the biological oxygen demand—a pollutant. The system also converts carbon dioxide into biogas—mixtures of gases—hat can be used to generate heat and electricity for Bear Republic’s production process. EcoVolt allows Bear Republic to reuse around twenty-five percent of its wastewater, which cuts down the amount of water used for production to 3.5 barrels per barrel of beer instead of the traditional seven. As an added benefit, the system cuts Bear Republics’ baseload electricity use in half. Savings in both water and energy use have cut the brewery’s operational costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. As Bear Republic has proven, installing new wastewater treatment systems is an effective way to save water and simultaneously reduce costs of operations in the long run. However, it is often too expensive for smaller microbreweries to install.
New Belgium Brewing Company out of Fort Collins, Colorado utilizes a different treatment process than Bear Republic. New Belgium uses microbes to consume residual biomass leftover from the brewing process. Aside from cleaning the water, the microbes also produce methane that is collected and turned into electricity that powers New Belgium’s production process. After being exposed to the microbes, the water is sent through an aerobic digester, which breaks down any remaining organic matter through the use of oxygen. New Belgium claims that its wastewater comes out so clean after the aerobic digestion process that the brewery could legally discharge it directly into the nearest river if it so wished.
As of now, wastewater is generally banned for human consumption, however Clean Water Services in Oregon is trying to change that. Oregon regulations have long allowed treated wastewater to be used for the industrial processes of the brewing process, but not as a part of the final product to be consumed. Clean Water Services petitioned the state for permission to use wastewater that has been treated with the company’s “high-purity” treatment system in beer, and were granted limited permission to do so. As a test run, Clean Water Services gave its treated wastewater to the Oregon Brew Crew, whose members made small batches of beer for a sustainable water brewing challenge. The company has recently installed its “high-purity” system at the four wastewater treatment plants it owns and operates in the Portland area, and the purity of the water exceeds even the most stringent standards for water quality. Clean Water Services is so confident in the effectiveness of its treatment system that it claims it can turn sewage into drinking water.
Although craft brewing is a water-intensive process, the industry has fortunately proven itself to be highly water conscious and dedicated to conservation. Most craft breweries are installing advanced wastewater treatment systems to offset both costs of production and costs to the environment. Although such options still remain relatively expensive, advanced wastewater treatments have proven to be a financially strategic option for those craft breweries that can afford it. Furthermore, such treatment options have the potential to cut a craft brewery’s water use in half, and in places where it may soon be legal to include wastewater in the finished product, water use could potentially be cut even further. Especially in the West, where drought periodically plagues the land, it is important that these advances in wastewater treatment continue to proliferate.
Image: Craft Beer Sampler. Flickr user QuinnDombrowski, Creative Commons.
Bear Republic Brewing Company and Cambrian Innovation Unveil Pioneering Wastewater Treatment to Energy System, Cambrian Innovation (Jan. 15, 2014), http://cambrianinnovation.com/bearrepublic_announcement.
Cassanra Profita, Why Dump Treated Wastewater When You Can Make Beer With It?, NPR (Jan. 28, 2015), http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/01/28/381920192/why-dump-treated-wastewater-when-you-could-make-beer-with-it.
Hannah Fish, Effects of the Craft Beer Boom in Virginia: How Breweries, Regulators, and the Public Can Collaborate to Mitigate Environmental Impacts, 40 Wm. & Mary Envtl. L. & Pol’y Rev. 273 (2015).
Home Brew Competition to Feature Beer Made with Water from Wastewater Treatment Plant, Clean Water Services (Sept. 7, 2016), https://www.cleanwaterservices.org/newsroom/2016/home-brew-competition-to-feature-beer-made-with-water-from-wastewater-treatment-plant.
James Tilton, Drinking Beer is Not a Conservation Measure, U. Denv. Water L. Rev. (Nov. 24, 2015), http://duwaterlawreview.com/drinking-beer-not-a-conservation-measure.
K.C. Cunilio, An In-Depth Look at Yuengling’s 10 Million Dollar Clean Water Act Settlement, Porchdrinking.com (July 28, 2016), https://www.porchdrinking.com/articles/2016/07/18/in-depth-look-yuenglings-10-million-dollar-clean-water-act-settlement.
RJ Alexander, Sustainable Craft Brewing: The Legal Challenges, TriplePundit (June 6, 2012), http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/06/legal-issues-in-beer-brewing.