Does Your Beer Drink too Much?
Every time you pour a beer, 95% of what fills the glass is just pure water. It’s near heroic how much effort brewers have to spend on augmenting that last 5% to make a tasty pint of beer, but, as the saying goes, “God is in the details”. The beer industry’s reliance on water is no secret, in fact, most smaller brewing operations require a ratio of 7:1 to produce their brew. That’s nearly a gallon of water put in for every pint of beer that goes out. While larger brewers have been able to bring that ratio down to as low as 3:1, for many smaller brewers that goal may seem daunting. However, through a cunning combination of strategies and techniques even a tiny operation can reduce its water footprint, resulting in lower costs, better public relations, and a healthier planet.
A Drop in the Bucket?
One needs only to take a glance at today’s headlines to know how important - and fragile - humankind’s relationship with water is. Droughts in the West, floods in the East, and due to climate change, these trends are projected to only grow more dire. With breweries accounting for a part of water usage, especially when combined with the “necessity factor” of beer, it is already important, and will become increasingly so, to be responsible stewards of the water that we do use. As water becomes more scarce in the future, it is likely that breweries, among other particularly thirsty industries, will be scrutinized for their water consumption. Therefore the best time to work on a water sustainability plan is while your brewery is still at a smaller stage, where you can develop practices and habits that will translate to less waste and more profit down the road. One excellent resource for this transition is a manual created by the Brewers Association, Water and Wastewater: Treatment/Volume Reduction Manual.
What’s the Use?
The water that most brewers use comes from their local municipal water supply. This water is usually ideal for brewing, with few contaminants and a fairly reliable pH. Once this water has been through the brewing process, the waste products are all carried away in the form of “effluence”. Treating and managing this wastewater is the most expensive element of day-to day operations. Before returning this water to the municipality (down the drain), it must first be treated in various ways. The pH must be returned to acceptable levels. While the E.P.A. requirement for effluence is between pH 5 and pH 11, most municipalities have much stricter rules. The reasoning for these rules are simple: low pH solution can cause corrosion, wearing out infrastructure, and higher pH’s can cause scaling, potentially clogging up lines. In addition to this, there are two other important metrics that must be addressed: B.O.D. and T.S.S.
B.O.D. (Biochemical Oxygen Demand), indicates the nutrient value of the wastewater. It usually exists in the form of sugars and residual alcohol in brewery waste. While most residential effluence has a B.O.D. around 150mg/L, breweries churn out a rich B.O.D. slurry: over 60 times higher, testing at well over 10,000mg/L. This can’t be filtered out, it is broken down in wastewater treatment plants through a use of aeration and bacteria, which digest this and eventually die.
T.S.S. (Total Suspended Solids) is representative of the leftover particulate matter after brewing is finished. This largely consists of dead yeast and any other solids that settled to the bottom of the tank during brewing. Typical household output of T.S.S. is usually around 150mg/L, similar to B.O.D., and breweries again account for an astronomical number - around 5,000mg/L. Unlike B.O.D., though, these can be filtered out and put to other uses instead of watching them circle the drain.
The True Cost of Water
While it may seem straightforward to think of the cost of the water in your brew as simply how much water it took to produce a batch of beer, this logic tends to oversimplify the true cost of the water used in the process. A better way to look at it is like this: pure, drinkable water came into the process, now what will it take to return that water to that original state? Once this is factored in, the equation looks more like this:
Incoming Water + Sewer Fee + Treatment Chemicals + Labor = True Cost of Water
The cost of the incoming water is fairly easy to calculate, in fact, your local municipality probably is more than happy to calculate that for you in their monthly bill. The Sewer Fee however, can be tricky to calculate, but here’s a trick that can help you to communicate with your local wastewater operator. While B.O.D. and T.S.S may be measured in mg/L in your brewery, wastewater treatment plants deal with this “load” in pounds per gallon, and being able to speak that language can streamline your next conversation with them.
The stoichiometry for this conversion is:
Stoichiometry can be a headache, so here’s a simplified equation:
(this equation will work for calculating either B.O.D. or T.S.S.)
Some municipalities may have limits to the levels of B.O.D. or T.S.S. that can acceptably be put down the drain, and one might be tempted to simply dilute a brewery’s effluence with tap water before sending it down the tubes in order to bring it down to those levels. DON’T DO IT! First off, it’s expensive. By doing this, you are literally buying clean, potable water, contaminating it, and then pouring it down the drain. You might as well rip up a handful of hundred dollar bills and toss them in there too, while you’re at it. Secondly, you aren’t changing the overall effluence load, but just diluting it. It’s like watering down a terrible tasting pint of beer into a whole pitcher, and then forcing yourself to drink the pitcher. It will still taste brackish, but now you’ve just got more of it. The bottom line is this: you bought it, you made it, and now you’ve got to suck it up and finish it before you order the next round.
While there is no single “silver bullet” solution to the multifaceted problems of water usage in brewing, there are plenty of simple fixes that, when used in concert, can make a marked change in overall consumption.
Small things like leaky ball valves, hose fittings, and excess overflow may seem like minor annoyances, but over time they can all add up to gallons upon gallons of waste.
Any equipment that isn’t functioning properly will end up costing your brewery money, it’s just a matter of time until that money adds up to something that will be noticeable on the large scale. Instead of waiting to die the death of a thousand cuts, it’s best to stay on top of any failing equipment, and repair or replace them as soon as possible.
Most breweries already do this, but for those who don’t, “what are you doing, man!?” Cars have been using the same closed coolant system for over a hundred years, because it works incredibly well, and it’s efficient. Get with the program!
Calculate Your Water Usage
A basic spreadsheet that tracks your water usage, when compared to your BBL output, can generate valuable metrics that can notify you at the first signs of any inefficiencies. Like a doctor’s stethoscope, this is an indispensable tool for finding the pulse of your brewing operation.
Some wash water used in the cleaning process, if still useable, can be a reused for the initial phases of equipment cleaning. While it won’t get everything squeaky clean the first time, it can lessen the toll taken on your final wash. Over time, a process of re-using wash water can save both time and water.
While some good things may come in small packages, when it comes to how you bottle your beer, the larger the better. Kegs require the least amount of water to clean, followed down the ladder by volume, all the way to the ubiquitous 12oz bottle, which uses exponentially more to clean, sterilize, and package. One great way to save on packaging and bottling costs? Encourage your customers to buy and reuse growlers for your beers. The nominal discount that you can grant for use of a growler will generate brand loyalty with your customers, and save everyone some money.
CIP (Clean in Place)
When avoidable, it’s always advantageous not to disassemble the brewing apparatus in order to clean it. This saves water, labor costs, and time.
Yeast, We Hardly Knew Ye
Yeast is the hardest working member of your staff, arguably the only one that is willing to work itself to death, literally. At the end of each brew, the brewer is left with a residue of recently deceased yeast, oftentimes filtered through diatomaceous earth (microscopic remains from the Miocene age). This macabre mix is a mess for the brewer, but a dream for the farmer. It is high in, silica, residual alcohol, sugars, and on average, contains 40% protein. It can serve as an excellent fertilizer or livestock feed. All a brewer need do is announce mere the existence of it, and he will soon be greeted by grateful farmers willing to haul off that mess at no cost.
Another development in the brewing market is the recent “Haze Craze” in craft brews. 2018 is the first time in over 15 years that hazy beers have outnumbered traditional American IPA entries to the U.S. Commercial Beer Competition, and this trend shows no signs of subsiding. Hazy beers, in addition to a smooth finish, require less filtration, and therefore, less yeast needs to be sent “to the farm upstate”, as they say. Adding more hazy brews to your menu can serve the market, and your pocketbook as well.
The benefits of saving water are innumerable, but certainly measurable. Proper water management will save money and time, but ultimately, it will help to make an already stressed natural resource less endangered. No-one should waste a perfectly good beer, and likewise, water, being the most refreshing beverage on the planet, shouldn’t be squandered either. Next time you pour someone a beer, just remember, it’s only 5% your creation, the rest belongs to all of us, and it’s our responsibility to keep that tap running far into the future.