What goes into a good craft beer is readily debatable — a topic that invites exuberant discourse and a night of clinking glasses. But Michigan craft brewers largely agree about one thing: Good water quality is essential. That’s why more brewers are looking at how to conserve it.
“Water makes up 86 to 95 percent of the content, depending on the style. That makes it pretty important,” says Walker Modic, sustainability specialist for Kalamazoo’s Bell’s Brewery Inc., the seventh-largest craft beer brewer in the United States. “Look at Toledo and the recent algae bloom. If you rely on Lake Erie water, you have a problem. You’re not making beer anymore.”
Water’s contents affect taste, be it chlorine or well-water minerals, according to Modic. Brewers work to secure reliable water supplies and filter or treat it before filling the beer vats.
But the importance of clean water goes beyond what flows into those tanks. An increasing number of craft brewers are beginning to treat their waste water on-site, an expensive process that allows it to be reused, saves money and is kinder to the environment.
According to the Beer Institute, a Washington D.C. organization representing the U.S. beer industry, brewers now also recycle more bottles and cans and even brewer’s yeasts and grains — a practice that supplies the nation’s dairy cattle with eight percent of its feed. Recapturing yeast and protein-laden waste water allows solids to be treated for future use as fertilizer.
“Responsible-growth breweries are seeking ways to maximize use and reuse water,” notes beer cookbook author, Lucy Saunders, organizer of the Great Lakes Craft Brewers Water Conservation Conference held in Grand Rapids this past fall. “That number is growing. It makes good business sense and makes brewers better neighbors in their communities.”
The annual conference draws about 100 regional brewers, according to Saunders. They attend to learn and share information about the newest and best practices for smart water use and conservation. Modic gave a presentation there about Bell’s on-site waste water treatment process.
For a complete list of brewers that took the NRDC Clean Water Pledge, see nrdc.org/water/brewers-for-clean-water.
Bell’s is one of several Michigan craft-beer companies that support or partner with environmental groups like the Alliance for the Great Lakes or the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental advocacy group. NRDC created the Brewers for Clean Water campaign. Founders Brewing Co. and Brewery Vivant, both in Grand Rapids, took its “Clean Water Pledge”; Brewery Vivant is also the first microbrewery in the nation to become LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). And Tyler Glaze, operations manager for Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire, says his company is investing $1.55 million to build an on-site waste treatment plant for just “low-level” brewing wastes. The process will recover water that can be reused for irrigation or even brewery toilets, he explains. Its high-strength wastes are trucked to a Fremont firm that buys and processes it to make natural gas that is then sold.
The on-site investment, Glaze says, will save money and allow for growth by directing clean water to the small community’s limited water treatment system.
“It makes sense to lessen your impact on everyone else and minimize the impact of a by-product,” he advocates. “We will have clean water going in and clean water coming out.”
Award-winning writer and BLUE Undercurrents columnist Howard Meyerson resides in Grand Rapids.