The practice of reclaiming wastewater is gaining momentum, and some in the brewing industry are leading the charge.
Stone Brewing
Credit: John Schulz

I understand beer better than I understand water. Even as a professional beer writer, it was a bit surprising to realize this. Granted, beer is my livelihood, but I literally need water to stay alive. You’d think as a substance that we continuously interact with on a daily basis to maintain our very survival, water would be something everyone would be relatively knowledgeable about, but instead, many of us take water for granted, and when we turn on our taps, we’re embarrassingly ignorant of the path that water took to reach us.

Thankfully, beer is here to lower our inhibitions when it comes to talking about water… specifically, the idea of the potable reuse of reclaimed wastewater. Though some people may still be turned off by the idea of drinking something that may have once been sewage, more and more breweries are using recycled water to prove that the technology already exists to create a more sustainable water system.

“All water is recycled water and we should be judging water based on its quality not it history,” explains Mark Jockers, Government & Public Affairs Manager for Clean Water Services, a water resources management utility that operates four wastewater treatment plants in suburban Portland, Oregon. Clean Water Services likes to stress that the global water system is, for all intents and purposes, a “closed system”—water doesn’t really get created or lost on Earth, it simply “moves through a cycle of use and reuse.” To put a finer point on it, the clean water of today could well have been a dinosaur’s toilet millions of years ago.

In 2014, Clean Water Services helped jumpstart the movement of using reclaimed water to brew beer when the utility helped launch the Pure Water Brew competition in its home state at the suggestion of Art Larrance, a owner of Cascade Brewing Co. and co-founder of the Oregon Brewers Festival. “Brewers understand water,” says Jockers. “It’s an underappreciated, but critical component for any beer. And because water is so important to their craft, brewers recognize the need to use this precious resource sustainably.”

Pure Water Brew enlisted the help of the local homebrewing association Oregon Brew Crew who put the challenge of brewing with reclaimed wastewater out to its members. “From a homebrewers standpoint, this water is not only of the highest quality to brew with, but also it provides them with a blank canvas,” explains Brian Haslip, the Brew Crew’s vice president. “Let's take Portland city water as an example…. Many consider it to be one of the best in the US. But there are variations from day to day with the mineral content, and at times after little to no rain, or even high rain events, the city is forced to use a different supply which means the composition of the water completely changes. This means making adjustments to the water using mineral salts to change the Ph, Hardness and Alkalinity. All these can affect the flavor of your beer…. Starting with a ‘zero’ water simplifies that.”

For these exact reasons, many professional breweries already filter their municipal water. That’s one of the first steps at Stone Brewing’s main facility in Escondido, California. “We get the same water that everybody else gets coming out of our faucets but then we clean it up further,” Greg Koch, co-founder of Stone, America’s ninth largest craft brewery, tells me. Interestingly, a similar process happens on the backend as well, but with a different result. “We are [also] able to clean our brewery wastewater to beyond municipal standards,” he explains. “However, none of that water ends up in our beer. We’re not allowed to. Instead, what we do is we clean it up, and then we dump it down the drain. It then goes to the municipal system. It gets cleaned up again and then it outfalls to the ocean. This is insane. It’s foolish and it’s not responsible to the community or the people here, but this is the legal requirement.”

Hoping to help raise awareness of this issue, which hits brewers in drought-prone California especially hard, earlier this year, Stone brewed a beer called Full Circle Pale Ale with reclaimed wastewater to support nearby San Diego’s Pure Water program—a government effort to source a third of the city’s water from recycling technology by 2035. However, Stone’s recognizable name, along with the click-worthy storyline of a beer brewed from “sewage” led to a litany of jokes at the brewery’s expense instead of a better understanding of the implications of a serious problem. “The bottom line is it simply hasn’t been normalized,” Koch laments. If the use of reclaimed water was normalized, Koch says this would almost immediately become a non-issue. “We would join with other water users in our region – breweries and homeowners and businesses – in adopting a responsible reclaimed water system.” Ironically, enough, despite the hoopla surrounding Full Circle Pale Ale, Koch also points out that nearby Orange County already uses a form of reclaimed water in its municipal water system.

And so, as Stone’s efforts prove, the battle for normalization is still being fought. Luckily, plenty of brewers are willing to take up the cause. Last month, a pair of California breweries—Seismic Brewing and Barrel Brothers Brewing—teamed up with Boston’s Cambrian Innovation, a wastewater treatment services company, to try and convince drinkers of recycled water’s potability by using one of the oldest tricks in the book: a side-by-side taste test. The two breweries created otherwise identical beers, but one was made with tap water and the other was made with water recycled from the brewery. “While we don’t have exact numbers, the vast majority of people who tasted the beers preferred the recycled water brew over the city water brew,” Patrick Delves, Seismic’s Director of Sustainability and Logistics, tells me. “Many people could not tell any difference between the two beers. This point perfectly illustrates why we decided to do this collaboration brew in the first place: We are trying to show folks that recycled water is not only clean and safe to drink, but delicious as well.”

But as breweries continue to think up new ways to advance the cause of reclaimed water, one major question remains: Why is this breweries’ cross to bear? Why aren’t soda or soup companies out there trying to grab headlines? “The craft beer industry is known for being extremely innovative, and for being committed to their communities and the environment,” says Claire Aviles, Marketing and Communications Manager for Cambrian Innovation. “It's no surprise that many breweries have begun to explore recycling and reuse as a way to both hedge against economic and environmental risks, and give back.”

And of course, beer has its own appeal as well. To many people trying a unique beer sounds adventurous; trying a different kind of water sounds like a good way to get sick. “We often talk about perception, and if you put two glasses in front of someone, one with pure water processed from effluent (waste water) and the other a beer brewed using the same water, most people are likely to try the beer before the water,” Haslip explains. “Getting people past the ‘ick’ factor is working, and it's the beer that helps bring the conversation to the table. To use a phrase from one of our club members… ‘All water aspires to become beer!’” Especially water that is, let’s just say, down on its luck.