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Drought on Draft

What Does The Dry Spell Mean for Local Brewers?

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It’s a growing maxim in the world of economics: “Water is the new oil.”

And the continuing realities of the current drought are bringing all its uses into question, everything from lawns to outdoor recreation to agriculture. Even, gasp, beer.

While being nowhere near as big a waterhog as meat or almonds, the brewing process can use as much as ten gallons of water to produce a single gallon of grog, hardly a drought-friendly ratio. It’s a big part of why several Western U.S. brewing operations have opened new breweries in the water-rich Smoky Mountain area, and many large breweries are xeroscaping their campuses to improve efficiency.

However, according to Larry Chase, head brewer for Standing Stone in Ashland, that seeming water-suck isn’t really a central issue for brewers.

The first reason is that a major component of breweries water usage is the packaging, not the brewing.

“Mostly, cleaning and rinsing,” he says.

The sanitation requirements for brewing are strict, with even the tiniest contaminants interacting with the yeast and altering the flavor, sometimes to the point of undrinkability. Chase says at least 30 percent of a brewery’s water-usage can go to cleaning and sanitize packaging to ensure flavor.

“Since our packaging is 300 gallon tanks, we have a significantly reduced packaging,” says Chase. “Our packaging is next to zero. We have to clean and sanitize the tanks, but after that, it’s done.”

That significantly improves efficiency and makes buying a pint from a local pub instead of a six-pack from the store both better for the economy and better for the environment. Working on getting the most efficiency from sanitation procedures can bring the ratio down closer to three to one. Chase also says working to minimize wastewater sent to treatment plants can also do more to cut costs than reducing water-usage.

Water is an issue Chase pays especially close attention to. He was even invited as a speaker at a water usage conference organized by hydrologist Robert Coffan earlier this year.

“All the stakeholders in the Rogue Valley who are intimately involved with the water commission, from the Game and Fish to Jackson County Soil Commission to some climatologists had a full day roundtable,” he says.

Chase discussed his experiences as a water super-user, including his attempts to be more efficient.

“I think about it in a few ways,” he says. “One is water conservation for sure. If I can’t use water, I can’t make beer. And beer is a big part of our business.”

One thing Chase would like to do is replace his single water meter with multiple water meters at various points in the brewing process.

“If you measure something, then you know where you’re at and then you can take steps to lower that usage,” he says. “It’s not complicated. It’s not expensive. It’s a level of awareness.”

The Water and Wastewater Sustainability Manual, published by the Boulder-based Brewers Association offers more ways to be more efficient with water-use.

Chase says probably the biggest issue brewers face with water shortages is one that everybody else faces: agriculture.

“Reduced water means reduced yields,” he says. “You’re still going to get a crop, but there’s a question of what that yield will be like.”

It’s especially an issue for breweries attempting to source beer ingredients locally. Two major hops growing regions, the Willamette and Yakima valleys are both experiencing drought conditions as well. He gets a great deal of ingredients from the notoriously water-challenged Klamath Basin.

“It’s going to be a challenging summer for growers there,” says Chase.


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