Padre Dam MWD / Melissa Au
If beer has taught me any lessons, two would be that pizza tastes better with hops, and you can, in fact, have too many session beers. But it turns out that our favorite alcoholic beverage has more knowledge to bestow than this.
“Breweries and taprooms are great places for meeting and having a conversation,” says Channah Rock, an associate professor of water quality at the University of Arizona. The conversation Rock wants to start is about water reuse -- and brewers are getting on board.
As Outside touched on earlier this summer, some breweries are starting to experiment with using recycled water in the brewing process. California-based Ballast Point Brewing Co. and Stone Brewing Co. both crafted experimental, not-for-sale beers using recycled water earlier this year (the Padre Dam Pilsner and Full Circle Pale Ale, respectively). While it’s currently illegal to reuse recycled water for drinking in the United States, the practice is common in countries like Singapore.
“With a lot of people, if we talk about wastewater, they’re going to immediately grimace,” Rock says. “But if we talk about beer with water, people are a little bit more accepting.”
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Recycled water is H2O from the sewer system that’s already been treated for irrigation use (on a golf course, for example). That recycled wastewater then goes through a five-step purification process -- which includes ultrafiltration and UV/advanced oxidation -- that makes it safe to drink. While we’re not so short on water that we need to rely on this process quite yet, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), our water consumption has tripled in the past 50 years, and it’s only expected to continue rising. Managing the supply, the EPA says, “is one of the most critical natural resource issues facing the United States and the world.”
Looking to the beer industry to help explain all of this to the general public makes a lot of sense: Brewing beer is a water-intensive process. It takes four to six pints of water to make one pint of beer -- not to mention the amount used to clean between brews.
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Beyond the legal hurdles, it doesn’t yet make economic sense for breweries to use recycled water -- since it’s not part of the regular water supply, brewers would have to go through extra steps to obtain the water for each batch. But Nate Rey, CEO of Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., says that this new technology is “the right business move. Water is the biggest resource we use.”
Half Moon Bay, located on Pillar Point Harbor about 25 miles south of San Francisco, has a long history of sustainable initiatives. That includes operating the first green-certified restaurant on the San Mateo Coast and recycling its grain with local farmers who use it to feed their pigs. When the idea of brewing beer with recycled water came up at an urban sustainability conference, it sounded like a logical next step to owner Lenny Mendonca.
Two years ago, Half Moon used recycled greywater -- water from bathroom sinks, showers, and washing machines that’s been treated -- from NASA’s Ames Research Center to brew a three-barrel batch of its IPA. In a blind taste test, no one could tell the difference between the greywater- and traditional-brewed beer. “Most of the recycled greywater is like the best water you can get. It’s a canvas,” Rey says. “It allows us to really customize how we want that water to taste before it goes into the beer production.” This fall, the brewery is testing a recycled greywater amber ale.
Right now, the only way the public can taste a recycled water brew is to head to Arizona. The state hosted the Arizona Pure Water Brew Challenge this month for twenty-six participating breweries (Dragoon Brewing won the competition with its Clear Water Pilsner). And similar contests have been held in Oregon, Florida, and California -- mostly with a focus on homebrewers, according to Channah Rock, who is also president of WateReuse Arizona. Even Colorado is getting in on the fun, as three breweries used recycled Arizona water to make beer in small quantities for a private event. Rock and her colleagues helped get a conditional permit for the event so brewers can now sell their concoctions in their tap rooms as long as customers know it contains purified water.
Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. crafted a double IPA for Arizona's Pure Water Challenge. The brewery already has an on-site reverse osmosis system (one of the five steps in the purification process), but it was the crew’s first time using wastewater. They boiled the 500 gallons of water they received from the traveling Brew Challenge truck to remove any chlorine, but otherwise the brewing process was straightforward. “It raised awareness about the cause, and that you can use this water to brew really great beer,” says head brewer Chase Saraiva of the friendly competition. “We work with a lot of farmers in the area, and we know how important water is for agriculture and the water crisis that’s imminent here. Trying to get ahead of it is advantageous.” The double IPA (and a wet hop saison the brewers brewed but didn’t enter into the Challenge) is now available in their Gilbert tap room. Saraiva says customers’ reactions have been overwhelmingly positive.
These beers could eventually become more common. Folks like Channah Rock are working with local governments to change the current regulations. No states have approval to use purified wastewater for drinking, but the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is currently reviewing the rules, and could allow wastewater to be treated for drinking in the state by next year, she says.
Until then, breweries will keep playing around with the ingredient to see how it influences the taste of their beers. “It’s an eye-opening experience for breweries when they’re first shown water that looks perfect on paper, and are then told they can’t put it into the drinking system,” says Julia Cain, director of research and development for Ballast Point. (The brewery gave most of its Padre Dam Pilsner to the Padre Dam Municipal Water District for a water conservation event; those same folks also provided the wastewater needed for brewing.) “Normally we have water that has high mineral and salt content, so this was a chance for us to brew a beer that had a different water profile,” Cain says. “It’s great water to brew beer with.”