Craft brewers meet to discuss and pitch ideas for water conservation

GRAND RAPIDS — Roughly 90% of beer, from the process to the product, is water. Dave Engbers of Founders Brewing Co. put it simply, “We can’t brew the great beer that we do without great water.”

This was the overwhelming consensus at the sixth annual Great Lakes Water Conservation Conference for craft brewers and policy makers. The three-day conference kicked off on Tuesday evening with beer tastings and sustainability-focused tours at Founders.

The following day was packed with presentations, both informative and innovative, that focused on the importance of clean water to the craft brew industry especially in regards to the triple bottom line of sustainable business practices — society, economy, and environment. Presenters ranged from brewers and brewery representatives, to environmentalists, policy players and engineering firms.

Noting Grand Rapids’ “shameful history” of abusing the Grand River, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell kicked off the day of sessions on Wednesday. In recent years, Grand Rapids has “completely reshaped” the way they think about the Grand and have begun tailoring policy and practices to reclaim the river’s ecology and capitalize on the quality of life benefits, such as recreation, public health and pride of place.

Heartwell also touched on the importance of our water resources in the face of climate change, with many concerned beer industry participants echoing those sentiments throughout the conference.

Marc Smith, policy director at the National Wildlife Federation Ann Arbor, put water use in the Great Lakes Region into perspective. Only 2% of the earth’s water is fresh water. The Great Lakes make up 20% of that and constitute 95% of North America’s total fresh water supply. Smith stressed that the lakes “may seem huge and vast, but they are so fragile.”

Stephanie Mabie and Brian Keeley, co-executive directors of Kent County Water Conservation disussed the negative impacts that hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as ‘fracking’) has on fresh water resources and the acute impacts this has on the beer industry.

Fracking uses an astonishing amount of fresh water, up to 35 million gallons per well, to bust cracks in deep bedrock to release and collect pockets of natural gas. Dangerous chemical cocktails are required to mix with the fresh water and aid in this release. The process also releases naturally occurring radioactive materials into the fracking fluid. This consumptive use of fresh water renders the millions of gallons required for the operation useless, and huge amounts of water are removed from the water cycle permanently.

This has prompted brewers in Colorado to call for a moratorium on fracking operations as the extreme water consumption threatening brewing operations. In Michigan, brewers such as New Holland and Grand Rapids Brewing Co. are rallying the cause and brewing under the “No Fr@cking Way” moniker.

Barfly Ventures, owner of Grand Rapids Brewing Co., hosts events for the No Fr@cking Way Clean Beer Initiative to raise awareness. There is gathering momentum in the craft brew industry to call for a moratorium in Michigan through a petition intended for the Govenor’s desk.

While the Great Lake Compact currently halts efforts to divert water outside of the region to the thirsty parts of the world, Smith and others — including Engbers, Bell’s Brewery’s Sustainability Specialist Walker Modic, Goose Island Brewing’s Ian Hughes and Chuck Skypeck of the Brewers Association — encouraged craft brewers to take on water use issues as their own as part of a better business model.

Ultimately, preventative measures cost less in the long term. Modic emphasized the disparity between the low cost of water in dollars and the high value water has to the industry. He encouraged brewers to plan ahead for an all too realistic future where fresh water resources may not be so readily available by adopting water conservation practices now and consuming water based on its value to your business, rather than the cost.

Engbers added that craft brewers are in a unique position within their community to reach a very dedicated and engaged consumer base, and to make environmental issues a priority. “Beer is the conduit that brings all different walks of life together,” he said. “We are influencers — we essentially have a soapbox to stand on.”

Other presenters — James Hazlett and Jin Tao of Williams Creek Consulting with Clay Robinson of Sun King Brewing in Indiana; Jaime Jurado, Director of Brewing operations at Abita Brewing in Louisiana; Tyler Glaze, Quality Manager of Short’s Brewing in northern Michigan; and Ian Hughes of Goose Island in Chicago — discussed the varied waste water challenges of breweries of different sizes and resources.

“A conference like this is really valuable because brewers are dealing with a lot of similar problems,” said Glaze.

Just as breweries all have a different approach to beer, each has a different approach to remedying water consumption issues. The main focus was on reducing BODs (biochemical oxygen demand) and TSSs (total suspended solids) through innovative technologies and collaborative community partnerships. These actions centered around reusing what has traditionally been referred to as “waste water,” though as Modic and others suggested this material actually has many uses and should not be considered lost water, but an opportunity.

The presentation wrapped up with a motivating look into the internal structure of Brewery Vivant and Barfly Venture’s approach to employee happiness. While founder Jason Spaulding still dreams of the day when all of Vivant’s wild sustainability practicing dreams can become realities, he and his wife have devoted time, education and resources to creating a collaborative and inclusive working environment for their employees.

The brewery actively seeks out and trains individuals whose sustainability outlook meshes with its own. Spaulding implored brewers to make sustainability a key part of their company and build a culture around it.

Meanwhile, as Barfly Ventures continues to grow, Garry Boyd explained how the company also continues to reduce waste and energy consumption through measures as simple as turning off the lights during the daytimes and recycling, to more integrated measures such as creating a full time position for sustainability and green innovation coordinator, Autumn Sands.

The Great Lakes Water Conservation Conference for craft brewers and policy makers is a completely voluntary operation, put together by conservationist and beer culinarian Lucy Saunders and her husband.

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