Save Water, Drink Beer?
Photo by TheGiantVermin via Flickr
"It ain’t rained in four month/ one cigarette spark will burn the whole town up/ that ‘ole well is plum dry/ the city put a limit on the water you can buy/ We don’t mind ‘cause ‘round here/ We save water and drink beer” are the lyrics to a popular country song by Chris Young.
"Save water, drink beer” is an adage with a longer history than the new country star's catchy tune. But does drinking beer really save water?
Water constraints have defined the development and identity of the American West. Today, the region's water is under enormous stress due to multiple-year droughts in both California and the Colorado River Basin. Complex water management policies and aging infrastructure place increasing pressure on water managers to sustainably manage the West’s most precious resource. Businesses are beginning to tackle the challenges of increasing water stress as the implications of operational, reputational, and regulatory risks of water scarcity become clear. In addition, a 2009 public opinion study by Circle of Blue and GlobeScan on water issues found that 78 percent of the general public believes that solving drinking water problems will require significant help from companies.
The beverage and brewing industry’s reliance on water—both in supply chain and operation—stands out as a critical business issue. New Belgium Brewery, a regional craft brewer in Fort Collins, Colorado stated in 2009:
Water is over 90% of our product. In 2006, we required 3.9 hectoliter of water to make 1 hectoliter of beer. Living in the arid west, with a river running through the middle of our town, water is an important regional issue.
Craft breweries, defined by an annual sales or output volume between 15,000 to 1,000,000 barrels, are a relatively recent sector within the U.S. brewing market, and the sector has experienced explosive growth. Over the past 30 years, the number of craft brewers has increased from eight in 1980 to 1,716 in 2010 according to the Craft Brewers Association. To date, no study has focused on water stewardship of the industry at a regional level, though disclosure of water risk for global corporations has recently been spreading. Work done by the Carbon Disclosure Project, the Global Reporting Initiative, and Ceres stand out in the realm of corporate water risk disclosure.
SABMiller, one of the world’s leading brewers, recently partnered with World Wildlife Fund to conduct a study examining their global water footprint throughout their value chain from crop production to distribution of products. The study found that the water footprint of SABMiller’s total brewing operations ranged from 61 liters of water per liter of beer produced to 180 liters of water per liter of beer produced. According to the Water Footprint Network, “it takes 20 gallons or 75 liters of water to make one 250mL glass of beer.” The industry average water consumption during the production process is generally in the range of 4 to 10 liters per liter of beer produced. This broad range of water used to produce beer is a significant business risk—or opportunity—in the water stressed West.
Over the next six months, I will continue to explore water management in the craft brewing industry, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Along the way, I hope to share a series of stories of water management challenges and water stewardship successes in a regional quest to understand the relationship of craft brewers and water resources in the west.
Read more about the SAB Miller and WWF water footprint study
Listen to "Save Water Drink Beer" by Chris Young
Heather West is a Program & Research Associate at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Her research focuses on benchmarking water management practices in the craft brewing industry.