How Protecting Streams and Wetlands Makes for Great Beer

What do healthy streams and wetlands have to do with making the best beer? A lot, it turns out.

The Secret's in the Water

The flavor of your favorite beer isn't all about hops and malt. Beer is about 90 percent water, making local water supply quality and its characteristics, such as pH and mineral content, critical to beer brewing and the flavor of many classic brews. For example, the unusually soft water of Pilsen, from the Czech Republic, helped create what is considered the original gold standard of pilsner beers. The clarity and hoppiness of England's finest India Pale Ales, brewed since the 1700s in Burton-on-Trent, result from relatively high levels of calcium in local water.

Brewers can replicate the flavor of beers like these by either finding water supplies with similar features, or starting with clean, neutral-tasting water and adding minerals and salts to match the characteristics of the original source waters.

Beer is about 90 percent water, and the quality of local water supplies has been critical to brewing beer for centuries.

For brewers using municipal supplies, water treatment makes a big difference in their operations. When contaminants are filtered out, so are minerals that brewers actually want in the water and when chemicals are added in, such as chlorine for killing microbes, they must come out to achieve a neutral taste in the brewing water.

The way a municipal water supply is treated has a lot to do with the quality of its source water to begin with.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, drinking water has to meet specific health standards, meaning that the quality of water entering into public drinking water systems must be clean already or cleaned before distribution. Cleaner source water requires less treatment by local water utilities to make it safe for drinking. Less treatment means breweries may have to do less work to prepare water for brewing. Not to mention, it's less costly to the public water system to clean, saving consumers money.

Beyond Beer

Streams and wetlands provide more reliable and cleaner water supplies, and that improves the quantity and quality of water available to brewers and the rest of us. By helping filter out water pollution, these sources also reduce the cleanup burden on water providers. Government scientists recognize that "a close connection exists between the water quality of [headwater] streams and the water quality of downstream water bodies."

Cleaner source water requires less treatment. Less treatment means breweries may have to do less work to prepare water for brewing.

Streams and wetlands also help maintain water quantity and ensure a reliable supply. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 117 million Americans get their drinking water from public water systems that draw some of their supply from headwater and non-perennial streams. Small and headwater streams can also be sources for much of the water that flows through larger rivers. For example, "[U.S. Geological Survey] USGS models show that headwater streams in the northeastern United States contribute 55 percent of mean annual water volume to fourth- and higher-order streams and rivers." This means that smaller streams have a big part in providing a reliable water supply. Similarly, wetlands that recharge groundwater help maintain water in streams (because stream flows are significantly dependent on groundwater); this helps provide a more reliable supply during dry periods.

The Future of Our Water -- and Beer!

We can thank the Clean Water Act for the clean and abundant water that makes great beer possible. It provides safeguards that protect not only the water that brewers use from upstream pollution, but also brewers' downstream neighbors. As a result, our nation's waters are far cleaner today than they were 40 years ago when the act was first passed.

That's good for brewing and for our communities. Many healthy streams and wetlands help secure a cleaner, more affordable, and more reliable water supply for all the ways in which we use it. From the tap water we use for drinking and bathing to the lakes, rivers, and beaches where we swim, fish, and boat, streams and wetlands play a major role in the health of our water.

Wetlands and streams help ensure more reliable, cleaner water supplies.

Right now, however, some of the progress we've made over the past several decades is at risk. Headwater streams and wetlands are in legal limbo, awaiting guidance that the Obama administration has drafted but not released. The guidelines clarify which water bodies are covered by the Clean Water Act, after two Supreme Court decisions (in 2001 and 2006) and guidance from the previous administration cast uncertainty on the intent of the original legislation, imperiling protection for millions of miles of streams, millions of acres of wetlands, and other waters.

You can help secure the future of our water by taking action now and urging the Obama administration to finalize its guidance and ensure better Clean Water Act protection for headwater streams and wetlands.

We Need Water

Clean water is essential to great-tasting beer. Even more, it's critical for public health and the health of a wide range of industries. That's why the Natural Resources Defense Council is teaming up with craft brewing companies to stand up for clean water and to enforce the Clean Water Act.

For centuries, brewers have depended on clean, plentiful water supplies to craft the world's greatest beers. Our water supplies depend on responsible regulations that fight pollution and protect drinking water at its source by keeping small streams and wetlands healthy.

Water Needs Us

Now our streams, wetlands, and water supply need our help. Without strong legal protections, they are under threat from pollution like sewage, agricultural waste, and oil spills.

You can help defend clean water and great beer by taking action today.

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Clean Water and the Brewing Process

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