Want Great Beer? You Need Clean Water.


Some archeologists think humans learned how to make beer before bread—beer is that fundamental to human civilization. We know they were making beer at least 7,000 years ago, in what is now Iran. Ancient Sumerians, about 5,000 years ago, spiced their beer with cardamom and coriander. In 16th century Belgium, monks flavored their brew with bitter orange peels. I’ve always favored Belgian beer myself--my mother is Belgian—but I confess I’ve never sampled this version.

Back then, beer (or ale) was sometimes a safer alternative to water, especially if you didn’t know where your water was coming from—heating during the brewing process would kill off most pathogens. Today, modern brewers rely on clean water to make their product. Because no matter how carefully craft brewers tweak their malt and hops and strains of yeast, at the end of the day, beer is about 90 percent water. That’s why craft brewers across the country are rallying behind the Clean Water Act, our nation’s fundamental safeguard for water.

“Without clean water, we can’t make great beer,” says Dave Engbers, cofounder of Founders Brewing, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Engbers is one of a growing number of craft brewers who have teamed up with NRDC to speak out for clean water. These brewers recently signed a letter to the President—probably America’s most famous home brewer--in support of strengthening clean water protections.

For Matt Greff, the owner of Arbor Brewing Company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the importance of clean water really hit home as he began work on a brew pub in Bangalore, India, where pub culture is strong—but clean water protections are not. Without the benefit of strong clean water laws, finding a source of fresh water in India was costly and difficult; after sourcing it, the company still has to run the water through a reverse osmosis filter to get the quality they need. “Working in India really drove home to us the importance of a clean, fresh water supply,” says Greff. “It’s important that we, as business owners, look forward to ensure that the water sources we have stay in the condition that they’re in--and improve.”

New Belgium Brewing Company, the Colorado-based craft brewery, takes water very seriously. In its Fort Collins brewery, half of New Belgium’s water comes from the local Poudre River, and the other half from the Colorado River. Melting snowpack from the mountains drives the flow of these rivers, and that snowpack is lessening as the climate warms. Recognizing the stresses on its water supply, the company strives to be as water-efficient as possible, using just 3 gallons of water to make a gallon of beer, as opposed to the industry average of 7 gallons.

At its new brewery, under construction in Asheville, North Carolina, New Belgium plans to implement a suite of innovative features designed to reduce water waste and control pollution. They are fortifying the perimeter of their 18-acre riverfront site with constructed wetlands, which will help absorb and filter rainwater before it flows into the French Broad River, which fronts the brewery. Rainwater can carry pollution from roads, parking lots and rooftops into rivers, lakes and streams. This stormwater is actually one of the biggest sources of water pollution in the country. By capturing the rain where it falls and filtering it before it reaches the river, wetlands provide crucial flood and pollution control. 

New Belgium is also working with the city of Asheville to rehabilitate a seasonal stream that runs through the site, which will also help manage and filter the flow of polluted stormwater. Nearly two million miles of streams like this have been in legal limbo for more than a decade; muddled Supreme Court decisions and Bush-era policies have left pollution control officials unsure if the Clean Water Act protects them from unregulated dumping or destruction. Twenty percent of wetlands in the continental United States have also been effectively cut out of the law, and many more lack clear protections due to this confusion. According to the New York Times, EPA regulators said that in just a four-year period, more than 1,500 water pollution investigations involving oil spills, carcinogenic chemicals and dangerous bacteria in lakes, rivers, and other water bodies, were stopped or put on ice.

President Obama can make a key move to strengthen protection for these waters. His administration has strong new guidelines, consistent with the science showing how critical they are to the aquatic ecosystems, which will help resolve this confusion and better protect these resources. The White House, however, has inexplicably delayed putting them into effect. Craft brewers are calling on the President to move forward with these protections, which will help ensure a clean water supply not only for their businesses, but for the 117 million people who rely on these rivers and streams for drinking water, and the millions of homeowners who live in flood-prone areas and need the flood protection that healthy wetlands can provide.

Throughout history, brewers have been an innovative lot. Ensuring continued access to clean water will require more innovation, like we’ve seen from these craft brewers, as well as a bit of something that beer is often called upon to bring about: consensus. So add your voice to the chorus. Raise your glass this holiday weekend to some hard-working craft brewers, and join them in urging the President to act now to protect clean water.