Tastes Great, Less Drilling

Craft brewers unite to save beer's most important ingredient: water.

Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr

The Bavarian beer purity law of 1516, known as the Reinheitsgebot, limited brewers to three ingredients: barley, hops, and water. For 498 years, water has trailed distantly behind the other two ingredients in the hearts of beer drinkers. Some people like malty beer. Others like hoppy beer. No one likes watery beer.

When I started brewing my own beer, I, too, focused on barley and hops. I dumped nine kinds of malt and four types of hops into every recipe, like a kid experimenting with all the buttons and dials on his new electronic keyboard. I had the luxury of assuming that the water coming out of my faucet was good enough—within a normal range of minerals, low in chlorine, and reasonably sanitary.

Once you start worrying about the subtleties, though—the little things that make a good beer great—you have to start thinking a lot about water. Want to brew a true India Pale Ale? Better have a huge amount of calcium sulfate in the water to get the characteristic hoppy bite. Love a stout? Make sure the water is high in bicarbonate, as it is in Dublin, the home of Guinness. Some styles are so sensitive to water chemistry that they can only be brewed in certain places. Water flowing into the Bohemian city of Pilsen in the Czech Republic, for example, has less than ten parts per million of calcium and three parts per million of magnesium. That kind of water is found in very few places on earth, and treating water to those levels of purity on a commercial brewing scale is difficult. That’s one reason why even high-end American Pilsners don’t entirely replicate the traditional style.

Commercial brewers know this better than anyone, and they’re bringing attention to the issue of clean, safe water, which is at risk in many parts of the United States from pollution, agricultural runoff, and the oil-and-gas-drilling technique known as fracking.

On Thursday, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy spoke at Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery and showed off some of her own brewing nous, pointing out that “what’s always made Milwaukee such a great city for beer is its water supply.” (She’s right: Milwaukee’s historic water composition roughly approximates that of cities in northern Europe, making it a pretty good place to brew a lager.)

If we don’t protect our inland waterways, however, it won’t stay that way. The Clean Water Act is arguably the most important piece of water legislation in our nation’s history. The law, passed in 1972, set strict penalties for dumping pollutants into navigable waters and instituted a permit system to limit the discharge of industrial pollutants into our lakes, rivers, and streams. In 2001 and 2006, however, a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings undercut the act. The court essentially took wetlands out from under the its protective umbrella and imposed a series of strict new tests that further limited the law’s application. The two decisions left 20 million acres of wetlands and 2 million miles of streams practically unprotected under federal law (see “More Than a Drop in the Bucket”).

The New York Times reported on the rulings’ consequences in 2010:

[S]ome businesses are declaring that the law no longer applies to them. And pollution rates are rising. Companies that have spilled oil, carcinogens and dangerous bacteria into lakes, rivers and other waters are not being prosecuted, according to Environmental Protection Agency regulators working on those cases, who estimate that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have been discontinued or shelved in the last four years.

Despite the unofficial motto of the brewing community—“relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew”—brewers have rallied to both restore the Clean Water Act’s protections and call attention to the potential dangers posed by fracking. (Disclosure: NRDC, which publishes Earthwire, has helped organize some of these efforts with a “Brewers for Clean Water” campaign.) Brewers have written to President Obama about the importance of clarifying the law and bringing vulnerable waters back into the Clean Water Act fold. Colorado’s New Belgium brewery sent a representative to testify before Congress about the importance of clean water protection. Today Ian Hughes of Goose Island Brewery will appear at a SXSW Eco panel in Austin, Texas, to talk about the importance of clean water in brewing.

We can’t mess around here, people. Beer is at stake. For example, if we have to heavily chlorinate our water to ward off unwanted microbes, brewers will have to add yet more chemicals to remove the chlorine. Otherwise, the beer could take on an extremely unpleasant vinyl flavor.

Barley, hops, water, and chemicals. That’s one ingredient too many. The 16th-century Bavarian brewers would not approve.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Join Us