The Good News About Water and Brews

Whether you enjoy drinking a cold brew from one of North Carolina’s craft breweries or are just vaguely aware of their existence, you may be surprised at the impact that this industry is making in North Carolina.  With 120 breweries operating and another 30 breweries set to launch their wares to the public soon, this thriving industry is here to stay.  The NCWSN was interested in learning how this relates to water stewardship in our state, so we invited breweries to join us in a discussion at RiverLink in Asheville. Asheville is turning into a mecca of sorts for craft brewery fans. The Triangle, Charlotte, Triad, and Wilmington areas are also sporting their own brewery clusters with small towns across the state hosting breweries, too. We had a great chat with breweries representing a wide variety of sizes, from 1-barrel Bearwaters Brewing to big-hitter New Belgium Brewing (who don’t hide their feelings about water as evidenced by the above photo they shared).  So here is the good news about water and brews:

The brewery industry enjoys a strong collaborative spirit.  Kevin Sandifur, from Waynesville’s Bearwaters Brewing, says this collaborative spirit is one of the aspects he appreciates most about the industry, and one that may be very beneficial for water protection in North Carolina.  Breweries share their best practices with each other, through industry associations like the Asheville Brewers Alliance and NC Brewers’ Guild, and informally (like at the NCWSN meeting!).  New Belgium Brewing Company has taken collaboration on water to the next level in Colorado, with a watershed based collaborative called BreWater.  This group of brewers meets quarterly to learn about their watershed from utilities, conservation groups and other experts, and work together and individually to support water protection.  New Belgium is interested in exploring similar collaborations as they open their new Asheville brewery in 2016.

Breweries value water, and would like to become better water stewards.  “Water is a vital part of what we do,” says Sandifur. “No water, no beer,” quips Paul Breeding from Lonerider Brewery while speaking to WSN steering committee members in Raleigh.  He comments that many craft brewers and consumers are “water people- we want to enjoy it, too” referring to outdoor recreation like kayaking. The typical amount of water used throughout the entire production process is somewhere around 5-6 litres for 1 litre of beer. This industry water footprint is decreasing as many companies make efforts to reduce consumption (source- the Guardian).  Much of the water used is for irrigating the source crop or grain.  Katie Wallace with New Belgium shared actions they have taken, including certification as a B Corporation; measuring water and greenhouse gas footprints across the entire beer production practice; treating storm water and restoring a stream at their new Asheville brewery above and beyond what is required; and using graywater in their cooling towers at their Colorado brewery.  Even small breweries can take actions to reduce water consumption and pollution and educate their fans.  Noah McIntee, from Lazy Hiker Brewing Company in Franklin, is monitoring water leaving the brewery in an effort to understand how to reduce impacts on the local wastewater treatment plant.  Sandifer created a low cost energy savings “wet down” system to cool Bearwaters’ rooftop using collected rainwater (he got the idea from a Farm Bureau article about cooling livestock houses). Small breweries are often tapped (pun intended), and could use help learning about and implementing low cost ways to improve their water stewardship, and about the many benefits of doing so.

Breweries support local NC economies.  The increasing number of breweries opening in NC means jobs – jobs that depend upon reliable and clean water.  McIntee commented that craft breweries are known for and proud of their inefficiencies in the work force- they hire a lot of people and create jobs!  However, he points out, “We can’t be inefficient with our natural resources. We can seek multiple sources for yeast and malt, but not water.”  Anne-Fitten Glen, Asheville Brewers Alliance, said that while breweries have been attracted to NC because of its abundance of water, this highlights its value and the need to manage water use to prevent economic development issues in the industry moving forward. As large craft breweries expand eastward (such as New Belgium and Sierra Nevada in NC), they not only bring economic development opportunities, but their ethics and sustainability practices. Smaller breweries stand to benefit from their experiences and resources.

Beer brings people together. All the brewery peeps we talked to are, like McIntee, enthused about the opportunities to “leverage the loud voice and public adoration of breweries for good.” And according to Wallace, beer is well poised to bring water protection to the public. This is in part because breweries are actively engaged in their communities – most have taprooms for customers to visit and enjoy their wares, and many participate in community events. NCWSN and brewery guests came up with a great list of ideas to work together on advancing water stewardship: create interesting materials on water and beer to share in taprooms; encourage brewery employees (even non-brewers) to represent breweries at local watershed events and partnership meetings; work together to install small and educational practices like rain gardens and cisterns at breweries; share NC watershed resources with breweries via existing industry groups like Asheville Brewers Alliance and NC Brewers Guild; and our favorite – collaborate on an educational campaign to get people in NC to care more about water.

A shout out to craft brewers – this part is just for you! Water protection comes with good PR, just make sure you really are doing something to protect water to keep your credibility with customers.  Here are a few things you can do:

  • Know your water “footprint” (how much water you use). NC Division of Environmental Quality offers free water and energy audits- call 1-877-623-6748 for more information.
  • Learn about your community’s water efforts by connecting with a local watershed group, municipal stormwater or sustainability staff, or resource agencies like your county’s Soil and Water Conservation District or Cooperative Extension service (every county has these).
  • The NCWSN’s new online map can help locate groups in your community- if you don’t see any there yet, check back again- more groups are signing on as they learn about the site.
  • Learn together – get together with other breweries as a group and invite a guest speaker on a water topic. (see above list of local resources-  they can hook you up!)
  • Encourage all employees to get together and brainstorm ways to reduce water use and pollution.

Watershed steward tips-  Breweries get a lot of requests for donations and sponsorships.  Here are some tips for working with your local craft brewers:

  • Provide something helpful – short, simple, easy-to-read educational materials on ways to improve water practices.
  • Offer free technical assistance – even just sharing some ideas can be helpful.
  • Invite breweries to participate in events – many breweries like to have direct contact with their communities.
  • The bottom line is that many breweries want to protect their resources, but need opportunities to do so.

The NCWSN sees great promise in working together with the brewery industry to raise awareness about water and better protecting water.  We also share New Belgium Brewing Company’s philosophy – if it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable!

We’re grateful to Anne-Fitten Glenn, Asheville Brewers Alliance; Noah McIntee, Lazy Hiker Brewery; Kevin Sandifur; Bearwaters’ Brewing Company; and Katie Wallace and Susanne Hacket, New Belgium Brewing Company for joining the NCWSN discussion in Asheville.  Thanks to Katie for providing the above photo. Thank you to Paul Breeding, LoneRider Brewing, for chatting with us in Raleigh.