Drought vs. Draft: California Craft Breweries Innovate, Conserve, and Pray to Combat Four Years of Little Rain

Feature by | Aug 2015 | Issue #103

Photo by Todd Parsons

It’s a typical weekday afternoon at Telegraph Brewing Company, a decade-old craft brewery located in an industrial corner of Santa Barbara. By 3 p.m., a steady stream of thirsty customers are already lining up to the bar, eager to order the flagship California Ale or explore the sourness of the brewery’s barrel program.

But a dart’s throw away, below the brewery’s Quonset hut roof on the sprawling production floor, a different kind of flow is at full-blast: scalding water—or, “hot liquor”—shooting in and out of one of the 30-barrel fermentors through two orange hoses. It’s cleaning time, and as anyone with even a remote understanding of ale-making understands, sanitation is the golden ticket to good beer. And sanitation, it turns out, requires water, and sometimes lots of it, which is why it’s often reported that it takes five gallons of water to make one gallon of beer. (For smaller breweries, that number can double.)

These days, that five-to-one formula makes headlines in the crispy environs of California, which is in the midst of a devastatingly dry four-year drought. While green lawns go brown, farms go fallow, and everyone is asked to cut their water usage at every turn, beer drinkers are forced to consider whether their favorite drink is worth such a reservoir-sucking impact.

Thankfully for such sippers, the reality is that the state’s craft brew industry—which has been growing at the crazy clip of two breweries per week since 2013 and will eclipse 600 statewide by the end of 2015—collectively only uses as much water every year as 640 acres of almond trees. Save for some especially impacted areas like parts of the Russian River Valley, supply itself shouldn’t be a problem even if the drought persists. Such fears are also assuaged where new forms of water are appearing, from Orange County—whose “toilet-to-tap” regimen cleans up wastewater to recharge groundwater aquifers—to Carlsbad and Santa Barbara, where desalination plants that turn ocean water fresh are moving forward, including one just down the street from Telegraph.

But that doesn’t mean brewers aren’t dealing with a spate of related issues, from increasingly harder water supplies that require more chemical tweaking, to higher water costs, to the threat of the state’s ongoing water policy discussion eventually coming down on industrial uses like brewing. “In any kind of water policy, there are winners and losers no matter how you cut it,” says Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA), explaining that Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order requiring a 25 percent reduction in urban water use statewide while local cutback mandates vary per region. “But what that means for individual breweries is still being determined because individual water agencies have the freedom to do it any way they want.”

California brewers are also aware that they outsource some of their most intensive water needs: grains and hops are both predominantly grown up north, and desires to foster more of a homegrown ingredient supply chain (which would cut down on transportation costs and reduce the industry’s overall carbon footprint) are proceeding with caution. “In non-drought years, we talk about wanting to grow more hops and barley in California,” says McCormick. “But in drought years, we tend to be proud of the fact that almost none of the hops and barley come from California.”

And yet, like every other resident or business in the state, a foreboding sense of anxiety hangs over the craft brewing industry. The CCBA recently sent an email to members with talking points on how to speak to the media regarding the drought. “The drought has become a nationwide media story, generating many different facts and figures, myths and misperceptions,” warns the email. “An unintentional inaccurate story could promote a false and negative perception of California craft beer.”

Fortunately, brewers large and small from across the state have a brighter takeaway: so long as prayers are answered this year with a wet winter, as most experts predict, this drought will be remembered as a time of positive evolution. The past four years have forced producers to prioritize conservation measures, saving water but also energy and other resources. At the end of the day, that will put California craft brewers in a better position anyway.

“It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the bottom line, and wasting any resource is just not good business,” says Telegraph’s owner Brian Thompson. “Even if you are someone who couldn’t care less about tree huggers, you do care about the dollar.”

At Bear Republic, new technology recycles wastewater for cleaning and converts it into usable energy. | Photo by Todd Parsons

At Bear Republic, new technology recycles wastewater for cleaning and converts it into usable energy. | Photo by Todd Parsons

California’s Conservation Trail
Here’s a look at what breweries are doing to combat the drought up and down the state.

Bear Republic Brewing Company
Bear Republic’s water supply woes, which have caused the brewery to cut back distribution to Massachusetts and Texas, among other markets, began before the drought got serious. In 2013, the Cloverdale, Calif., brewery’s application for an expanded facility was denied because there weren’t enough wells to supply the town of 8,000. So the city drilled new wells with nearly $500,000 of the brewery’s own money as part of a public-private partnership, just in time for the drought to trigger mandatory cutbacks statewide. Meanwhile, Bear Republic learned that its growing wastewater stream was also going to be too much for the city to treat.

That’s when they found out about Boston-based Cambrian Innovations, which had been working at Clos du Bois Winery in nearby Geyserville. Cambrian’s EcoVolt system, the offshoot of a MIT PhD project originally intended to help NASA, could take the brewery’s wastewater, extract pollutants, and turn them into “biogas” energy to be used on site. The scrubbed water could be used for cleaning and other non-brewing purposes. So Bear Republic became the first brewery to sign on for a pilot project.

“Our system allows brewers to focus on the beer while we focus on the wastewater,” says Cambrian’s VP Baji Gobburi, whose company shifted from outer space to beer when they realized the industry was expected to generate $19.6 billion in 2015 alone. Though it recycles water, EcoVolt’s stronger sell is that it converts the wastewater flow, which is highly and expensively regulated in California, into usable energy, essentially turning a negative cost into a positive payment. And the technology is scalable, from 5,000 gallons of water per day all the way up to 40,000.

“We’ll be one of the most water-efficient breweries around,” says Bear Republic CEO Richard Norgrove, who concedes it was “painful” to leave markets around the country. “Once the drought is over, our plan is to re-engage back into those territories.”

Lagunitas Brewing Company
Despite rumors that suggest successful breweries like Lagunitas are opening out-of-state facilities due to the drought, that’s not actually the case. “It has to do with increasing our brewery’s capacity in areas that make the most sense,” says Lagunitas’ director of communications Karen Hamilton, who explained that their particular Russian River Valley watershed is in “really good condition.”

Nonetheless, Lagunitas is employing new technology to become more sustainable, and like Bear Republic, quickly recognized the value in Cambrian’s EcoVolt system. Gobburi, the Cambrian VP, expects Lagunitas’ water usage to drop from four gallons per produced gallon of beer to about 2.5. “At the new ratio,” he says, “that’s enough water to make another 350,000 barrels of good-tasting beer a year.”

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
The Chico-based brewery didn’t wait for the drought to start conserving. “We’ve recognized for a number of years that water is critical to what we do but it’s also a finite resource,” says Cheri Chastain, the brewery’s sustainability manager. “Over the last eight to 10 years, we’ve undertaken a lot of projects to reduce water usage.”

Automation of brewing systems is a big saver, as it standardizes water flows and cuts down on free-flowing hoses, as are tracking devices to assess where waste occurs. Small things help too, like nozzle controls on the manual hoses. Sierra is experimenting with “burst rinsing” in CIPs, which use brief, high-pressure blasts of water that better dislodge the dirty parts, rather than continual streams, thereby saving water while cleaning more effectively. “The drought has not impacted our ability to make beer yet, and I hope I can continue to say that for years,” says Chastain, who reports a 25 percent water usage drop per barrel of beer produced since 2007. “We’re making more beer but we’re doing it with less water.”

Like Stone and Lagunitas, Sierra is also trying to share its successes. “The craft brewing industry is collaborative—we learn from smaller breweries and smaller breweries learn from us,” she says, explaining that bigger operations like Sierra have the financial wherewithal to explore cutting-edge methods. “We can invest in things, prove them out, and they can become tools for other breweries.”

Stone Brewing Company
One of the Golden State’s shiniest success stories, Stone Brewing Co. is on the expansion march, opening breweries in Richmond, Va., and Berlin, Germany, by early 2016. That’s where COO Pat Tiernan was in June, when he explained that Stone’s expansion was driven by the need to build a distribution hub east of the Mississippi and cut transportation time, not by the scarcity of California water.

Instead, the biggest immediate impact has been dealing with increased mineral content in the available water. “Our hardness has significantly increased in the last year,” says Tiernan, explaining that the brewing team must spend more time treating the incoming water to ensure a consistent product.

The drought is also prompting Stone—which uses close to 150,000 gallons of water daily—to prioritize conservation. For instance, the integration of a dewatering press (still in process), which squeezes water from the spent grain, was moved up about six months in the work chain, and Stone has cut their water use during cleaning cycles. They’re down to about 3.5 to 4 gallons of water per gallon of beer.

“I think we’re well-positioned,” says Tiernan, noting that their Escondido headquarters will be partially served by the desalination plant being built in Carlsbad. “But it’s something we’re meeting regularly on.”

Firestone Walker Brewing Company
The vineyards of Paso Robles repeatedly make headlines for their water wars, but Firestone Walker Brewing Company operates within Paso’s city limits, where water resources supply manager Christopher Alakel promises, “We have ample supply to serve Firestone.” He adds that the brewery’s wastewater gets treated and put back into the groundwater, so the 4.7 gallons they use to make one gallon of beer doesn’t just disappear.

But co-founder David Walker wants to make sure his brewery’s “carbon footprint karma” —bolstered by the fact that 80 percent of their product is consumed within 180 miles of the production facility—stays happy. Among other improvements, Firestone is avoiding excessive rinsing, and installing steam and condensate recovery systems. Plus, the brewery’s new facility, including keg shed and canning line, are built with the latest German technologies, which automate many procedures that were once manual and water-intensive.

As current president of the California Craft Brewers Association, Walker is also watching the policy talks intently. “Water is a long-term worry for any business or resident in this state,” he says. “We all need sensible management locally and in Sacramento.”

Telegraph Brewing Company
Like many smaller breweries that produce less than 5,000 barrels a year, Telegraph can’t afford the latest conservation technology, but the team still manages to reduce water usage wherever possible. “Ultimately, saving water in this situation is a combination of a lot of little things,” explains Thompson.

That’s as simple as sticking a big bucket under the fermentation tank opening as it cleans, catching 15 gallons or so in a cycle. “Individually it isn’t that much, but it saves almost 100 gallons a week, and that’s thousands of gallons in a year,” says Thompson, who’s been able to get his water usage down to about 4.5 gallons per gallon of produced beer, which he called an “outstanding” ratio for a smaller brewer.

Even before the proposed, nearly $60 million desalination plant down the street comes on line, Thompson anticipates his water rates will go up, and is already dealing with water that gets harder with concentrated minerals every day as the level of Lake Cachuma drops. But like many California craft brewers, he remains at the ready, prepared to continue pushing sustainability measures—come rain or shine.