Many micro- and craft breweries around the U.S are celebrated for promoting environmentally sustainable business practices, while openly supporting – or even engineering – conservation activities in the communities in which they are embedded. Recently, breweries have voiced reservations about hydraulic fracturing, a modern echo of the agro-food sector’s longstanding tension with the oil & gas industry over land and water. Brewers’ concerns involve increased pressure on water associated with the shale gas boom. For instance, a Coloradoan farmer will typically pay county authorities between $9 to $100 for an acre-foot of water, but energy companies have recently competed at water auctions to pay between $1,200-$2,900 per acre of foot water. Some farmers fear that they will struggle to afford water for irrigation, particularly in drought years. As the price of water is continuously driven skyward, oil & gas companies may find the price hikes affordable, while agriculturalists and breweries may not.
But like the process of fracking a well, the brewing process is also enormously water intensive:
It is widely estimated that for every one liter of beer that is brewed, close to ten liters of water is used; mostly for the brewing, rinsing, and cooling processes. Thereafter, this water must be disposed of or safely treated for reuse, which is often costly and problematic for most breweries (1).
This article will review current movements in the brewing industry to push for clean water protection legislation in the U.S or moratoriums on fracking in Germany and finally compare the water usage of both industries.
Barley, hops, water, and…frack fluid?
Quality of available water is the overriding concern for Germans when it comes to fracking angst. Germany’s 500 year old Purity Law (or “Reinheitsgebot“) dictates scrupulous attention toward the mandatory price per pail of beer, so as not to disrupt the price of barley or, heaven forbid, the supply of the spirit itself. And though we can no longer pay for our ales and lagers in Pfennigs, one of the Beer Purity Law’s provisions is still enforced today: authorities maintain that the only ingredients to be used in proper beer are water, hops, malts, and barley. The contamination of water by chemicals in fracking fluid would upset the integrity of the Purity Law and what it promises to beer enthusiasts.
Germany is home to 1,300 breweries. More than half of these breweries draw water from private wells. These wells may not included in national fracking regulations, which would mainly target government-owned land. Anger over the possible contamination of these precious water supplies by methanol, benzene, or ethylene glycol among other chemicals found in fracking fluid has compelled powerful voices amongst the Deutscher Brauer-Bund to not merely oppose fracking regulations, but call for a wholesale moratorium on the practice. Indeed, the brewer’s association sent an open letter expressing discontent to six government ministers responsible for drafting the regulations across the EU. Even if the fracking fluid used were not to contaminate groundwater or contain any toxic chemicals, significant deposits of less harmful chemicals could still change the chemistry of the water in a way that would alter the taste of beer and the process required to filter water for brewing.
Germany’s breweries carry a great deal of political clout as a cultural institution with appeal for nearly every demographic. And beer is a multi-billion dollar industry, employing 25,000 people in Germany alone. It should come as no surprise that the Association of German Breweries wants to maintain the standard set in the Reinheitsgebot, mostly for consumer protection – and, by extension, food protection – in an era when agro-food corporations are criticized for tainting products and produce with unhealthy additives, preservatives, or GMOs.
Quality and quantity: clean water policy advocates
Breweries in the U.S are less adamant about banning fracking in its entirety, though 19 craft breweries have paired up with the Natural Resources Defense Council to advocate for stronger clean water policies. Because the Bush Administration did not make clear which bodies of water were included or exempt from the Clean Water Act, breweries are concerned that sewage, agricultural waste, and oil spills are polluting local sources used for water and beer drinking. Water comprises 90% of all beer and breweries are not keen to face competition over increasingly limited water sources, already dwindling in part due to pollution. This year, the Brewers for Clean Water campaign are collaborating to pressure Obama to finalize policy updates that adequately protect local water sources from the energy industry:
Some American breweries have taken it further. New York breweries Ommegang and Brooklyn Brewery have spoken out against fracking, citing that if it were to affect the water supply, they would be forced to either truck water in from safer watersheds – or relocate. Other breweries, such as Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery, have released public statements on fracking, citing support for community dialogues on the issue and local control in determining the location of fracking sites.
Breweries may be raising a squall about water contamination and water use associated with fracking or the entire energy industry, but which industry actually (ab)uses more water: the brewers or the frackers? Water is used in nearly every step of the brewing process – the cleaning, sanitizing, boiling of worts, cooling, etc – and breweries vary by how much of their treated wastewater is reused.
Beer & water use
- Amount of beer sold & consumed annually in the U.S (taken from 2010) = 9.95 million barrels ×
- # of gallons in one barrel of beer = 31 gallons X # of water barrels used to make 1 barrel of beer (12) = 372 gallons / barrel =
3.7 billion gallons of water
(average of )1.8 gallons of wastewater generated for every .26 gallons of beer produced = 144, 971,500 gallons/year
= 3.8 billion gallons of water used by American breweries annually
Fracking & water use
# of fracking wells drilled nationally in 2011: 27,000 ×
# of gallons of water (on average) needed for completion and fracturing of well: 5 million gallons
Clearly, both industries are highly water intensive, though fracking uses quite a lot more than the brewing industry. But if we redefined “water intensive” by looking at water use per dollars generated by output, energy production and fracking would look far less thirsty as an industry than brewing beer or farming. Alternatively, brewery wastewater is not toxic and fairly high in organic matter content, making it easier to recycle or biodegrade. Nearly every micro-brewery also has targets for reducing the water use to beer production ratios, while others have installed recirculation systems, hot water recovery systems, more efficient refrigeration and boilers, or simply featuring as a locally respected actor in promoting water conservation and protection.
Nationwide figures for fracking water use were gathered from The Energy Collective, who in turn interpreted raw data from the industry reporting database FracFocus.org. Statistics on beer production and consumption were found from the Beer Institute and the Journal of Cleaner Production.