By Derrick Peterman

It takes a lot of water to brew beer. A typical brewery uses five pints of water (used mostly to clean and sanitize the brewing equipment) to produce one pint of beer. Factor in the water required to grow the barley and hops and somewhere between eight and 24 gallons of water is required to produce a single pint of beer, depending on what part of the world the barley and hops originate. The fact is California’s breweries have already been greatly affected by California’s current drought.

Beer might start tasting funny


There is concern at Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewery that Sonoma County may switch its water supply from the Russian River to more mineral heavy ground water from wells. “It would be like brewing with Alka-Selzer,” says Jeremy Marshall, head brewer at Lagunitas. The mineral composition of water can have a dramatic effect on the taste of the beer. Historically, most traditional European regional styles were partly a function of the flavor profile imparted from region’s unique water mineral content. Today, most modern breweries carefully monitor and sometimes modify their water to better control the flavors imparted by the hops, malt, and yeast.

For breweries that normally rely on surface water, a switch to ground water due to the limited water supply may result in a decidedly different flavored brew. Some breweries simply don’t have the resources to modify hard well water, resulting in possible off-flavors in their beer. So if beer from your favorite brewery starts tasting a little funny this year, it may be from the water. Of course, given that drought leads to widespread starvation and disease in other parts of the world, funny tasting beer is a decidedly “first world” problem.

Water conversation efforts

Like many breweries, Sierra Nevada is actively finding ways to reduce their water footprint in light of the current drought. “You’d be surprised how much water we save with automatic shut-off controls that turn off the hoses when they aren’t being used,” remarks Cheri Chastain, Sustainability Manager at Sierra Nevada. Other efforts involve modifying the chemistry of their cleaning systems to reduce water usage and removing lawns around the brewery and non- drought resistant plants on the brewery grounds. In one initiative, water used in Sierra Nevada’s bottling line to rinse the bottles was recycled and used to cool the vacuum pumps dispensing beer into the bottles, saving an estimated 2 million gallons a year. “We’ve seen a 10% drop in our water consumption as a result of these efforts,” explains Chastain.

Since Sierra Nevada relies on ground water rather than surface water, their operations have not been interrupted. Some breweries that use surface water may face either voluntary or mandatory reductions of their water usage by as much as 25%.

The Chico based brewery has not experienced any disruptions in their supply of hops and barley malt, since more than 90% of their hops are supplied from farms in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho – states that have experienced relatively normal weather patterns. Most of the barley that’s malted to brew beer at Sierra Nevada is grown in Eastern Montana and North Dakota, which have also experienced normal weather. Most breweries source hops and malted grain from these same locations.

So the good news is that while it’s possible some beer might start tasting a little different, there’s not going to be any shortage of it.

A farmer keeps his fingers crossed

Marty Kuchinski is one of a handful of hop farmers in California. His farm is located near Mount Konocti in California’s Lake County, where the volcanic soils provide an ideal location for his 200 acres of organic hops to grow. Marty’s customer list reads like a Who’s Who of California brewers, and includes Russian River, Bear Republic, Speakeasy Brewing, and Ruhlstaller. “I’m just hoping my ground water doesn’t run out,” he confides. While he confidently sees his crop size remaining on target, he concedes that this growing season will be uncharted territory. “Everyone seems to be hanging in there … so far,” summing up the feelings of area farmers.

A wake up call for climate change

While it’s likely California’s brewing industry will survive the current drought largely unscathed, it’s definitely a wake-up call. Breweries are realizing water is more precious, turning to water conservation efforts or working with local officials to ensure a reliable water supply.

For example, Bear Republic recently paid the City of Cloverdale a half-million dollars to fund drilling of two new wells so that it could expand their brewery to meet increased sales demand. Otherwise, Bear Republic would have to leave the city in order to meet their expansion plans due to the limited water resources available. As Bear Republic owner Richard Norgrove Sr. declared in a press release, “We have to be good stewards of what we are attempting to do. We aren’t trying to take water from anyone else, we are willing to pay for it.”

While this is encouraging, we cannot simply drill our way out of this problem over the long term. According to a recent report by the US Geological Survey, since 1960 the ground water storage of California’s Central Valley has declined by nearly 60 million acre-feet. To put that figure in perspective, that’s enough water to supply every resident in the state of California for eight years.

In some places in the Central Valley, the ground elevation actually drops by a foot each year due to the drop in the ground water table. Couple this with anticipated warming temperatures due to human activity and the problem multiplies. “Ground water is recharged by the snowpack, and the snow pack will be decreasing,” says Sierra Nevada’s Cheri Chastain. “We realize we all need to prepare for that.”