Conserving Water: The Fight to Protect Beer’s Main Ingredient
From Larry Bell’s college days in Kalamazoo, MI, when he homebrewed by mixing clean water with good yeast inside 15-gallon soup kettles, his beer business has only grown. A South Chicago native, Bell loved Kalamazoo so much that he decided to build his life there. In the mid-1980s he opened what would become his namesake business, Bell’s Brewery.
By 2002, so many people loved Bell’s tasty tipples, including the bright Third Coast Ale and chocolaty Kalamazoo Stout, that he needed more space. He found an ideal location for a new brewing facility just west of Kalamazoo in the town of Galesburg. By 2010 he grew it into a 200-barrel operation that more than doubled his output to about a half-million barrels of beer a year.
This brewery, Bell noted, was, “only 300 yards from the Kalamazoo River.”
In late July 2010 a 6-foot gash tore open in a pipe carrying crude oil near Talmadge Creek, a little stream that pours into the Kalamazoo River about 36 miles upstream from Galesburg. Residents of the nearby town of Marshall were evacuated from their homes, hundreds suffering headaches, coughs and nausea from the pungent chemicals released into the air by the gushing oil. Thousands of workers, both from the government and contracted by the pipeline’s owner, Enbridge Inc., the largest crude-oil operation in Canada, swarmed the spill site. Enbridge estimated that more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil had flushed into the creek and then begun creeping down the Kalamazoo River.
For Bell, both as a local resident and a businessman, it was a nightmare.
“For all the challenges I’ve had in my business career, I’ve never had one that I was afraid could put me out of business,” said Bell. “This terrifies me that they could actually contaminate my brewery.”
In the days immediately after the spill, Enbridge officials said that the spill had been contained near Galesburg and that the oil was lighter than water, meaning it could easily be sucked off the top of the river with vacuum trucks.
Bell tried to get back to brewing beer, but the experience changed him.
“I think this could very well be our next great issue for brewers,” Bell said. “Because if we don’t have clean water to make our beer, we’re out of business.”
Brewers for Clean Water
Across the country craft brewers are joining voices to call for more protection for the ingredient that is 90 percent of their product: water.
Earlier this year around two dozen breweries partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and sent a letter to President Barack Obama—a noted craft beer aficionado—asking him to strengthen the Clean Water Act. First passed in 1972, the Clean Water Act was hurt in 2001 and 2006 by the Supreme Court, said Karen Hobbs, a senior policy analyst for the NRDC. The court ruled that the law may apply only to large water bodies, not isolated wetlands and small streams.
Small streams pour into bigger streams and lakes, Hobbs noted, and almost 120 million Americans get their drinking water from watersheds affected by the Supreme Court rulings. A Chicago resident who lives around the corner from Revolution Brewing, Hobbs realized that lovers of craft beer were natural allies in the fight for clean water.
“A eureka went off in my head,” she said. “There’s a connection between that great-tasting beer in your hand and the water that makes that possible.”
Hobbs said she was inspired by an April 2012 opinion article in the Huffington Post written by New Belgium Brewing’s director of sustainability, Jenn Vervier.
“Last year was the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which I think is a landmark piece of legislation that improved our quality of life as a nation,” Vervier said in July 2013. “And to have the Supreme Court make decisions that un-protect our water quality makes us go backward as a nation—perhaps the reason there are 2,400 craft breweries in America is because there is clean water everywhere.”
Russ Klisch, president and founder of Lakefront Brewery. in Milwaukee, was eager to take the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Water Pledge and join its initiative, called Brewers For Clean Water.
“I would feel the same way if there were things about the barley or hop crop that could all of the sudden be compromised,” Klisch said. “I feel water is being compromised now.”
Timothy Surprise, of Arcadia Brewing Co. in Battle Creek, MI, a town also affected by the Enbridge oil spill, said he rejects the notion that certain bodies of water are not, ultimately, connected to others.
“We’ve been blessed where we make beer in Battle Creek. We’ve got one of the world’s best water supplies—I will say that’s something you can’t take for granted,” he said. “But the integrity of our water system also extends to the periphery, and being thoughtful and good stewards of that for future generations means being really inclusive in what constitutes the water table.”
Paul Graham, CEO and president of Central Waters Brewing in Amherst, WI, said he was only too eager to speak out, before it’s too late.
“The legislation that was pushed through long ago was well thought out and well put into place, and as we see those things weaken, who knows what will happen?” Graham said. “We wanted to get involved now, rather than standing up and saying something at the 11th hour.”
Most of the brewers who joined the NRDC campaign say they did so to be proactive, before their water faces any imminent threats. In Cooperstown, NY, a bucolic upstate New York community best known for being home to the Baseball Hall of Fame, one of the country’s most successful craft beer producers doesn’t have that luxury anymore.
Brewery Ommegang, maker of renowned Belgian-style beers, sits above the Marcellus Shale. Those layers of sedimentary rock deep underground hold untold amounts of natural gas, all coveted by oil companies. To suck out the gas, drillers use a controversial technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It involves pumping down an immense amount of water, mixed with chemicals and sand, to force the natural gas to the surface. Many have blamed fracking for ruining drinking water supplies in neighboring Pennsylvania, where some groundwater is now so polluted with leaked methane gas that homeowners can turn on their faucets and light their tap water on fire.
While there is no fracking happening in Cooperstown now, the oil industry is buying land and securing drilling permits throughout the region. Brewery Ommegang officials say that if the fracking begins, they could be forced to move.
“If our water gets contaminated, we’re done,” said brewmaster Phil Leinhart.
Leinhart worked at the Budweiser brewery in Newark, NJ, for a dozen years before moving to Ommegang. He saw how the Anheuser-Busch corporation demanded protections for the reservoirs in Northern New Jersey, source of their municipal water. Leinhart realized that Ommegang, which draws its water from wells on its property in Cooperstown, is in a far more precarious state.
“I told Simon (Thorpe, president and CEO of the brewery), ‘We don’t have a choice; we have to fight this; this is our business right here,” Leinhart said.
He conceded that Brewery Ommegang does not have the influence of Anheuser-Busch, the world’s largest brewer. But Ommegang’s stellar product and growing popularity—it is one of the larger employers in its rural area—gives its voice considerable local clout. Also, it is backed by other brewers around the nation.
“If you’re a brewer, whether you consciously admit it or not, you have to be for clean water,” Leinhart said.
Ian Hughes, environmental and safety manager at Goose Island Brewery in Chicago, said that brewer calls for clean water are reaching a critical mass.
“The beer industry is incredibly sexy right now,” Hughes said. “And we’re using that momentum and excitement that’s infusing our industry to shed awareness on clean water.”
Dave Engbers, co-creator of Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids, MI, said it “just makes sense” to take craft brewing’s popularity and turn it into a platform for clean water.
“Ultimately, our industry depends on it,” he said.
‘More Heinous Than Oil’
By early August 2010, about the moment that Larry Bell started to calm down after the initial trauma of Enbridge’s crude oil spill into the Kalamazoo River, the disaster took an ugly, new turn. Despite what Enbridge executives said about the spilled oil being light and easy to vacuum off the water, it was the opposite. Enbridge officials admitted they had been pumping a substance called diluted bitumen, from Canada’s notorious tar sands region. The bitumen, the raw oil, was so thick and goopy it had to be diluted with benzene, a known human carcinogen, to make it viscous enough to pump. Spilled, the benzene evaporated into the air—where humans and other creatures breathed it in—and the oil sank to the river bottom and congealed into marble-sized globs. The globs washed downstream, out of sight of people who expected a simple oil slick on the surface of the water. Some of the bitumen reached Morrow Lake, a reservoir on the Kalamazoo River near whose bank sits Bell’s Brewery.
“I didn’t really understand,” Bell said. “They tell you that it’s oil, then they tell you that it’s not oil, it’s this diluted bitumen, which so much more heinous than oil.”
He added, “So I’m fighting these guys, but it’s like David vs. Goliath.”
Doing Their Part
In vertiginous Poncha Springs, CO, a town near the headwaters of the Arkansas River surrounded by 15 peaks that reach at least 14,000 feet, the founders of Elevation Beer Co. realized that clean water is not only essential to their beer, but also their client base.
“That’s a big part of our whole entire economy up here, people coming from around the country and around the world to hike a 14er and raft and fish the Arkansas,” said Xandy Bustamante, a co-founder. “We live here and we enjoy it, and we want to share it with other people by preserving our natural environment.”
This year, Elevation teamed with two other breweries, Amica’s Pizza & Microbrewery and Moonlight Pizza and Brewpub, both in Salida, for a collaborative brew called Brown’s Canyon India Brown Ale. A portion of the proceeds will go to protecting scenic Browns Canyon of the Arkansas River, a popular whitewater rafting destination that Colorado Sen. Mark Udall is calling on to be preserved as a wilderness area.
“Every craft brewery wants to do their part for the environment they live in,” Bustamante said.
In Atlanta, SweetWater Brewing Co. makes a seasonal beer called Waterkeeper Hefeweizen to help raise money for Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group dedicated to cleaning and protecting rivers. SweetWater first partnered with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a member of the alliance, in 2006 to clean the Chattahoochee River, the beginning of a program the brewery calls “Save Our Water.” Since then, SweetWater has helped raise nearly $700,000 for river cleanups in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas. Freddy Bensch, founder of SweetWater and a former resident of both California and Colorado, said working to protect water came naturally.
“When we arrived in Atlanta to start the brewery, we sought some cool relief in the local rivers,” he said. “These waterways were, and still are, our community’s backyard where we swim, kayak, paddleboard and fish and drink—we were concerned about the water quality of these rivers based on what we were accustomed to out west.”
The drive to help the environment, common among craft brewers, is a natural extension of the ideas that led many to start making beer, said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, which recently published a set of guidelines for sustainability.
“A lot of people started breweries in the ’80s and ’90s because they weren’t happy with the status quo of beer, so they took control of their beer destiny,” he said. “So with that there’s sort of a willingness to engage with the community and with society with starting a new business, and there’s a natural link to, how can we be better in the community?”
When it comes to water, some breweries, like People’s Brewing Co. in Lafayette, IN, tailor-make their beers to complement the characteristics of their local supply. As the water at People’s, near the banks of the Wabash River, has a similar mineral content to the water in the north of Germany, co-owner Chris Johnson brews pilsners. He jokes that he uses “locally raised water.”
Many other breweries neutralize their water with filters and then add in minerals to customize it for specific beers. While these filters remove pollution, too, John Palmer, co-author of Water: A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers, said exactly how many impurities get taken out depends on the system.
Breweries will often expose their brewing water to ultraviolet light to break down organic pollutants, like algae and bacteria. Carbon filters can then also take out the organic material and other elements like salts and minerals and—to varying degrees—industrial pollutants. Reverse osmosis systems can purify the water even more, he said, though not all breweries have these.
Most breweries use municipal water, and local officials have the job of making sure the water is safe to drink. But many breweries use wells. Both sources of water are vulnerable to industrial chemical spills. Meanwhile, organic pollution, even when treated, can make big headaches for brewers. Municipal water is often treated with chlorine to kill algae and bacteria. Depending on a brewery’s filtration system, some of that chlorine can end up in the mash tuns and fermenters. When mixed with natural acids and vegetable compounds from malts and hops, the chlorine can give beer a plastic-like scent and taste.
“These compounds smell like vinyl—the smell if you open a fresh box of band-aids,” said Palmer, who lives in Glendale, CA. “If you pick up a beer and smell that, it’s directly related to not getting the chlorine out of the water before you start making the beer.”
Adam Mills, the head brewer at Cranker’s Brewery in Big Rapids, MI, describes chlorine as “not a friend of the brewer’s.”
Matthew Greff, owner of Arbor Brewing Co. in Ann Arbor, MI, got a unique take on the importance of abundant clean water and the hassles of purification. In early 2011 he opened up a satellite location in Bangalore, India. This franchise, on the other side of the globe, happened because a man from Bangalore came to Ann Arbor for college, fell in love with the beer and, upon moving back home, asked to partner with Greff on a new location.
But unlike in Ann Arbor, it was hard to find good water in Bangalore.
“There’s no municipal, potable water, so we have a giant reservoir on our rooftop, and twice a week tankers come,” Greff said. “Then we do a massive reverse osmosis filter to purify that water—the expense of having to have water shipped and then filtered was a total eye-opener.”
The experience gave him new perspective on threats to the Clean Water Act, whether from the Supreme Court or pontificators who preach that environmental regulations stifle business.
“People start talking about loosening regulations on almost everything over here; we had a first-hand view of what no regulations looks like in India, and it’s not a pretty picture,” he said. “We need to have potable water, and to chip away at those rules because some say it’s bad for business—which is the argument I constantly disagree with—listen: Having clean water is very, very good for business.”
After the Spill
Larry Bell agreed with most everyone that the bottom of the Kalamazoo River needed to be dredged to clean it of all the heavy diluted bitumen. Then he learned that Enbridge Inc. leased a site for a dredging pad—where thousands of truckloads of oily goop would be hauled—right next door to his Galesburg brewery.
“It’s 60 feet from my office window,” Bell said. “What happens when all that stinky, contaminated air starts floating into our brewery?”
First came the fear of contaminated water from the spill, then the shock of learning the true nature of the oil and then a dump next door. Bell wondered what the stench would do to the people who come to his brewery on weekends to take tours. He also worried about the pollution somehow tainting his beer, or even his beer’s reputation—something he spent 30 hard years building. In August, a township planning commission rejected Enbridge’s proposed site.
And now, something else. For years, Bell has wanted to open a new location, to grow his business even more. He found a perfect site in a town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a place that gets its pure drinking water directly from Lake Michigan.
Bell learned that Enbridge Inc. also pumps diluted bitumen through pipes along Lake Michigan. What if, Bell wonders, those pipes burst—just like the one near Talmadge Creek? The Great Lakes provide drinking water for 26 million Americans and another 10 million Canadians.
“I could not even imagine the water disaster that we would have,” he said. “Just the thought terrifies me—you’ve got these old pipelines that pump oil from the tar sands that get cut with these chemicals.”
Beyond the Great Lakes, Bell also learned that diluted bitumen is the same stuff that would be transported by the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, the proposed 2,000-mile conduit for tar sands oil from Alberta to reach the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline would course over the Great Plains’ Ogallala Aquifer, in the middle of the United States, used by more than 2 million Americans for drinking and source of irrigation water for 30 percent of all domestic crops.
“I’ve come up to speed pretty fast about what’s going on in the world,” Bell said. “And it’s pretty frightening.”
Since the spill, he’s longed for the days when he got to think about new recipes for beer—like his seasonal Cherry Stout made with Michigan-grown fruit, and his Java Stout, made with beans roasted by a local coffee shop. These days, his time is consumed with oil fights.
“It’s an incredible amount of stress—things are going really well at the brewery and all of the sudden you throw this wrench into the works,” he said. “It’s taking up all my time with attorneys and township officials and politicians—what about making beer and coming up with the new flavor? I can’t deal with any of that right now. This is my job, taking care of this stuff. I wish I was having more fun, but this water issue is just too damn important.”
Nate Schweber is co-author of Indiana Breweries and author of Fly Fishing in Yellowstone National Park: An Insider’s Guide to the 50 Best Places. A Montana native, he has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Village Voice.