Crafting ‘Greener’ Brews

Michigan’s beer-making industry is no stranger to water sustainability

Without water, life cannot exist.

And neither can beer.

While that analogy might be extreme, most people in the craft brewing industry, which grew 20 percent in Michigan in 2012, agree that water’s importance is understated in almost every way — use, waste, quality, conservation, and protection.

“Water doesn’t get the publicity it deserves,” says John Haggerty, a metro Detroit brewery consultant with a brewing degree from Berlin.

Jacob Derylo, the head brewer at Grand Rapids’ Brewery Vivant, says that “water is a very dry subject, but it’s the most important.” Water in brewing beer functions both as an ingredient and a utility.

“If you have a 5-percent [alcohol] beer, what’s the other 95 percent?” Derylo asks. “Water.” The “sexy ingredients” are hops and malts, he says, because you can see and taste them. But water affects how those tastes are perceived.

In 2010, the United States produced more than 194 million barrels of beer. If calculated using the U.S. industry standard water-to-beer ratio of five barrels to one, that’s almost a billion barrels of water.

Left: Brewery Vivant’s LEED-certified operation; Right: The Green Brewery Project at Arbor Brewing’s Corner Brewery

The fact cannot be overstated: Brewing is a water-intensive activity.

For smaller breweries and brewpubs, the beer-water ratio is significantly higher. The scale of operation could be too small to use high-efficiency brewing techniques, or they have too little capital to invest in the more efficient systems a larger operation can. “Small brewpubs typically use eight to 10 barrels of water used per one-barrel output of beer,” Haggerty says.

Plus, brewing equipment is large and requires frequent cleaning.

Mike Moroney, head brewer of Arbor Brewing Company in Ann Arbor, says the brewing environment must be as sanitary as possible, especially in the fermentation stage. And other than yeast, it should be devoid of microorganisms.

“Ninety percent of brewing is janitorial,” he says. “Ten percent is actually brewing.”

To save water in a brewery, it’s the mundane that counts — fixing leaks and reusing wastewater whenever possible. Cleaning technologies called “clean-in-place” units save water by neutralizing end-of-the-day cleaning water, but they’re costly.

Center photograph by Roy Ritchie

“There’s a matrix between cost, return, and doing what’s right,” Haggerty says.

Fortunately, as Great Lakes dwellers, we’re situated on 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, a life-giving resource to Michigan’s high-growth craft-brewing industry.

Derylo says it’s easy to get brewers to sit down and talk about being sustainable and having clean water. “We’re killing ourselves if we don’t.”

Milwaukee-based community organizer Lucy Saunders believes that craft brewers can be leaders in water and energy conservation efforts.

In response to the 2008 Great Lakes Compact, Saunders started the Great Lakes Water Conservation Conference for craft brewers.

Saunders says that power plants are the largest consumers of water from the Great Lakes; almost every municipal function of water — treating, pumping, and heating — requires energy. “When you save electricity,” she says, “you save water.”

Here in Michigan, craft brewers are definitely taking the reins of “green” leadership.

The Green Brewery Project at Ypsilanti’s Corner Brewery, headed by U-M master’s candidate Jarett Diamond, along with owners Matt and Renee Greff, was a $250,000 investment that made it Michigan’s first solar-powered brewery, providing about 90 percent of the brewery’s hot water — and substantial energy savings.

In 2010, Brewery Vivant became the first commercial brewing operation anywhere in the world to receive LEED building certification. Sustainability isn’t just “right,” says co-owner Kris Spaulding, it’s a sound business plan.

Vivant boasts a storm-water runoff slow-release irrigation system that Spaulding lovingly refers to as the brewery’s “nuclear fallout shelter.” It’s helped the city of Grand Rapids avoid sewer overflow. “I hope one day there will be technology for small-scale, on-site wastewater treatment,” she adds.

“No one’s gone out and said, ‘This is what defines green,’ ” Haggerty says. “Most brewers are interested in being good stewards for the environment, not only for their use, but for the community.”