How California Brewers Are Handling the Drought

There is no more important ingredient in beer than water. It comprises 90% of the content of beer. While yeast, malt, and hops do most of the heavy lifting, there would be nothing to make if water wasn't providing the liquid base that houses the fermentation.

And so, in a time when horrific before/after photos like these keep on popping up showing how terrible the historic drought has gotten in California, the first question that's on everyone's mind is: How is our beer going to be affected? To find out, I asked the owners of a handful of California-based breweries.

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Jeremy Raub, owner of Eagle Rock Brewery:

Depending on the size and efficiency of the brewery, producing one pint of beer will require anywhere from five to ten pints of water. That usage includes everything from cleaning and sanitizing equipment, to losses that occur during the brewing and packaging processes. Typically bigger breweries can be more efficient with their water usage, but their overall usage will still be higher than that of a smaller brewery.
Probably the most immediate effect brewers will see will be an increase in water prices as supplies shrink. After that, we may see a change in water quality and composition if local municipalities start buying water from new or different sources. If the latter starts to happen, then brewers will need to be careful to test their incoming water supplies regularly (if they don't already) and adjust accordingly, so their beer quality stays consistently high.

Jonathan Porter, owner of Smog City Brewery:

Not really sure how the drought will affect our brewery this year or beyond. We have always taken great care to use as little water as possible as it's one of our biggest ingredients in terms of volume and expense. We care about the environment and continue to do all we can afford at our level to reduce waste, recycle, and conserve. We know that restricted access to water will greatly affect our business and our industry. We can only hope that making people aware of how severe this problem is in Southern California they will begin to realize how precious a resource our water supply is. I could go on a rant about watering lawns in the middle of the day with potable water, but I'll save that for another article...

Adam Firestone, owner of Firestone Walker Brewing Company:

Thankfully, so far, the drought has had no impact. I'm a California native and recognize that drought is part of the natural cyclical climate. But even without drought, much of the state is dependent upon the state water delivery infrastructure for all aspects of life. Remove those deliveries and life will change. Most of southern and east central California is uninhabitable without the water delivery infrastructure.
Thankfully, we are in the coastal plain with artesian sources as well as the reservoir network. So our water isn't dependent on political decisions made in Sacramento. But it will be impacted by extended drought. Should we follow the geologic history (known existence of infrequent but 12 year extended droughts), then our local groundwater sources will be impacted. So that keeps us nervous.

Tony Yanow, owner of Golden Road Brewery:

To tell you the truth, it has not affected our brewery yet, but we're totally bracing for it. The DWP has yet to issue us a bill from our last cycle, which is the one that everyone's waiting for to see what they're going to do. They're not publishing rates for us to see if rates are going up, or how much they're going up. So, we're managing our cash so that we can withstand to buy water even if price is inflated. We're also always looking at ways to make the brewery more efficient, but at this point we're accelerating our efforts to look at water reuse.
You know, breweries are not, by nature, the more efficient use of water. We do a bunch of things to recapture and reuse water, like most breweries do. And there's technology that can do an even better job, however usually it's cost-prohibitive. If it takes 25 years to pay back a piece of machinery that helps, it's very hard to justify it on your balance sheet. But we are now looking at that stuff, not only because it's a cost-savings to us but better for our entire community.

So, in summary: It hasn't affected breweries just yet. But that's only because it takes time for the billing cycle to reflect what's going on with our state's water supply. When that happens, don't be shocked to find higher prices at the liquor store or out at the bar. And if that's the only issue that consumers have to deal with, well, we can all consider ourselves lucky. Which is to say: Stock up now while you can!

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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