Beer industry raises a glass towards cutting water consumption

Beer industry raises a glass towards cutting water consumption

Next time you down a beer, think about this: it took a lot of water to create that brew sitting in front of you.  

According to a 2010 study by the SABMiller brewing company,  the World Wildlife Federation and the German international development agency GIZ, up to 60 to 180 liters of water can be used to produce one liter of beer. Those figures cover the entire process -- from crop cultivation through the brewing process to packaging and, finally, to your thirsty self. The amount of water consumed depends on how it's used along the supply chain.

In recent years, most brewers have been using about a five-to-one water-to-beer ratio to make their beverages. But those figures are evolving rapidly. As water demand soars and supplies become limited, beer makers are rethinking their supply chains and sustainability goals. Two powerhouse companies -- MillerCoors and Heineken -- are focusing the best ways to reduce their respective water footprints. In its newly-released “Great Things on Tap” sustainability report, MillerCoors highlights some of its environmental stewardship and sustainability results. These include:

  • Reducing their water-to-beer ratio to less than 4:1 at five of their eight breweries..
  • Cutting water consumption by 100 million gallons per year at their Milwaukee brewery, through the use of a new cooling system that uses re-circulated water.
  • Saving 124.5 million gallons of water -- while increasing barley yields -- during the first year at its Showcase Barley farm.

For its part, Heineken has selected a new software system to support the company’s “Green Gauge” initiative – to accumulate, analyze and transmit sustainability performance data across their 250 brands and 140 breweries in more than 70 countries.

Photo of beer pouring into glass by Bashutskyy via Shutterstock.

The world’s largest brewer, Anheuser Busch InBev, has a well-established sustainability program in place looking at water efficiency across its supply chain. The company has reduced water usage in its 12 U.S. breweries by 37 percent over the past four years.

“We’ve done this through stringent review of our practices and the ongoing input from our dedicated employees,” said Shana Ruffus, Anheuser Busch’s director of environmental outreach in a statement to GreenBiz. “Reducing water usage outside the brewery walls is an equally important challenge but also very complex. Therefore, we are working with our suppliers -- particularly with our growers on a variety of programs -- to help manage water use in our supply chain.“

According to Ruffus, Anheuser Busch also works with third parties to improve watersheds near its operations. It also discloses water and carbon management performance data to the Carbon Disclosure Project. Within the industry, she said, the company works closely with organizations like the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER), an alliance of companies and “supporting partners” that jointly work on environmental and stewardship issues.

Water usage is also a big issue for the smaller, so-called craft brewers – which have been taking the lead in efforts to reduce the industry’s water footprint. Oregon-based Full Sail Brewing has reportedly cut its water-to-beer production ratio to one of the lowest in the industry: 3.25 gallons of water used to make one gallon of beer." 

“We included features that would help our brewery last for the long term, like a full wastewater treatment plant, efficient lighting, a high-efficiency boiler and a high efficiency glycol chiller,” said executive brewmaster James Emmerson in a recent interview with Triple Pundit. “All the byproduct of our beer production is used as animal feed locally.”

Those sustainability practices have, in turn, helped Full Sail keep its supply chain reliable. “Because we are a small, independent brewery in a very competitive environment,” said Emmerson, “we need to be sure that our business decisions are responsible and careful of our limited resources.”

Whether micro-brewery or major conglomerate, sustainability as an issue and economic necessity has gained momentum across the beer industry. In its annual water benchmarking study of 211 breweries, BIER found that nearly three-quarters had improved their water use ratios.