You can’t make good beer with bad water

By Russell Bassett
Clean Water Digital Campaigner

Comparing two Top 10 breweries’ positions on the clean water rule

Americans care about clean water for a whole host of reasons – fishing and swimming, protecting wildlife, and safe drinking water. But as I was reminded last week by Jenn Vervier at New Belgium Brewing, clean water is also vital for excellent beer.  

In fact, Beer is more than 90 percent water, and water is the only ingredient that can truly be called local in most beers. Polluter lawsuits have driven loopholes into the Clean Water Act that leave more than half our nation’s streams at risk of pollution. These streams help provide drinking water to one in every three Americans. Think about that the next time you reach for a cold one. Thankfully, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a rule to restore protections to our streams and drinking water.

Understanding that great beer takes great water, many of America’s breweries have come out in support of this proposed clean water rule. New Belgium Brewing, the nation’s eighth largest brewery, is a leader of this effort. In April 2012, Vervier, New Belgium’s director of strategic development and sustainability, wrote an editorial in the Huffington Post, expressing gratitude for the Clean Water Act’s protections, frustration that many streams have lost those protections, and urging the Obama Administration to restore protections to “all rivers, lakes, and wetlands – large and small – that safeguard our drinking water and the public’s health.”

And many breweries have since spoken out like New Belgium. A year later, the Natural Resources Defense Council created the Brewers for Clean Water campaign that now has 45 participating breweries from around the country, including the nation's seventh largest brewery, Sierra Nevada of California. This past year, our state groups partnered with Bacchus Brewing Co. in Dryden, NY, and Revolution Brewing in Chicago to hold events in support of restoring Clean Water Act protections. Several other breweries, including Heavy Seas Brewing Co. of Maryland and Schlafly Brand Beers of Missouri, submitted public comments to the EPA in support of the clean water rule. 

Noticeably absent from the list of the clean water rule’s supporters, however, is America’s biggest brewery: Anheuser-Busch.

While Anheuser-Busch hasn’t come out in support of the clean water rule, there’s actually evidence that they are working to stop it. The Cache La Poudre Water Users Association, of which Anheuser-Busch is a member, submitted public comments opposing the rulemaking and urging that it be “withdrawn and reconsidered.” Interestingly enough, New Belgium’s headquarters in Fort Collins, Co., is located on the banks of the Cache La Poudre River, and roughly half of the water used to craft its beers at that location comes from the river.

New Belgium has commented at both the federal and state levels on protections affecting clean water, and in June 2014, the company submitted comments on the clean water rule and spoke in support of the rule at a Congressional hearing.I traveled to New Belgium’s headquarters and sat down with Vervier to get her take. Over a couple Rampant Imperial Pale Ales, Vervier explained that the company was founded on an ethic of environmental conservation, and that ethic runs through everything they do. For example, New Belgium has a goal of reducing its carbon emissions 25% by this year, and built its own onsite wastewater treatment plant. New Belgium also invests in renewable energy and energy efficiency — including reusing methane produced in brewing as an energy source — and gives millions in grants to local nonprofits that support water conservation and restoration.

“The clean water rule is designed to bring the Clean Water Act back to its original intent,” said Vervier. “Would we even have 3,000 craft breweries in this country if it weren’t for the Clean Water Act? Because what was happening in the 70s would have only gotten worse in terms of people using our streams for wastewater conveyance. Regulation is absolutely necessary for our industry.”

In all fairness to Anheuser-Busch, the company has come a long way from 2002 when it was listed by the Political Economy Research Institute as 40th among the “Toxic 100” list of corporations most responsible for air pollution. According to its website, Anheuser-Busch has reduced its water intake by 40 percent and is one of the largest users of solar power in the United States.

“Water is a key ingredient in the brewing of all our beers and vital to life on the planet,” says the company’s website. That’s exactly why everyone – including Anheuser-Busch – needs the clean water rule.

“The brewing industry is heavily regulated,” Vervier said, “and Anheuser-Busch has obviously been very successful in a regulated environment. I think that history will prove that they’re coming down on the wrong side of this issue. I would implore them to thus change their position now. They should put the interests of the communities in which they brew their beer, the communities where people who drink their beer work and play, and the American ethic of environmental protection before the short term interests of their global shareholders.”

Anheuser-Busch still has the opportunity to do the right thing. Please sign the petition and tell Anheuser-Busch to support the clean water rule.