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Saving Water, The Key To Beer's Success

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With over 200 breweries and brewpubs, Colorado is one of top beer producers in the country. All that beer requires a lot of water. Brewers large and small are working to conserve the precious liquid that is crucial to creating the other precious liquid.

Colorado’s best-known brewer merged with other industry giants a few years ago and is now called MillerCoors. They brew over 20 different beers at the Golden brewery, everything from its flagship Coors to one called Third Shift Amber Lager.

On the production line, cans whizz by - 2000 of them every minute.

For much of its 140-year history in Golden, Coors didn’t pay much attention to how much water they used. They focused on the quality of the water going into the beer but not the quantity used in its production. Water was cheap and plentiful. That’s changed in recent years.

“For a long time there wasn't the focus on water reduction, because it doesn't have that cost that some of the other utilities [have],” said John Stonebraker, Technical Services Manager at the Golden brewery. “There wasn’t that key driver pushing it.”

A Colorado Water Conservation Board report said this facility is the largest self-supplied industrial water user in the state. It brewed about 10 million barrels of beer in 2013. At 31 gallons per barrel, that’s a bladder-busting 310 million gallons of beer. But that’s less than half of their capacity.

If necessary, Coors has the capability — and the water rights — to produce double that amount. That makes this among the largest breweries in the world.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC
Traditionally, the basic ingredients of beer are water, barley (or other ferment-able ingredient), and hops (for flavor).

A 12-ounce can of beer contains about 12 ounces of water, and a few other ingredients. But there’s a lot of additional water used in the production process. The industry measures overall water use with what they call the water-to-beer ratio. The Golden brewery is below 4 to 1 and they’re working to get their ratio down to 3.5 to one — three and a half gallons of water used for every gallon of beer produced.

Stonebraker said much of the water savings comes from paying closer attention to every facet of production. For example, changes to the level in a cooling water reservoir.

“We found out that when the wind blew hard it would change our control system,” Stonebraker said. “Our float valve would go up and down indicating to the control system that we needed more water, so we would have more water go in and then would pump it out because of then it had too much water. So by just monitoring things in a more timely fashion you see things that you couldn’t see before.”

Those cans speeding by on the production line need lubrication to keep from jamming up. In 2012, Coors switched to a dry lubricant to save water. These and other modifications helped the company cut water use at the Golden brewery by 11 percent in 2013, saving over 270 million gallons.

"For a long time there wasn't the focus on water reduction, because it doesn't have that cost that some of the other utilities [have]."

The company is also looking beyond the brewery for more water savings. Marco Ugarte, the Sustainability Manager for MillerCoors, said they also want to help the farmers that grow their barley.

“At this point, the scope is only from when the grain arrives at the factory to the end of production,” Ugarte said. “What we are striving for is to build a number of baselines to better understand the farming challenges and opportunities.”

For example, MillerCoors is working with one barley farm in Idaho to maximize the efficiency of their irrigation system.

The size and scope of this mega brewer means every action they take can save a tremendous amount of water. Lowering the water to beer ratio is part of an industrywide trend; even the little guys in the beer business are doing their part.

At Oskar Blues in Longmont, the tasting room is incorporated right into the brewery. In 2013, this brewery produced about 85,000 barrels, less than 1 percent of the output at Coors in Golden.

Oskar Blues also looks for water saving opportunities.

Jim Weatherwax, Oskar Blues’ Plant Manager, said sometimes they make their own modifications to the machinery, like the gizmo that rinses the cans.

“The main rinser was a packaged unit, that basically all the water that rinses the can goes into the bottom of a trough that runs out [of the unit],” said Weatherwax. “So we welded in a ferrule to collect that water through a hose and then that splits off and goes to one side to re-rinse the cans and the other side for the lubricator.”

Their homemade change to the rinsing machine gives Oskar Blues three uses of the water: first to rinse the can before it’s filled, then to re-rinse the can after it’s sealed and as lubrication to keep the can line running smooth. With this and other modifications, Weatherwax said Oskar Blues’ water to beer ratio is between 3.3 and 3.5 to one.

Both Coors and Oskar Blues say they’ll be working to get that down to 3 gallons of water for every gallon of beer.

This story comes from ‘Connecting the Drops’ - a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more at cfwe.org.

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