Water Conservation on the Minds of Colorado Brewers

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5min 36sec

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.

It’s so loud on the production line at Coors’ Golden brewery that they distribute earplugs to visitors, plus steel toes to put over shoes and a hard hat.  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 plant, everything from its flagship Coors to one called Third Shift Amber Lager.   Cans whiz by on the production line, 2000 of them every minute.

“This is the actual packer,” says Mike Murphy, plant safety rep.  “All those cans that are being collected over there are going to run around there and come back to the packer to be put into 6 packs, 12 packs, whatever the need is at the time.  These are 18 packs.”

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.  But that’s changed in recent years.

Technical Services Manager at the Golden brewery, John Stonebraker, says putting a spotlight on the issue helped.

“For a long time there wasn't the focus on water reduction,” said Stonebraker, ”because it doesn't have that cost that some of the other utilities does. There wasn’t that key driver pushing it.”

A Colorado Water Conservation Board report says this facility is the largest self-supplied industrial water user in the state.  It brewed about 10 million barrels of beer last year.  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—making this among the largest breweries in the world.

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 says 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,” said Stonebraker.  “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% last year, saving over 270 million gallons.

The company is also looking beyond the brewery for more water savings.  Marco Ugarte is a Sustainability Manager for MillerCoors.  He says 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.   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.  But lowering the water to beer ratio is part of an industry-wide trend, and even the little guys in the beer business are doing their part. 

Jim Weatherwax is Plant Manager at Oskar Blues in Longmont, where the tasting room is incorporated right into the brewery.  This brewery produced about 85,000 barrels last year--less than one percent of the output at Coors in Golden.  But Oskar Blues also looks for water saving opportunities.

Weatherwax says sometimes they make their own modifications to the machinery, like the gizmo that rinses the cans.

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

So 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 rerinse the can after it’s sealed and as lubrication to keep the can line running smooth.   With this and other modifications, Weatherwax says 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 three gallons of water for every gallon of beer.

Connecting the Drops is a yearlong collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more about water in the state at YourWaterColorado.org.