Can new innovations reduce beer’s water usage? | FT Food Revolution
The beer manufacturing process is extremely water intensive – on average it takes approximately 90 litres of water to produce a litre of beer. But the industry is taking steps to both improve on that statistic and lighten beer’s overall environmental footprint. Ayesha Durgahee travels to the Netherlands to explore the different ways breweries are tackling the sustainability issue
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Making this heady product of fermented hops and malted barley is a thirsty process. From start to finish, to make just one litre of beer takes on average 90 litres of water. But that may be changing. The industry is working towards reducing the amount of water it uses, focusing on every stage of the beer supply chain.
You have to see what can we do in agriculture? What can we do in packaging? What can we do in transport? And how can we reuse, or recycle the water that we use every time? The main package of the water we use is in the agriculture phase of our chain. So we talk to the growers and we say, OK, how can we make this more sustainable?
One association member employing improved sustainability practises can be found in the water scarce area of Eindhoven in the south of Holland. Here, the Swinkels Family Brewers are helping replenish groundwater levels using a purpose built sub-irrigation system to divert its treated waste water that would usually end up in rivers.
By using the system of Swinkels, the spare water that we have that we cannot use anymore in our own process, we share it with the farmers that are next to the brewery.
Last year, the system transported 800,000 cubic metres of purified brewery effluent back to the soil, providing enough water for the 20 farmers surrounding the brewery. The pump system can also top up groundwater levels by one metres, levels that can drop by as much as two metres in the driest months.
We have to create new things to cope with this scarcity.
But there are more than 800 active breweries in the Netherlands. And they don't all believe water conservation is the key issue when it comes to improving beer's overall environmental footprint. Energy use in areas such as brewing, packaging, transport, and even refrigeration all feed into the equation.
At Gulpener Breweries near Maastricht a major focus is the thermal energy used in the brewing process. Its new brew house is the first with two types of heat sources, steam and hot water to gently brew the beer. They claim the energy savings of up to 75 per cent make it the most sustainable brew house in Europe.
We want to be fossil-free in 2030. You only get one chance to make a new brew house. It will last for another 30, 40 years. We've got to make a big step now, because the brew house is about 50 per cent of the energy use of the brewery.
Here, reducing water consumption in the brewery isn't a priority.
The water used in a brewery is only a very small part of the whole water usage throughout the chain. It doesn't really make a big difference if you use four, or five, or six litres for a litre of beer. I think big breweries, the big industry they focus on water because it's easy to measure, and it's easy to get a sustainable programme on.
Water is an important issue. You should check it. You should look at it. But it's not where you change the world.
Heineken, the world's second largest brewer, has more than 160 breweries, and aims to become carbon neutral across its value chain by 2040. Combating water scarcity is an important part of its overall sustainability strategy.
The number of water scarce regions in the world because of climate change is going up, and it's going up quickly. So we had a handful years ago. Today, we have 30. And tomorrow, we'll have more.
So we work with government and NGO to do things to replenish the watershed. That can be reforestation projects where you also step up biodiversity through the nature of the projects. It can be addressing illegal logging that could be happening on some of those watersheds.
More than 95 per cent of Heineken's wastewater is now treated before disposal. And water consumption in its breweries decreased by 33 per cent between 2008 and 2020. It has set targets to reduce the water usage at its breweries in water stressed areas to 2.6 litres per litre of beer produced. But for the moment, the company sees that as the best it can do.
2.6 is about where we are with the threshold of what the technology is capable of. So to get further than 2.6, we need to invent new technologies.
Until that new technology arrives, efficiency is the mantra.
So our teams essentially look at the end-to-end process. And you're starting to take the brewing process step-by-step, and re-engineering elements of it so that we're more efficient along the way. Opinion within the beer industry may be divided on how much emphasis should be placed on reducing its water consumption. But according to the UN, by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population may be facing water shortages. So it's likely the issue of curbing beer's thirst is only going to grow in importance.