Beer has become a global beverage of choice, from national brands to local craft brews. With popularity and thirst come impact: depending on which resource you check, it takes anywhere from 75 liters (WaterFootprint.org) to 155 liters (WWF) to produce a single glass of beer. Much of that water impact comes from far down the supply chain, from farms to ingredients’ final distribution before all that wheat, barley, and hops ferment into frothy goodness. So no, not every drop of water that contributes to that bottle of beer is lost forever. The point of sorting out a “water footprint” is to find fixable inefficiencies.
Beer companies are onto this as the industry faces growing consolidation and local communities express concern about the impact that massive breweries can have on local water supplies. So the (responsible) race is on: companies are tripping over each other to show that that their water-to-beer ratio is trending down. The statistics are not just about public relations: beverage company executives have told me that water efficiency projects can have an internal ROI of anywhere between 10 to 20 percent. Molson Coors, the North American beer giant, had a large drop in water consumption the past year alone.
Molson Coors released its 2011 Corporate Responsibility Report last week, which includes a discussion of its water stewardship efforts. The company’s water consumption, if you include that of MillerCoors, a joint venture with SABMiller, dropped 5 percent between 2009 and 2010. That leaves its water to beer ratio at 4.4 to 1, a decrease from 4.7:1 in 2009. Part of Molson Coors’ success stems from its partnership with the Carbon Disclosure Project’s Water Disclosure Project. The company identified breweries that were either located in water-stressed regions or face current or future risk because of water availability. To that end, Molson Coors participates in watershed restoration and management projects in the United Kingdom and the United States, including the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation in Colorado.
Molson Coors is also working with other beverage companies to develop best practices for water strategy while encouraging its employees to find ways to conserve water both at work and in their homes. The hard part, however, will be working with suppliers from farmers to distributors to find ways to conserve water at the source. As with food companies, the largest water impact for beer companies is where the ingredients are grown. As more consumers become even more aware about water issues, they will demand more verifiable information, so watch for water-related data to become more granular and transparent.
Critics will find holes in beverage companies’ water efficiency initiatives, but here is the big picture: as these companies develop new processes and technologies that help conserve, clean, and save water, look for them to scale and become cheaper–benefitting us and our towns in the long run.