It takes a lot of water to make that beer you’re planning to drink after reading this. That shouldn’t be a surprise really. After all, what is beer really other than water with a bunch of hops and barley malt brewed in?
So if you’re going to make a lot of beer, then you’re going to use a lot of water.
You’ve got water and all these other dry ingredients coming in. You put them in tanks to brew for a while, then, when it turns into beer, you drain off the liquid, put it into bottles, or cans, or kegs and sell it, right?
Well, that’s pretty much how it goes, but that’s not where most of the water is used. The brewing process uses somewhere in the neighborhood of five liters for every liter of beer produced. But that’s only a drop in the bucket when compared to the total of anywhere from 61 to 180 liters required, depending on which country the ingredients are produced in. (That would be anywhere from 8 to 24 gallons for a pint, in case you’re planning to use this post’s title as a pickup line in a bar.)
A recent report of the Water Futures Partnership, a collaboration between the SABMiller brewing company and the WWF, studies the water footprint at SABMiller’s operations and in river habitats in four countries: Peru, Tanzania, Ukraine and South Africa. Although, operations vary considerably from country to country, in each case at least 89% of the total water usage goes to the cultivation of ingredients such as hops and barley.
SABMiller is one of the worlds largest brewing companies with 189 different brands, including Coors, Miller, Grolsch and Pilsner Urquel. The company itself has little control over the practices their suppliers use, so attempts to reduce their extended water footprint have to rely influencing those suppliers to adapt more water-efficient farming methods.
Towards that end, the company is now running workshops in all of the countries with NGOs, government representatives, and other stakeholders to educate farmers and initiate watershed protection programs. Among the four countries studied, Tanzania used the most water, requiring a total of 180 liters for each liter of beer, with South Africa second at 155 liters. Peru and Ukraine were tied for the least at 61 liters each, though that large discrepancy may be accounted for, at least in part by the fact that these two countries both use a significant amount of gray water for cultivation purposes. Methodologies for quantifying the impact of gray water are still in their early stages of development. Grey water is one area that is ripe for significant utilization, particularly in countries with scarce water resources, like India and Africa.
Coca-Cola also recently performed three water usage assessments in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy. The reports studied, one particular European soft drink operation, a beet sugar production, and several types of orange juice. They found that it took 35 liters of water to make one half liter bottle of Coke. That might seem high, but isn’t when compared to the 518 to 651 liters required to make a single liter of premium orange juice.
The Coke study makes a distinction between three types of water footprints:
- Green water refers to the consumption of rainwater stored in the soil
- Blue water refers to surface water or ground water
- Grey water refers to the amount of water needed to assimilate pollutants
Most of the footprint for Coke (66%) comes from green and blue water required to grow sugar beets. In the case of the orange juice, an even larger share of the footprint (83%) was needed to grow the oranges.
All of these studies show the critical linkage between agriculture and water use and the urgent necessity for famers to begin using more water-efficient methods regardless of what types of crops they grow.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails.
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