How Much Water Did It Take to Make That Pint of Beer?

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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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

4 responses

  1. After reading these statistics on how countries waste water my only answer is how dare they ask for international aid in any way shape or form?
    Man grows fruit to sell it to company X who then wastes litres and litres of water to make a fruit juice that sits on a shelf in a shop?
    There is no logic in this.
    Eat fruit.
    Drink water.

  2. @3bc9436218c69ff3952cbd4806911d12:disqus Lustful thirst? Oh please. Before you pick on the beer industry, consider the following:

    Do you know how much water is wasted to produce commodity corn, which isn’t used for real consumable corn? Most of that commodity corn is used for corn-based sweeteners, nutritionless corn-based ingredients and additives for all the junk food and boxed food people consume, or to fatten up cattle so you can have that big fat hamburger that only took a year or two to produce from that cattle facility?

    The beer industry uses a dramatically lower percentage of water compared to the commodity corn and soybean industry, industrial farms that grow crops that are not regionally appropriate, and industrial ranchers that raise cattle like they’re a commodity and not a living creature.

    Before you dish out judgments about lust and waste, consider the other industries before doling out your prescriptions to save humanity while on your holier-than-thou throne. You may also want to redirect your angst towards industry in general, which uses even more water to produce goods and services and wastes and exponentially greater amount of water than the poor farmers that produce two- and six-row barley varieties.

  3. Shadows77, what an inane comment! Get your facts right!
    Not one person in developed countries and very few people in developing countries die of thirst… According to the World Health Organisation the 10 greatest causes of death in developing countries (in descending order) are HIV/AIDS, Respiratory infections, Heart Disease, Diarrhoeal diseases (water-borne diseases), Cerebrovascular disease, Childhood diseases, Malaria, Tuberculosis, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and Measles. Malnutrition contributes greatly to the high numbers of deaths from childhood diseases and water-borne diarrhoeal diseases, but generally people do not die of thirst.
    The biggest killer of all actually is POVERTY because most of these conditions are preventable by better hygiene and healthcare, immunisation, provision of clean water, and better nutrition, which hundreds of millions of poor people do not have access to…
    Agriculture is the mainstay of most developing economies, much of which is financed through demand for products in the developed world. Agriculture in developing countries brings poverty alleviation and saves many lives through improved food supply, improved water supply, employment, education, improved healthcare, and many other benefits to the communities where they develop farms.
    Lustful thirst?! Do you know that the tradition of beer brewing (and cider and wine making) goes back many centuries and it is founded in the wonderful discovery that raw contaminated water can be made safe by the brewing process (fermentation of sugars to produce alcohol, which kills water-borne pathogens). Beers of all kinds are brewed in developing countries and drinking beer has saved millions of people from diseases they would otherwise get from drinking unsafe water. For centuries beer drinkers enjoyed better health and longer life than people who did not drink beer. The monks of old knew this and would drink nothing but beer and cider.
    I guess you could say drinking alcoholic beverages gives you a lust for life.
    The lust for alcohol and its unfortunate detrimental effects is another matter, to which of course you allude in your comment.
    It was also discovered that drinking tea prevented disease, hence the great demand for tea. Only long afterwards came the realisation that this was not thanks to any special properties the tea might have but thanks to the simple matter of boiling the water to make the tea.
    Today we have complex water purification systems in the developed world, but the first line of defence against water-borne disease is still to boil your water.
    People do generally have access to water, but many in the developing countries do not have access to clean water. Of course, those who have no means of boiling their water are still at risk. In this situation do you drink the water that might kill you, or do you die of thirst?

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