Water is at the heart of most things we love. Just ask a vintner or a brewmeister.
That delightful glass of Pinot Noir is the product of a vintner's hard work and keen sense of terroir (the climate, environment and geographic attributes that give wine its character). But it wouldn't exist without water.
In fact, most wine and beer drinkers would be askance to learn just how much H2O actually goes into a single serving. According to the Water Footprint Network in the Netherlands, a 5-ounce glass of Cabernet or Merlot made by conventional means takes about 29 gallons of water. For beer, the amount is a bit lower: about 20 gallons per 16-ounce pint. (Of course those numbers factor in all water used to make the product, not just what goes into the drink.)
And while some wine and beer experts balk at those numbers, it's usually the product's "graywater" that tells the tale.
That's because water is an integral and irreplaceable part of just about every stage of wine and beer production, from the meticulously-timed irrigation that helps ripen the grapes or grow the hops, to the various stages of production and bottling. For both industries, figuring out how to manage the use of wastewater and reduce dependence on fresh water supplies is critical to creating a sustainable operation.
Full Sail Brewing in Hood River, Oregon, knows all about environmental imperatives. Hood River is one of several towns that makes its home on the edge of the Columbia River. Mountains and steep hillsides provide the southern backdrop for the town's narrow 2.55 square miles, which is home to more than 7,000 people. Conserving water and energy makes sense to a brewery that has been around since 1989 and prides itself on being a contributing supporter of Hood River's own sustainability goals.
But being smart about water and energy use is also an imperative due to the area's unique geographic constraints.
"It has really dictated how we have grown," Full Sail Brewmaster Jim Kelter said of the landscape, which he says constantly challenges the company to come up with new ways to limit its footprint.
Of course, most craft breweries in the Northwest are focused on sustainable measures by nature, each with their own approach toward conservation.
"What goes in must come out," said Full Sail's head brewmaster, Jamie Emmerson. "As our brewing production increased, so too did our brewery waste by-products stream -- specifically residual water from the brewing process, spent brewers grains and yeast."
Full Sail installed the Meura filter in 2011 to help reduce water usage in beer production and improve key stages in the production cycle. "This enabled us to separate the wort from the mash with greatly improved efficiency and, in the process, reduce our water usage. Through this technology, we realized improved extract efficiency from our malt. Thus, malt usage was reduced and, as a result of this, less water was used in the process."
It also improved overall efficiency for the company. "Not only did we realize improved extract efficiency and reduced waste with the mash filter, but brewhouse efficiency was improved as well," Emmerson told us. "We were able to cycle brews through the process in a shorter time, thus compressing the production day by one hour on each end."
But the improvements didn't stop there. The brewery also installed a hot water recovery system, reduced the size of the spray nozzle on bottle and keg washers to reduce water loss, and added a glycol chiller to further cut energy and water use.
After cleaning, wastewater is discharged and treated in the brewery's own wastewater plant, which reduces the load on the city's plant. The leftover biosolids are given to farmers, who use it as soil amendment and fertilizer. "[In-house] employees are dedicated to this system," Full Sail says.
"We never wanted to be in the position to put them into an over-limit situation," Emmerson added. The Columbia River's beauty and recreational amenities are major draws for tourism, which help support both the city and the brewery's success.
The end result of Full Sail's efforts is seen in its water reduction: The company claims it was able to cut water use in production by more than half with its self-contained brewing process.
"While a typical brewery uses 6 to 8 gallons of water to brew a gallon of beer, we’ve reduced our water use to less than 3 gallons," resulting in 4 million gallons of water saved annually, Emmerson said.
With increasing concern about climate change, California wineries have become even more attuned to the environment in recent years, ever aware that their success depends on a fragile balance between California's exquisitely warm, dry, sunny summers and ample water for irrigation and manufacturing. In California, water equals energy. For an agricultural company like a vintner, hotter, drier summers can have a direct impact on both the size of the grape yield and the quality of wine.
For Fetzer Vineyards, sustainable wine making is an assumed part of its environmental commitment, said Josh Prigge, Fetzer's director of regenerative development. He oversees and implements many of the company's sustainability policies, including water conservation.
In 2014, Fetzer became the first certified Zero Waste vineyard in the world. A year later, it completed its B Corp certification. Those steps are a reflection of a mindset that has prevailed throughout the company's 50-year history and what Prigge refers to as "regenerative development" -- using systems that do not degrade the ecosystem, but actually work in concert with nature.
"I think these are things we have been doing for a long time," Prigge told us. "It really sets us up for climate [and drought resiliency], and we are really trying to be a voice in this regenerative agriculture movement."
The vineyard took another significant step in March: It installed the BioFiltro BIDA filtration system to process its wastewater. The clean output from the winemaking process can then be used for irrigation, closing the loop. In fact Fetzer is the first winery in the world to operate a closed-loop wastewater system.
The BIDA system was developed by a company in Chile and is now used around the world to filter wastewater into a reusable resource. "We used to use aeration ponds," he explained, which cost both energy and money. "Now we are doing this using worms, and we are letting nature do the work for us." The company figures it saves about 85 percent of the energy it spent using conventional technology. The system uses sustainable inputs -- red worms and microbes -- to get the job done.
"It's largely the microbes that are eating away at the contaminants. The worms are working as aerators," said Prigge, who added that the main job of the wigglers is to tunnel around and stir up the particulates and the water.
Prigge says the entire cleaning process takes about four hours. The accelerated processing makes irrigation water available on a quicker basis, but also means the winery's operations aren't punctuated by a "hurry up and wait" schedule which so often causes challenges in farming.
Once the worms and bacteria have done their part, the worm castings are scooped up and added to the winery's soil as an enriching agent. Nothing is left to be wasted.
To ensure water loss is kept to a minimum on the Fetzer campus, the company uses a water monitoring system supplied by Apana, which alerts staff if abnormal water usage is detected. Data is uploaded to Apana's website where the usage is analyzed, providing Fetzer with data that helps it tweak its water usage.
Fetzer's next goal is to become net positive, which it plans to accomplish by 2030, so that it can "completely offset all of [its] negative impacts."
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.