California's Drought Might Cause Craft Beer Drought

drought-weatherThere are many ingredients that go into making the highest quality of beer but the one ingredient that is often overlooked is water. Despite that it is the largest ingredient by far it doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

While the mass market breweries often talk about water fresh from the Rockies (despite brewing tons of the beer all over the country) many craft breweries don’t boast about the water that makes their delicious beers.

Yet it is the combination of a single hydrogen atom with two oxygen atoms that can have a massive effect on the taste of a beer. Not just the water itself but the distinct set of impurities in the water itself that can add a unique and distinctive flavor to the resulting beers.

As California is experiencing one of the worst droughts in recorded history a few craft breweries are worrying about their supply of the water that makes their beers their beers. Lagunitas Brewing Company is proud of the fact that they brew with water from Russian River which provides potent water to many Californians.

With the drought taking its toll on the water supply in California Lagunitas is worried that the county will force them to switch from water from the river and instead use well water. Jeremy Marshall, head brewer stated, “If [the county] shifts us over to groundwater, we’d have to sacrifice our nice water supply — that unique signature, clean Russian River water.”

Well water would have a much more mineral rich quality which isn’t harmful but would drastically change the nature of the beer. Jay Jasperse is a chief engineer at the Sonoma County Water Agency said about the well water, “But in some [of the region’s wells] there are taste and odor issues. You have high nitrate concentrations in places, from agricultural industries, and iron and manganese.”

What can be done to save the quality of Lagunitas beer if they are forced to go to well water? Thankfully all hope is not lost. For Lagunitas they are about to open a new facility in Chicago that could take over most of the production until they are allowed to use Russian River water when the rains find their way home to California.

But this doesn’t work for all breweries. Not everyone has the good fortune to be completing a new facility in another part of the country to brew their beer. What can be done for them?

Another option for breweries is to install a reverse osmosis system that will filter the water complete. Undesirable well water goes in and pure water comes out; untainted, pure water.

As I mentioned above this isn’t desirable either as it is the unique minerals and other additives in just the right subtle amount that can make or break a beer. Lagunitas, in preparing for the worst case scenario actually had the Russian River water analyzed and is prepared, if necessary, to add certain minerals to the water to recreate it if necessary.

This is a fairly uncommon, but no unheard of technique. Meantime Brewery in London is so obsessed with quality that they actually craft the quality of the water to fit the style of beer they are making. They believe that certain styles need different types of water, some harder, some water, some with more minerals, some with less. They craft their water to the style they are brewing after filtering the water completely.

This is a fine technological solution to breweries with enough financial security to capitalize upon it. But not every brewery that uses Russian River water has the ability to use a reverse osmosis system. Bear Republic’s marketing manager, Clay Grosskopf, expressed trepidation about a dwindling water supply, “We don’t have the option to switch to another supply. That would be an interesting curve ball for us to deal with.”

California officials have warned that it is conceivable that if this drought continues through the summer it is possible that Lake Mendocino, a main contributor of the Russian River, may dry up. This would lead to water rationing but no one is quite sure if that would effect breweries.

Breweries, much like citizens, don’t give a lot of thought about where the water in their taps come from. They might worry about the taste, the clarity, and if crazy whether it is spiked with the mind control substance fluoride but since it always comes rushing out when we turn on the faucet we never really stop to think it is an exhaustible resource.

It is a resource that Californian especially take for granted. A state that should be largely desert should be acutely aware how dependent it is on its water supply.

As craft beer drinkers it looks like the Californian drought shouldn’t have an adverse effect, but it is certainly something worth considering. Without the water that makes great beer there is no such thing as great beer.

Food for thought.