Ecocentric

At the Farm and the Brewery, MillerCoors Gets More Beer to the Barrel with Water Efficiency

Thanks to population growth and climate change, water is becoming an ever more precious resources—putting extra emphasis on efficiency. How one beer company is getting more buzz from its water

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Courtesy MillerCoors

The Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado

It’s been another tough year for water in America’s grain basket. This past week, one-quarter of the Midwest was in some state of drought, and drought covered nearly half of corn-growing areas in the U.S.. That’s largely due to recent “flash drought” conditions—extremely dry, extremely hot weather at the end of the summer that has sucked moisture out of the soil and offset what had been a relatively wet and cool start to the spring and summer growing season

Even if the hot and dry weather continues, conditions won’t be as bad as they were last year, when the U.S. was gripped by a historic drought that cost the country more than $50 billion. But as both the population and the economy continue to grow, demand for water—for agriculture, industry and personal use—will likely increase as well. Throw in the fact that climate change is likely to intensify dry periods in already arid parts of the country, and the need to be water-efficient will shift from a green option to a business imperative—especially if water is a basic ingredient in your product.

One such example: beer. More than 90% of the average beer is water, and additional water is needed to irrigate the growing barley and hops that go into your lager or ale. Many beer makers require as much as six barrels of water for every barrel of beer they brew. But in its new sustainability report (PDF), MillerCoors—which owns brands like Miller Lite, Coors and Molson—announced that it now uses a record-low of 3.82 barrels of water per barrel of beer, down 6.1% from the year before. And while the company has worked to cut water waste at the final brewing stage, most of that improvement comes from enhancing efficiency at the farm—which means their methods could help American farmers prepare for a drier future. “The entire brewing process is rooted in water and agriculture,” says Kim Marotta, the director of sustainability at MillerCoors. “It’s part of our DNA from the beginning.”


(MORE: Source of GMO Wheat in Oregon Remains Mystery)

The best of those techniques are on display at the company’s showcase barley farm in Idaho’s Silver Creek Valley. It starts with irrigation, which in the U.S. is responsible for 37% of all freshwater withdrawals. Irrigation also consumes energy—you need electricity to pump water out of an underground aquifer and to spread it on your fields. Too often, though, farmers overirrigate, saturation bombing their fields with pumped groundwater. It’s not hard to see why—farmers are more concerned with ensuring their crops get all the water they need than they are in husbanding groundwater supplies, and there’s been little financial disincentive to using as much water as you think you need. The result: “More than 90% of the water used to produce beer comes in the agriculture supply chain,” says Marotta. “So the real change had to come with our ag partners.”

The Silver Creek farms in Idaho have managed to save a total of 270 million gallons of water between 2011 and 2012 by improving irrigation. Farmers converted 300 acres of flood-irrigated land—a simple and cheap method in which water simply flows along the ground among the crops—to sprinkler irrigation. Such precise, drip by drip irrigation can cut the amount of water used by 75% while improving soil productivity and reducing fertilizer runoff to nearby waterways. (Less water flowing in the field means less runoff.) More efficient irrigation requires less pumping, which means less energy use—the showcase farm managed to cut energy usage from $50 per acre to no more than $22.

MillerCoors has also worked to improve energy efficiency while brewing and bottling, reducing the size of the nozzles on equipment and cutting the duration of the sprays used to clean cans and bottle fillers. Other MillerCoors breweries reused and recycled water in the cooling system and eliminated unnecessary rinse cycles to cut water waste. But the lesson here is that it’s at the farm where the battle over water will really be fought—especially in the West, where thirsty farms are increasingly competing for water with growing cities. California has experienced the driest year to date on record, and the federal government has had to cut water releases from the Colorado River—which feeds states throughout the West—to all-time lows.

Water has always been underpriced and underappreciated, but as with the climate, the indifference is beginning to change. Whether you’re brewing beer, baking bread or making microchips, you won’t always be able to count on free and unlimited supplies of water. In a dry world, efficiency will have to become the norm.

MORE: World on Fire: Climate, Population and Intensifying Wildfires

7 comments
reidh
reidh

it used to be a joke that we were only renting the beer, now its no joke, heh heh.

hegesias
hegesias

Well they couldn't possibly make their beer any more watery.  

VasuMurti
VasuMurti

Abortion and war are the collective karma for killing animals. Through killing animals, pro-life and peace activists are only thwarting their own respective causes.

On the surface, not eating animal products sounds like a roundabout solution to the abortion crisis. 

However, John Robbins, author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated Diet for a New America (1987), points out that the Rainforest Action Network did not start as an animal rights group. But when they discovered the real cause of destruction of rainforests in Central America was the American fast-food market, they called for a boycott of Burger King.

"All Things Are Connected," the concluding chapter to John Robbins' Pulitzer Prize nominated Diet for a New America (1987), begins with a quote from (reincarnationist) Christian mystic Edgar Cayce:

"Destiny, or karma, depends upon what the soul has done about what it has become aware of."

Vegan author John Robbins provides these points and facts in his Pulitzer Prize nominated Diet for a New America (1987): 

Half the water consumed in the U.S. irrigates land growing feed and fodder for livestock. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat, but 2,500 gallons to produce a pound of meat. If these costs weren't subsidized by the American taxpayers, the cheapest hamburger meat would be $35 per pound!

Livestock producers are California's biggest consumers of water. Every tax dollar the state doles out to livestock producers costs taxpayers over seven dollars in lost wages, higher living costs and reduced business income. Seventeen western states have enough water supplies to support economies and populations twice as large as the present.

U.S. livestock produce twenty times as much excrement as the entire human population, creating sewage which is ten to several hundred times as concentrated as raw domestic sewage. Meat producers contribute to half the water pollution in the United States. 

A 2007 pamphlet put out by Compassion Over Killing similarly points out:  

Nearly 75% of the grain grown and 50% of the water consumed in the U.S. are used by the meat industry. (Audubon Society)

It takes nearly one gallon of fossil fuel and 5,200 gallons of water to produce just one pound of conventionally fed beef. (Mother Jones)

In their 2007 book, Please Don't Eat the Animals, mother and daughter Jennifer Horsman and Jaime Flowers write: 

"Half of all fresh water worldwide is used for thirsty livestock.  Producing eight ounces of beef requires an unimaginable 25,000 liters of water, or the water necessary for one pound of steak equals the water consumption of the average household for a year.

"The Worldwatch Institute estimates one pound of steak from a steer raised in a feedlot costs:  five pounds of grain, a whopping 2,500 gallons of water, the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, and about 34 pounds of topsoil.

"Thirty-three percent of our nation's raw materials and fossil fuels go into livestock destined for slaughter.  In a vegan economy, only two percent of our resources will go to the production of food."

According to the editors of World Watch, July/August 2004:   

"The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future -- deforestization, topsoil erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities and the spread of disease."

The number of animals killed for food in the United States is nearly 75 times larger than the number of animals killed in laboratories, 30 times larger than the number killed by hunters and trappers, and 500 times larger than the number of animals killed in animal pounds.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is challenging those who think they can still be "meat-eating environmentalists" to go vegan, if they really care about the planet. 

peta2 is now the largest youth movement of any social change organization in the world.

peta2 has 267,000 friends on MySpace and 91,000 Facebook fans. 

Environmental devastation, rather than abortion or war, is the most visible manifestation of the collective karma for killing animals. 
 

Meat-eating pro-lifers and/or meat-eating pacifists saying, "First let's end abortion and/or war, and then we'll move on to animals, are comparable to a Green Party activist saying, "First let's end the water crisis, and then we'll address animal issues."
 

If we address animals first, there won't be a water crisis!

BeerGreening
BeerGreening

"it now uses a record-low of 3.82 barrels of water per barrel of beer, down 6.1% from the year before. And while the company has worked to cut water waste at the final brewing stage, most of that improvement comes from enhancing efficiency at the farm"

This information is incorrect. The water-to-beer ratio tracks water usage at the breweries, not including usage at the farm. This is detailed in the MillerCoors Sustainability Report. 

UncleBurl
UncleBurl

Well, you know what they say, you don't buy beer, you rent it.  Recycle it!

VasuMurti
VasuMurti

@UncleBurl

Around 1999 or 2000, there was a discussion on an email list for pro-life vegetarians and vegans regarding PETA's "Got Beer?" campaign.

Parodying the dairy industry's "Got Milk?" campaign, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) campaign urged college students to drink beer (which is cruelty-free) in place of milk (which is not cruelty-free).

PETA took a lot of flack for this campaign, especially from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)!

I commented that while I disagreed with PETA's approach, I understood their point: distinguishing between a seemingly harmless recreational activity (drinking a beer) Vs unnecessarily torturing or killing animals (consuming dairy products -- although the analogy of circuses, or animal experimentation makes this point clear).

G.K. Chesterton would have understood PETA's point. Often at odds with his nemesis, George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian and a teetolaler, Chesterton, a Catholic, once admitted:

"There is a very strong case for vegetarianism as compared with teetolalism. Drinking one glass of beer cannot by any philosophy be drunkenness; but killing one animal can, by this philosophy, be murder."