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‘No Water, No Beer’

Brewers take action to ensure the quality of their key ingredient

When discussing the reputation of Michigan water and its connection to the state’s beer industry, Bell’s Brewery founder and president Larry Bell says, “No water, no beer.”

No single ingredient is more important to beer than water. It makes up 90 to 95 percent of the content of beer. Kalamazoo — and Michigan in general — also boast a geological history that suits them well for beer making, specifically darker styles, which has helped make the state a leader in the craft beer industry.

The last decade produced an explosion of breweries in the state. During that same time span, several Michigan communities have grappled with a variety of water-related problems, including oil spills, lead contamination and PFAS pollution, that could or are having an effect on the industry. Some breweries, including Bell’s Brewery and Rockford Brewing Co., have had fairly public battles with those responsible for the problem or have had to address the issue on social media and with customers.

Bell says Kalamazoo has “excellent water” and that his company, which uses city water, is “very fortunate in having a great aquifer we draw from.” But Bell’s, as well as other members of Michigan’s beer industry, are becoming increasingly involved in the conversation about water.

“The problem is the perception of what’s going on with Michigan water. That concerns me,” says Bell, whose company is the seventh largest craft brewery in the U.S. “Between the PFAS, Flint, the oil spill here in the Kalamazoo River and Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, we are putting Michigan water in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.”

In addition to perception, there’s the management side of the equation. Breweries use a lot of water. Depending on its size and efficiency, a brewery can use a volume of water in making beer that is anywhere from four to 12 times greater than the volume of beer produced. Many brewers say they want to be good stewards of the resource. Industry professionals also note the significant difference between surface water and groundwater. The latter is deeper down, often under a layer of rock, providing a buffer from potential pollutants.

Mike Babb has more than 40 years of experience in the beer industry. He worked at Coors Brewing Co., in Colorado, for 25 years and has traveled across the world as a brewing educator and consultant. He moved to Kalamazoo in 2003 to be the advanced hop product director at Kalsec, a company that develops spice and herb flavor extracts as well as hop products for the food and beverage industry. Then, starting in 2014, he developed the curriculum at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Sustainable Brewing Program and began teaching there. He retired earlier this year.

“There is definitely more awareness in terms of trying to conserve water than there used to be,” Babb says. “And because there are more analytic methods, as well as greater potential for pollutants, it is of much higher priority than it once was.”

Michigan’s water

As the single largest ingredient by weight in beer, water takes center stage. Michigan’s water composition played a major role in making the state one of the leaders in U.S. craft beer, according to Steve Bertman, an organic chemist and professor at Western Michigan University’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and one of the architects of WMU’s Sustainable Brewing Program. He works closely with students and beer industry professionals on a variety of topics, including those related to water.

“We have very-high-pH, well-buffered hard water because of the geologic history,” Bertman says. “There’s no planet bedrock. You have to go really far down — hundreds of feet, 400 or 500 feet — to get to bedrock. We are sitting on top of essentially limestone till left over by the glacier. That makes our water alkaline and high in carbonate. If you look at the composition, it’s pretty similar to the water in Bavaria, like in Munich.”

Today it is common for larger breweries to strip their water of minerals and add components to fit the style of beer they are making, Bertman says. In the late 1980s or early ’90s, Bell says, he learned he needed to install filters at Bell’s original brewery in downtown Kalamazoo because of the high level of iron in city water and how it interacted with his Cherry Stout.

“If you mix cherry juice with high-iron-concentration water, you get blood-like flavor in the beer,” he says.

Latitude 42 Brewing Co., in Portage, is one of a few western Michigan breweries — along with Presidential Brewing Co., in Portage, and Perrin Brewing Co., in Comstock Park, among others — to treat its water prior to brewing. Latitude 42 uses carbon filtration and a reverse-osmosis (RO) system.

Latitude 42 head brewer and founder Scott Freitas said inconsistencies in pH testing (for acidity levels) from the city of Portage’s water report during the course of a year prompted Latitude 42 to invest in the system. Freitas, who has also brewed in California, Hawaii and Oregon, said
Latitude 42 takes its water “down to zero” and uses brewing salts to add minerals back to the water. Freitas says the system, which produces a 15,000-gallon reservoir, means his water can mimic any in the world.

“It wasn’t cheap,” Freitas says of the RO system. He also notes that he doesn’t drink tap water and only drinks RO water, which is also available to patrons at the Portage taproom. “It’s better water. You can taste the difference,” he says.

How much breweries use

Michigan ranks fifth in the nation in total number of breweries and is closing in on 400. There are 14 breweries in Kalamazoo County alone, including six in downtown Kalamazoo, with most opening since late 2013. Breweries report their production in barrels. One barrel is 31 gallons, or about 248 pints. For example, if a brewery makes 400 barrels in a year, or 12,400 gallons, it may use between 49,600 and 148,800 gallons of water to produce that amount.

For perspective on how much beer is produced by local breweries, Tibbs Brewing Co. made about 250 barrels in 2018, whereas Bell’s made 476,544 barrels.

Walker Modic agonizes over another number: 6.2.

That was the volume of water per volume of beer ratio at Bell’s in 2017.

Modic, who joined Bell’s in 2013 as the brewery’s environmental and social sustainability manager, closely monitors the brewery’s use of water — both coming in and going out — at its Bell’s Bio-Energy Building, also called “B3” or “The Cube” by employees. Bell’s volume to volume number dropped to 5.2 in 2018 and was down to 4.9 in 2019, but Modic is quick to share how much room he still sees for improvement when talking about the volume of water used to produce beer at the Comstock Township brewery.

“For every volume of beer — whether that’s an ounce, gallon or barrel — you’ve got the one that’s sitting in your glass and then the 5.2 that got dumped on the floor,” says Modic, who was interviewed in early 2019, before the 2019 numbers were available.. “Six-point-two is terrible for a brewery of our size and with someone in my position. Our best during my tenure was 4.3. We’re down this year to 5.2, but I’d like to be below 4.5 as a standard.”

Modic’s standards are high because the issue of water management and water quality matters that much to Bell’s. At Bell’s they not only watch what’s coming in, but pre-treat what is being returned to the city. “The Cube,” Bell’s anaerobic treatment facility, was part of a $5 million project that came on line in December 2014 and processes more than 100,000 gallons of Bell’s wastewater daily. It removes suspended solids and biological oxygen demand (BOD) — two conventional pollutants — and converts them to methane. The methane is then used to fuel a combined heat and power generator. This lets Bell’s make enough electricity and heat to run the treatment process and offset some of the brewery’s demand. The pretreated water is then sent to the city. Modic says the project is expected to pay for itself in less than 10 years and averts considerable Greenhouse gas emissions when the energy intensity of municipal aerobic treatment is taken in to consideration.

Treating wastewater

Bell’s conservation-mindedness is important, since last year the brewery entered “The Big 5” list of local industries for the first time in the eyes of the city of Kalamazoo and its Water Reclamation Plant, or KWRP.

The rest of “The Big 5” are Pfizer, Graphic Packaging, Kalsec and Allnex. Due to the volume of wastewater they send to the city’s plant, these businesses are monitored on a daily basis. Previously, Bell’s was monitored quarterly, according to Jim Cornell, Kalamazoo’s wastewater division manager.

The water reclamation plant provides treatment services to more than 200,000 residents in 22 Kalamazoo-area municipal jurisdictions, spanning about 900 linear miles of sewage lines. The city has the capacity to treat up to about 53 million gallons of water daily and is consistently treating between 26 and 28 million gallons of water per day. Even with its relatively large size by brewery standards, Bell’s sends about 200,000 gallons of wastewater to the plant, or about 1 percent of the plant’s typical daily treatment amount, according to city staff. Bell’s wastewater accounts for about 7 percent of the plant’s BOD.

KWRP and city representatives say the rest of the area’s breweries combined are not considered significant contributors to the plant’s treatment work. The next largest brewery in terms of water sent to the plant was Arcadia Brewing Co., which sent around 7,000 gallons of water a day before closing in September.

However, the “fermented waste” from breweries is “good for our bugs,” the city says.

“Our plant is very used to it. We use microorganisms to process waste, and they enjoy that kind of waste versus someone like Allnex (a company that makes coating resins) that has a lot more chemical waste,” says Steve Rochow, the city’s senior environmental services supervisor.

KWRP and city staff say they worked with Bell’s on “The Cube” project. While in the long term the project’s pre-treatment of pollutants normally removed by the city may mean less money flowing to the city to treat the brewery’s wastewater, it’s an environmentally responsible move and one that could prove financially rewarding for Bell’s as well. “We like the money, but we like our industries as well,” Cornell says.

Shannon Deater, the city’s environmental services programs manager, says she communicates often with local breweries, as well as home brewers, that want to know more about the water they are using and how it affects their processes. Rochow says the city is encouraged by other steps brewers take with their raw materials, including giving spent grain from the brewing process to local farmers for livestock feed.

“One of the things I’ve been impressed with is that they are very into sustainability and their impact on not only the community but the environment,” Rochow says. “There’s something special about that group. They are very conscious about how they can use byproducts to feed cattle or composting.”

Dealing with contamination

Bell’s is one of several Michigan breweries to come face-to-face with a water-related environmental issue that directly affected the area surrounding its brewing facility. The Enbridge oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in 2010 helped motivate owner Larry Bell to pursue efforts like the installation of “The Cube” as well as advocacy and lobbying initiatives.

“The whole thing with the spill in the Kalamazoo River really opened my eyes to what could happen with water,” he says.

It’s not the only example. About 10 months before Tenacity Brewing Co. opened its doors in Flint in February 2015, the city of Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, triggering one of the largest civic disasters in the country’s history. To ease fears about its beer, the brewery posted on social media and displayed at its bar its most recent water tests.

Rockford Brewing Co. co-owner Seth Rivard says he had customers asking as early as 2017 whether the beer was safe to drink, following revelations that Wolverine World Wide’s former tannery had contaminated the nearby Rogue River with PFAs, according to an interview earlier this year with MiBiz.

Yet PFAS contamination is not a topic that’s being widely discussed in the brewing industry, according to local breweries. It’s still early in the PFAS conversation, and there’s not a lot known yet, explains WMU’s Bertman.

Bertman says PFAS testing equipment is incredibly expensive and not anything a craft brewery could afford. He said there’s nothing in the brewing process that would remove or lessen PFAS, unlike some other pollutants that can be managed in the boiling stage. For now, breweries can only react to any testing results from the municipality monitoring their water supply. If there is any PFAS concern, breweries can be proactive and install carbon filters, but there is no data measuring the effectiveness of them against PFAS.

What would a brewery do if it received a warning about high PFAS levels?

“I wouldn’t brew until I’m told it’s safe to brew again,” says Latitude 42’s Freitas. “I’d hope I’d have enough beer on hand to sit on for a week or whatever it would take. If there’s a problem with the water system, they (Portage officials) will call us.”

‘We just keep on it’

In June, Fermenta, a nonprofit trade group initiated by women and committed to education, networking, diversity and empowerment within the fermented beverage and food industries, held a seminar in Lansing called “Fresh Water. Great Taste: The Importance of Water in Fermentation Production.” It featured beer industry professionals, educators and politicians.

Brewers and industry experts use words such as “vigilance” and “scrutiny” when discussing water sources and water protection. Fracking and agricultural runoff are also coming up in what Babb says is “cascading into a bigger and bigger issue.”

Bell agrees on the importance of clean water to brewers. “We just keep on it,” he says. “If brewers can’t talk about clean water, who can? This is our No. 1 ingredient.”

John Liberty

John Liberty began his professional career as a journalist, but now he’s “a craft beer ambassador” and says the two vocations aren’t really so far apart. Liberty, a former Kalamazoo Gazette entertainment writer, and Aric Faber created West Michigan Beer Tours in 2013 to allow people to experience the area’s growing craft beer industry.

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