Food by VICE

The Latest Victim of the California Drought Is Beer

California is home to a wealth of amazing craft breweries. The problem? Beer is 95 percent water and the state is literally drying up.

by Matthew Osgood
Jul 2 2015, 9:00pm

Photo via Flickr user jvk

Each year, Americans drink billions of gallons of beer. This mostly consists of beer whose ads appear during the Super Bowl, but 11 percent of the market share belongs to the bearded, craft-drinking crowd—and like their beer bellies, that number is growing.

Perhaps nowhere is this industry more pronounced than in California, home to more than 550 craft breweries. According to the California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA), these operations contribute a whopping $6.5 billion to California's economy and more than 48,000 jobs.

This is all spectacular, of course, until we consider the paradox in the fact that beer is 95 percent water and California is literally drying up. Estimates show the state has just one year left of water in the state's reservoir in the face of a four-year-long drought.

Water has many uses, such as hydrating our bodies, irrigating essential crops, and maintaining cleanliness. But beer, while delicious and important in its own ways (see: making a dull person hilarious), falls low on that list. I'd place it somewhere above driveway waterfalls and filling water balloons.

The situation for brewers is so drastic that, in November of 2014, Healdsburg's Bear Republic Brewing Co. pulled its product from Massachusetts distribution, citing a lack of water availability. By production volume, Bear Republic is the 39th largest craft brewery in the US. The withdrawal is temporary, company president Richard Norgrove assures, but it still prompts some concern.

But CCBA's executive director Tom McCormick appears unfazed. He says craft breweries have long been at the forefront of sustainability and conservation, and thankfully won't be disappearing from our shelves.

"It's in our DNA as an industry [to have concern for] sustainability and conservation," McCormick told me. "It's a conversation we have been having for a long time."

Chico's Sierra Nevada and Escondido's Stone Brewing contribute more than just their hop-forward beers like Celebration (Sierra) and Ruination (Stone), but have been using the most innovative and advanced water re-usage systems for more than a decade. San Diego's AleSmith Brewing works with a local environmental specialist.

Once a company becomes financially secure, many craft breweries opt to make a conscious conservation effort.

"As far as sustainability and being cautious in our conservation efforts, this is something we've been committed to since day one," said Nickie Peña of Stone. "In the early days, our big concern was making sure we were a sustainable business that can make money, but as we grew, we wanted to make sure we were doing things the right way. It has been and is a real commitment for us."

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has long been green-inclined, an ethos born at the top with founder Ken Grossman in 1980, initially out of need.

"It's how [Grossman] personally lives life," said Sierra Nevada's sustainability manager Cheri Chastain. "When he was starting the company, much of it came from economic necessity. We'd reuse materials, recycle, repurpose our water. That same philosophy stuck with us. Not being wasteful is built into our culture here."

McCormick admits that as the drought extends into its fourth year, the complex circumstances may have isolated consequences depending on where a brewery is located. Water agencies have imposed different restrictions in different counties, all hoping to reach Gov. Jerry Brown's state-wide 25-percent water usage reductions. For the most part, those restrictions aren't aimed at the folks looking to keep us inebriated and peacefully camped at In-N-Out Burger, but the people hell-bent on keeping their lawns green.

"Right now the government mandates aren't affecting the brewing process [at Stone], but we are still being proactive about wanting to conserve water," said Peña.

While we can joke about how a beer tastes much better sometimes—OK, most times—than a glass of tap water, we can all admit that a lack of clean and reliable water is a cause for elevated concern. And this is an industry in which many of its stakeholders are small businesses forced into being creative in the face of a state-wide water shortage.

As part of Brown's mandate, Sierra Nevada was asked by the city to reduce water usage by 32 percent, an unfeasible expectation for a business that makes beer.

"Currently, we're working on ways around this mandate by showing California Water [Services Co.] that we've been actively aiming to conserve water for many years and showing them all of the great work we've done," Chastain told me.

There is always more to be done and, it seems, everyone is willing to chip in.

"The drought is certainly on our mind," said Russian River's Vinnie Cilurzo, maker of Pliny the Elder, a double India Pale Ale rightfully placed alongside the top beers in the world. "Should we consider any future projects, implementing certain practices to help alleviate water usage will certainly be at the top of our list. We can all certainly do our part to help out and one never knows how long this will last."

Despite these efforts, the severity of the drought's potential looms, but McCormick at the CCBA is optimistic.

"[It has been] pretty tough out here this year, and it's affecting everyone in the state," McCormick said. "Everyone has been great to work with. We've worked with the Governor's office and the Water Resource Board. Everyone seems to be pitching and working together. And we're all hoping it rains like hell this winter."

sierra nevada
Bear Republic Brewing Co.
Pliny the Elder
Stone Brewing