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Craft beer brewers test the waters of environmental activism

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Krista Langlois | Jul 11, 2013 09:20 AM

Policy analyst Karen Hobbs of the Natural Resource Defense Council has been on a mission to repeal Bush-era changes to the Clean Water Act for years. But she was looking for a popular ally to help get the word out.

Then she discovered beer.

Although the original 1972 Clean Water Act left little ambiguity about the government’s role in protecting the tributaries that feed large rivers and public water supplies, two Supreme Court decisions and subsequent legislation under George W. Bush created confusion about which waterways are covered by the Act – and led to pollution in rivers like Arizona’s San Pedro. In parts of the San Pedro, pollution control effectively ground to a halt because the Environmental Protection Agency couldn’t prove that Clean Water regulations applied.

New guidelines were drafted in April 2011 that could restore protection for such watersheds, but the proposals have fallen by the wayside of Washington politics, and the conversation has grown stagnant.

Hobbs was tasked with reviving it, and last year, she found a perfect addition to her campaign. After reading a Huffington Post op-ed by New Belgium Brewing's director of sustainability, Jenn Vervier, Hobbs (who didn’t particularly like beer at the time) learned what brewers have known for centuries: good water makes good beer.

Not only that, but many breweries enjoy passionate fans and strong social media followings, and outdoor recreation is already built into some craft breweries' identities. What river trip would be complete without a cooler full of brews, or long-distance bike ride without a stop at a local brewery to finish it off?

Credit: Flickr user Claudio R

So in an effort to protect the water that sustains their livelihood, 27 breweries across the nation have signed onto Hobbs’ brainchild, the Brewers for Clean Water Campaign. Though the campaign doesn’t require brewers to actually do anything beyond sign letters urging policy makers to take action, Hobbs hopes that the growing visibility of craft brewing – and its support from outdoors lovers – will help convince President Obama to finalize stricter Clean Water guidelines.

Plus, brewing is a water-intensive process (it takes four to eight barrels of water for every barrel of beer brewed, with hoppy beers like IPAs using the most), so craft breweries have a stake in protecting water supplies.

“The brewing industry has come out pretty heavily working on ways to reduce their water footprint,” said Sierra Nevada Brewing’s sustainability coordinator, Cheri Chastain. Even Anheuser-Busch has gotten in on the action, with a water conservation plan that they claim has reduced water use by 40 percent over the last five years.

And cleaner water makes better beer. Here in the West, most small brewers get their water from the tap, and polluted water that’s cleaned up in municipal treatment plants can remove minerals beneficial for brewing and introduce chemicals that make beer taste funky.

“I think among brewers there’s definitely a heightened awareness of maintaining healthy watersheds,” said Bryan Simpson, director of public relations at Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing. “Water is far and away the largest component … in brewing beer, so it’s to all of our benefit to ensure that watersheds are kept clean and healthy.”

So far, the Brewers for Clean Water campaign has done little but attract public attention, and only two breweries from western states – New Belgium in Colorado and Sierra Nevada in California – have signed on. But other brewers are also testing the waters of environmental policy.

Twenty-six Colorado brewers wrote a letter last week to Gov. John Hickenlooper (himself an ex-brewer) asking him to support stronger standards for oil and gas drilling to protect natural resources. In Germany, the Association of German Breweries has petitioned their country to adopt a moratorium on fracking to preserve their water for more important things, like fermenting barley and hops.

“Craft brewers have a lot of momentum right now,” said Simpson. “Putting together a coalition like this makes a strong statement.”

But even in a country where the White House itself has taken up brewing, the NRDC might need more than a statement to revive a discussion that’s gone as stale as a warm beer.

Krista Lee Langlois is an intern at High Country News.

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