Anheuser-Busch’s Fort Collins facility reached a water-to-beer ratio of about 2.9 gallons this year, the lowest of the city’s 21 breweries.
Brewery leaders say there’s still plenty of wiggle room for water conservation, especially for a facility that churns out about 10 million barrels of beer each year using only Fort Collins Utilities water from Horsetooth Reservoir and the Cache la Poudre River. That’s a lot of water to make the brewery’s popular beverages, and with the city entering its first weeks of severe drought, the spotlight on conservation is as bright as ever.
“Every year, we’re watching that snowpack,” A-B senior brewmaster Katie Rippel said. “It can turn on a dime. We’ve had a couple good winters in a row — I call it fat, dumb and happy — but it was only a few years ago when that wasn’t the case.”
A-B’s water use decreased 11 percent between 2011 and 2015, thanks in part to a tweak that allows re-use of the water used to rinse the brewery’s towering fermentation tanks.
The brewery didn’t provide its total water usage, but Coloradoan calculations indicate it now uses upwards of 900 million gallons of water each year, equal to the annual water use of about one-sixth of Fort Collins households. The estimate comes from the brewery’s water-to-beer ratio and its 2014 production volume.
Brewer Bill Workman, who designed and implemented the rinsing water change with maintenance technician Tim Burge, came up with the idea after noticing how much water and yeast drained out of the brewery’s massive, multi-story fermentation tanks during rinsing.
Workman, a Berthoud native who’s worked at A-B since the year after it opened in 1988, wondered if all that water could be re-used in earlier steps of the brewing process.
“We were told it couldn’t be done,” he recalled during an interview in the brewery’s upper-level tasting room. “We were like, ‘Wanna bet?’ Katie said, ‘Go find a way.’
Workman and Burge spent close to a year engineering a programming pathway for their idea that wouldn’t sacrifice the quality of the brewery’s two-dozen-odd beers or interfere with other parts of the brewing process.
The change was fully implemented in summer of 2015 and saves about 800,000 gallons of water each year. Other North American A-B breweries are now starting to implement the change and finding comparable water savings.
Other conservation methods have helped the brewery reduce its water use, including installation of low-flow nozzles on every tank, re-use of water throughout the cleaning and bottling process and technology that helps brewers determine when equipment is truly clean, reducing rinse water.
The floor for water use is about 1 gallon of water for every gallon of beer, plus a smaller amount used for cleaning, Rippel estimated.
“Everything else is on the table,” she said, adding the brewery will next look for even more ways to re-use water and cut down on water used during cleaning.
Water conservation means cost savings for the brewery, which pays for its Fort Collins Utilities water like any other customer. It also means something more personal to employees, many of whom have worked in the brewery and lived in the Fort Collins area for decades.
“That’s why we’re trying to minimize our impact: All of us love the area we live in,” Rippel said. “I mean, we want to be good corporate citizens, but it’s more about, ‘I live here, and I’m using the same water to brew that I’m using at home.’ So I’m protecting mine.”
Water usage at other Fort Collins breweries
The Nos. 2 and 3 breweries for production, New Belgium Brewing Co. and Odell Brewing Co., respectively use about 4 gallons and 3.6 gallons of water per gallons of beer produced. Economy of scale makes it difficult for smaller breweries to achieve the same water savings as larger producers.
The industry average water-to-beer ratio is about 7:1, according to the Brewers Association