Water we to do about Ontario craft beer?

Craft breweries are springing up across the province, providing jobs and tasty beer — but they can also take a toll on a town’s water supply
By Mark Brosens - Published on May 11, 2017
Steam Whistle Brewing, in Toronto, uses about 5.5 litres of water per litre of beer produced — but some craft breweries use as much as 20. (Fred Lum/Globe and Mail)



Beer — and craft beer in particular — has taken off across Ontario. There are more than 180 breweries now operating in 110 communities, another 50 or so are slated to open soon, and Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB) says its long-term goal is to have “at least one brewery in every city and town in the province.” There are plenty of reasons why municipalities would welcome a craft brewery — they can create jobs, encourage tourism, and sell tasty products. But a brewery also takes its toll on a city’s water supply. When the Vancouver saw its water consumption rates spike last year, craft brewers were identified as a culprit, and the city told them to reduce their usage or else face fees. And according to the BLOOM Centre, which is working with the OCB on water management, a craft brewery with poor conservation policies could total the water usage of 20,000 residents.

But when water runs through all aspects of brewery operations, it’s hard to know where to look for savings. It can even be difficult to say with certainty how much water is used to make beer, because breweries are so different. Big beer makers engage in what’s called high-gravity brewing: They produce brews with high alcohol contents that are then diluted after fermentation is complete. It’s a process that allows them to have fewer fermentation vessels that need to be cleaned with water. However, many craft brewers would claim that the result is a less flavourful beverage — so they opt to produce smaller-scale (and therefore less efficiently made) beers.

“The big breweries use, I think, somewhere [around] 3.75 litres per litre of beer,” says Sybil Taylor, communications director of Steam Whistle Brewing in Toronto. “Steam Whistle is more like 5.5 litres, and I’ve heard of nanobreweries that use as much as 20 litres of water for one litre of beer.” Even very small batches of beer require large amounts of clean-up, since brewers still need to wash their kegs, vessels, hoses, and valves. Add in a messy fermentation here or an accidental spill there and the ratio of water used to beer produced can quickly become lopsided.

Steve Beauchesne, the co-founder of Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company in Vankleek Hill, Ontario, says they use about 6.5 litres of water for every litre of beer. It’s an 11 per cent drop in usage over the past two years, but Beauchesne would like to get the ratio closer to three litres of water per litre of beer soon; after focusing its attention on energy-efficiency initiatives, Beauchesne says that Beau’s is now turning to water usage.


Both Beau’s and Steam Whistle buy spring water to make their beer, and relegate tap water to cleaning. Taylor says Steam Whistle uses 1.17 litres of spring water for each litre of beer produced, with much of that water loss coming from evaporation during boiling. Like other Ontario brewers, Steam Whistle takes advantage of the province’s bottle return system, which encourages bottles to be reused instead of chucked after one use — keeping waste out of landfills, but requiring more water to clean.

But according to Michael Fagan, senior vice-president of the BLOOM Centre, the amount of water that leaves a brewery can be more of a problem than the amount coming in. Wastewater might include excess beer, hops, or a flawed batch, which can overwhelm the local wastewater facility if it’s all poured down the drain at once.

Before wastewater can leave the facility, it needs to be stripped of any non-water components. A measuring system called Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) calculates how much organic material is in water. An average household, for example, sends 300 BOD down the drain, since most of its biological components are diluted by the water in appliances like toilets. But Fagan says that beer has roughly roughly 100,000 BOD, while wort — essentially, unfermented beer — can have up to 200,000 DOB. The more contaminated the wastewater, the more difficult and expensive it is for a municipality to treat — and brewers have to make up the difference. “For a small brewery, if you don’t mind your Ps and Qs, you can pay tens of thousands of dollars in surcharges a year,” he says.

Craft brewers are making an effort to be ecologically conscious; Beau’s recently invested in a system that treats the brewery’s wastewater before it’s sent off to the municipality. “We spent about half a million dollars on something that we buried into the ground,” Beauchesne says with a laugh. But Beau’s has become one of Ontario’s largest craft brewers, and as their operations scaled up, their wastewater started to become an issue for the local water treatment facility in Vankleek Hill, which has a population of 1,800.

“The town did say that, as an option, they could upgrade their capacity,” Beauchesne says. “But we felt it was better in the long run for us to control it, so the town wasn’t dealing with waste from us.” In the future, Beau’s would like to install equipment that will capture used cleaning water, treat it, and then reuse the water for cleaning again.

At Steam Whistle, Taylor says that the company installed a high-pressure condenser that more efficiently processes evaporation from brewing, saving 4.5 million litres of water each year from going down the drain. Heat created from the evaporation process is used to warm water for brewing and cleaning. And the company has also installed automatic, efficient equipment that saves water when cleaning kegs and bottles.

So far, no one in Ontario has proposed the kinds of water-usage fees for craft brewers that Vancouver is considering. Still, the OCB has acknowledged that their members could use water more efficiently. Beauchesne notes that many of these environmentally friendly initiatives can be financially difficult for new breweries. “Absolutely no brewery can do everything at once on day one,” he says. But he hopes that, once craft brewers have been given the time to become established, people will buy their products if they feel the company’s philosophy is worth supporting. “As a brewery grows, you get a better picture of where they’re putting their priorities.”

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