The average American drinks over two gallons of alcohol per year, and that number has been increasing for decades. With this heightened consumption comes additional waste from both the agricultural and production sides, leading to an ever-growing need for alcohol beverage companies to address their water use and long-term sustainability measures.

San Diego is best known for the local craft beer scene, but regionally, the greater alcohol beverage industry also encompasses plenty of wineries, meaderies, and other fermented beverage segments, all of which have a varying degree of water usage. Ed Embly, owner of Hungry Hawk Vineyards in Escondido, says that it generally requires around five gallons of water to produce one gallon of wine, the majority of which is used for cleaning and sanitation. Since launching Hungry Hawk in 2009, Embly says they’ve implemented a number of water-saving techniques to help buffer themselves against the threat of climate change as well as California’s generally low annual rainfall.

“Winery wastewater is collected and evaporated in a shallow concrete pond so that none of the water runs off or enters the groundwater aquifer,” he explains, adding that they also use rooftop water tanks to capture and store water for irrigation. Since Escondido’s annual rainfall average is approximately 15 inches, careful planning is required to provide the growing grapes with enough water to survive, while also allowing for a small amount of seasonal stress to encourage growth specifically during the summer: ripening season for the grapes.

“One advantage that we have with low rainfall is that we can control the growth rate of vines, which can improve the grape quality compared to the areas that have rainfall all year,” says Embly.

Expect the vibe for tasting at Calico Cidery to be very laid back.

Like wine, cider also relies heavily on the farm-to-ferment agricultural pipeline. David Young, cider maker at Calico Cidery in Julian, says Calico tries to be as conscientious as they can be when it comes to water use, especially due to the fact their 30-acre organic farm relies solely on well water. “Our goals definitely change based on the year and how much water we get,” he says. 2019 was a relatively wet year for the region, which led to an estimated 40% increase in crop yield based exclusively on that extra rainfall. By comparison, Young estimates that thanks to drier conditions, their 2020 yield will go down 25%.

The fluctuations in output are easier to handle for small operations like Calico, who mostly use dwarf trees that require around 12 to 15 gallons of water per week by his estimation. But that’s not to say Young is unaware or apathetic about long-term climate change risk, which includes an increased fire risk in an area already designated a very high fire hazard severity zone. “We just try to be as conscious as we can,” he says. “You try to be as responsible a steward as you can for your own piece of property.”

Larger operations play a much more significant role in the regional water story. Escondido’s Stone Brewing is one of the largest craft breweries in the United States, and Charlie Arnold, Stone’s water operations manager, estimates they used about 55 million gallons of water as part of their brewing process in 2020. That use includes making the beer itself, cleaning the equipment, and supporting the brewhouse’s heating and cooling systems. He goes on to say they are on track to reclaim 17 million gallons of water in 2021 as part of their water reclamation facility. “This is about 30% of our total water use for 2020 and can account for the equivalent of 500 homes’ annual usage in the Escondido area,” Arnold says.

Image: Stone Brewing.

Thanks to the Colorado River’s high sulfate content, which results in “hard” water, other breweries have embraced using reverse osmosis (RO) to treat their water before brewing. Removing minerals and additives like chlorine allows brewers to create a blank slate for increased control over the final product’s flavor, but significantly increases the amount of water “wasted” during the brewing process. Still, that treated byproduct can be minimized through proactive measures, according to Societe Brewing Company co-founder and CEO Doug Constantiner.

Societe uses RO for all their beers, which bumps up their water-to-beer usage ratio, but thanks to specific sustainability initiatives, keeps them at or below the industry average. “[Water conservation] is a natural thing for us Californians,” he says. “Water is a precious resource in California, especially Southern California.” He looks to breweries similarly located in arid locations for inspiration. “There’s nothing in the middle of Australia, and I think there’s a brewery there that’s below two to one [two gallons of water to make one gallon of beer]. They literally don’t have water, so they have to make it work.” By recycling RO-treated water and re-using it for operations like flushing toilets or washing dishes, Societe has managed to have their water and brew with it too.  

Reverse osmosis might seem like overkill for some, but Southern California’s water supply is far from immune from dangerous contaminants. In late 2020, High Country News reported that a million Californians still lack access to clean water, citing dangerous levels of arsenic in public drinking water over long periods of time. Even filtering water doesn’t always capture heavy metals like lead, cadmium, or arsenic; in fact, sometimes certain filters like diatomaceous earth exacerbate the transfer of these chemicals into the final product, according to a 2019 study by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. While water scarcity necessitates many of these measures, simply ensuring the production of a safe product for consumers also drives a portion of the dedication to water treatment.

Image: Wolf Schram

Wasted water may remain inevitable when it comes to producing fermented beverages, but specific sustainability measures like those taken by Stone, Hungry Hawk, and Societe prove water used doesn’t have to be water wasted. And while regional companies like these do make a tangible difference when it comes to water conservation, they’re still just a drop in the bucket compared to global and political apathy, if not also targeted deregulation of the water industry.

Still, national trade organizations like the Brewers Association provide tangible steps for the alcohol beverage industry to take in order to increase sustainability while minimizing water waste in production and agriculture. Locally, San Diego’s several billion-dollar Pure Water initiative hopes to eventually provide a third of the city’s drinking water (although that continues to face its own set of challenges). But despite the difficulties that lie ahead, San Diegans can still enjoy their favorite locally-made hard beverages with the knowledge that prioritizing long-term sustainability continues to drive innovation.

Up next this fall: Part Three of this series will turn to nonalcoholic beverages made in the region, including growing and roasting local coffee, as well as other producers in juice, kombucha, shrubs, and more. We’ll discuss the differences in ingredient water use as well as processes, how they compare to the overall regional beverage scene, and how they rely on a variety of water sources that still (mostly) come from outside our area. Stay tuned.

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The Story of Water in Southern California: Part One

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