North Coast beer boom brings water issues
As it happens, the most significant product to come out of a brewery is not beer - it's the stuff that's left over after the beer is bottled and sent to the store.
Making beer is a water-intensive business. For every gallon of beer produced, the brewery uses many gallons of water, usually in the range of 6- or 8-to-1. Some of that water winds up in bottles, cans and kegs; some of it is lost to steam and other parts of the process. What remains - more than half of the water that comes in at the start of the process - needs to go back out in the form of wastewater.
And that's where the headaches begin.
"From an operational standpoint, it, along with a handful of other pieces of equipment, is the first thing I check in the morning," said Vinnie Cilurzo, brewmaster at Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, of his underground waste treatment system, which cost about $100,000. "If your wastewater is not operable, your brewery is not operational."
In Petaluma, Lagunitas spends more than $1 million per year to ship its wastewater to Oakland for treatment at the East Bay Municipal Utility District plant since the Petaluma plant can't handle the volume and strength of waste it produces. Owner Tony Magee is considering building his own water treatment plant at a cost of up to $8 million. That would spare him the cost of sending eight to 10 tanker trucks to Oakland every day.
Mendocino Brewing Company, meanwhile, invested $1.5 million in its own treatment plant 20 years ago and has upgraded it several times since, enabling it to remove almost all traces of the brewing process from its wastewater, yet it still spends about $1,000 per month to dispose of the treated water through the sewers of the city of Ukiah, Master Brewer Don Tubbs said.
And the newly-established Petaluma Hills Brewing Company is planning an elaborate on-site water storage system to avoid having to hook up to the city sewers at all, at a hook-up fee that could add a quarter of a million dollars to its $500,000 start-up costs.
"In terms of pre-production costs, that would be ridiculous," owner J.J. Jay said. "That would be a killer for me."
Why is wastewater such a huge issue?
It mostly has to do with what's left over after brewing the beer: sugar, yeast and proteins. None of it is toxic, but in high concentrations, it can play havoc with the microbes used by sewage treatment plants to break down organic waste.
"It's not metals, it's not chemicals and toxins and stuff," Magee said. "It's just food. Lots and lots of bug food."
Pouring too much of the stuff into the waste stream can wind up overfeeding the bacteria, causing them to suck all the oxygen out of the water and killing the microbes.
Allowing it to get into rivers and streams instead can cause algae blooms that kill fish and native plants.
The ability of sewage treatments plant to treat this nutrient-rich waste varies widely, particularly in smaller towns and cities which might not have elaborate facilities like the East Bay MUD plant in Oakland, which was built specifically to handle waste from food-service businesses.
Santa Rosa's plant, which serves Sebastopol, Rohnert Park and Cotati, has plenty of capacity for high-strength waste, Director of Utilities David Guhin said. That means the monthly cost of discharging waste is less than other plants where capacity is tight, though the exact charge depends on the volume and strength of the waste a brewery sends out.