North Coast beer boom brings water issues

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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.

But paying for that treatment capacity means high up-front costs for businesses when they first hook into the system. The hook-up fee is $2,686 for every 1,000 extra gallons a business will send to the plant on a peak day, a charge that can quickly run into the five and six figures for water-intensive businesses such as breweries.

Petaluma finds itself in a more difficult situation. The new $120 million Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, which opened in 2009, was not designed with the needs of heavy industrial users in mind and it was particularly unsuited to meet the demands of the explosive growth of Lagunitas, which has nearly tripled its capacity since 2011.

"Some industrial generators, such as breweries, can generate high-strength industrial waste that is 100 times the concentration of your typical municipal waste water generator ... When you dump waste that is 100 times the strength of a home or restaurant, you can eat up (your reserve capacity) real fast," said Dan St. John, director of public works and utilities, in an interview earlier this year.

The plant is already scheduled for a $4.5 million upgrade and the consultants overseeing the work are also studying whether to build a system to use the high strength waste from the city's breweries, poultry producers and dairy operations to generate electricity. That would convert what is now a liability for the city into a cash-generating commodity.

It would also help meet the City Council's goal of making Petaluma a center of food and beverage production.

"We don't want wastewater treatment to stand in the way of attracting the kinds of businesses our council and our county have determined they want to attract," St. John said.

A few breweries don't have to worry about municipal sewage treatment plants at all, but that does not mean wastewater is not an important consideration.

The newly-opened Carneros Brewing Company, in the rolling Wine Country between Napa and Sonoma, has a small aeration pond, in effect a mini-sewage treatment plant where bacteria break down the waste, brewmaster Jesus Ceja said. The treated water can then be used to irrigate the vines at the family's adjacent Ceja Vineyards.

Anderson Valley Brewing in Boonville is so remote that there is no sewer system to hook up to in the first place. Brewery waste is too strong to handle in a traditional septic tank, brewmaster Fal Allen said, so the brewery has built an elaborate series of aeration ponds, a much larger version of the Carneros Brewing system.

The wastewater is cycled through three large pounds and churned continuously by a series of pumps that ensure that the bacteria has enough oxygen to break down the organic waste. After several days, the water is safe to spread on the grass and landscaping on the 28 acres around the brewery.

It's not clear how much the brewery spends on the system, Allen said, but it does not come cheap. Each of the aeration pumps, for example, costs about $5,000 and there are 12 in the ponds: 10 owned by the brewery and two borrowed from elsewhere.

And the system is not free of regulatory complications either. The brewery has to test the treated waste and file regular reports with state and federal officials. The brewery is also forbidden to use the water for irrigation near the banks of the river that runs along the edge of the property.

The care with which wastewater is handled these days is a dramatic change from when the craft brewing movement first exploded in the 1980s and '90s, brewers say.

Allen said when he started as a brewer in the 1980s in the Pacific Northwest, cities didn't understand the implications of brewery wastewater and were much less restrictive.

But as the industry grew, and giants such as Lagunitas emerged, utilities and water regulators began to take notice.

"You can't just open up a brewery and start dumping waste down the drain without it having an impact," Allen said.

And access to wastewater treatment can be as important as other factors such as roads and power when brewers decide where to open or expand. Bear Republic Brewing decided to move the bulk of its production from the original Healdsburg brewpub to a new plant in Cloverdale in part because that city has plentiful capacity for the resulting waste.

Brewmaster Richard Norgrove Jr. said that, as a result, the main constraint on his growth is the city's water supply on the front end, not its ability to treat waste on the back end.

Many brewers said the intensive focus on how to deal with wastewater came as an unpleasant surprise when they got into the beer-making business.

"I didn't get into this to be a wastewater expert," Norgrove said. "But I honestly tell you that after the 20-plus years of my career, I could lecture on sewers ... and that's not what I got into it to do."

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or

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