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Conservation Brewing: SF's Craft Beer Makers Tighten Water Use 

Wednesday, Apr 22 2015

Like the belt buckles of San Francisco beer drinkers, the city is bursting with local breweries: Five have joined the 20-member SF Brewers Guild since 2014, and in a month, two more plan to open up shop steps away from each other on Mission Street.

"San Francisco is just drinking more and more craft beer," says Ron Silberstein, founder and original brewmaster at Thirstybear Organic Brewery and restaurant in SoMa. "Probably 16 to 20 percent of all beer drunk in the city is craft beer. The national average is about 11."

Of course, as local breweries churn gallons of water into lesser gallons of delicious beer, California remains in the midst of a well-reported drought. In response, local breweries say they are doing their part to conserve water.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown called for statewide water use reductions, with San Francisco asked to reduce its consumption by 8 percent in April (a lower bracket of necessary cuts to water use than most other parts of the state). In response, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission called for its consumers to act more sustainably.

Though a number of local breweries have made strides to reduce the amounts of water used per unit of beer, Silberstein says most can't afford the equipment larger craft breweries operate to lower their beer-to-water ratios.

"The best systems are really for brewers that brew 100,000 barrels or more," Silberstein says, pointing to Lagunitas Brewing Company, which recently spent millions on a water treatment plant of its own in Petaluma. Before, the company is reported to have spent $1 million annually transporting its wastewater to an Oakland plant.

Silberstein says a brewery such as Lagunitas can brew beer at a ratio closer to two barrels of water per one barrel of beer, whereas a smaller operation like his, which produces 1,500 barrels per year, brews anywhere from a 4-to-1 to a 7-to-1 water-to-beer ratio — with the latter amount falling on the excessive end of the water usage scale.

Still, as brewers find more ways to conserve water by improving their support systems, Magnolia Pub and Brewery brewmaster Dave McLean says the average ratio for craft breweries is falling below 4-to-1, at present.

"It's always been a goal of ours — and most brewers — to continually find new ways to become more water-efficient, since it is the largest ingredient by volume in beer," McLean says.

No special restrictions have been placed on the small breweries in the city, even those that fall on the higher end of the spectrum, SF Public Utilities spokesperson Tyrone Jue says.

With or without mandated reductions, McLean says his Haight Street operation is working to become more efficient with its water use by improving the cleaning and support systems that go into producing beer. After all, he adds, it isn't possible "to change the amount of water used as an ingredient in beer itself." Michael Barba


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