Today the smiling Irish and those who imbibe with them will drink about 1 percent of the total amount of beer consumed annually, according to Consumer Reports and market research. How much beer is that exactly? Marketing firm Canadean has said that global beer consumption will top 2 billion hectoliters (52.8 billion gallons) by 2013. One percent of that is about 528 million gallons or 4.2 billion pints of beer.
Assuming we’re not too far off from that this St. Paddy’s Day, that’s a lot of beer … and a lot of energy and water will go into making it.
Every pint of beer takes about 317 pints or 39.6 gallons of water to produce, according to the Water Footprint Network, an organization in the Netherlands that brought the water footprint concept to the rest of the world. Most of beer’s water inputs are for growing and fermenting barley and other grains, including wheat and sorghum, used in the brewing process.
(Learn more with National Geographic’s interactive: The Hidden Water We Use.)
So let’s just say that 4.2 billion pints of beer are downed today, and each of those pints cost 317 pints of water to make, for a total St. Patrick’s Day beer guzzling water footprint of 1.3 trillion pints of water (166 billion gallons)–enough to supply New York City’s eight million residents with water for almost 140 days.
Thinking of all that water might have you running for the bar bathroom right now…
When you get back, you can keep drinking. It turns out that while the beer industry in general does swallow a lot of water, it also has produced leaders in sustainability.
“Beverage companies are starting to realize when it comes to water issues, water risk, and water reputation they need to look at their agricultural supply chain,” says Brian Richter, co-leader of the Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Global Freshwater Team. “Sometimes the amount [of water] any company is using relative to total water use [in a region] might be small, but they are visually the most obvious culprit to point fingers at. It’s causing companies to pay a lot of attention to their water use–to use it responsibly and communicate that to local communities.”
For example, TNC is currently working with barley producers in Idaho who supply MillerCoors to develop a demonstration farm that uses a broad suite of water and energy conservation strategies and technologies.
In the state’s Silver Creek Valley there is a fragile balance between wilderness and farming. The region has perfect growing conditions for barley. But barley’s global average footprint is 198 gallons (750 liters) of water per pound, which may leave less for Idaho’s world-class trout streams and their cast of aquatic species.
A pivotal reduction has come from switching to smart irrigation technologies that can adjust for dry or wet regions, according to Silver Creek Preserve Manager Dayna Gross, who works for TNC on the demonstration project. TNC also has helped farmers install vegetated stream buffers to help stem the flow of loose soil and other pollutants into the water.
“MillerCoors is interested in helping farmers become more sustainable,” adds Gross.
In nearby Colorado, the New Belgium Brewing Company is looking for ways to reduce its footprint and support healthy river flows in the Colorado River, which most years no longer runs to the sea. (Read more in Jonathan Waterman’s blog post “The Colorado River IS Running Dry.”)
“Water conservation is one of our primary areas of concentration when we look at sustainability here at New Belgium Brewing,” says Bryan Simpson, the company’s media relations director. In an effort to reduce its water and footprints, New Belgium, a local brewer, has used innovative bottling solutions that incorporate recycled water. The company also produces 15 percent of its electricity needs by harvesting methane byproduct from its on-site water treatment plant.
“In addition, we focus a significant amount of our philanthropy dollars on water conservation issues,” Simpson adds. New Belgium is a founding member of the Save the Colorado campaign that so cleverly uses skinnydippers to promote water conservation.
On a more global scale, the environment nonprofit WWF has worked with the Federal German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and beer giant SABMiller, which owns MillerCoors, on scaling back the water footprint of beer production in Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, and the Ukraine. (Read their report, “Water Futures.”) Some of these countries have experienced severe drought, meaning that water for commercial production can often compete with water needed for food and people.
SABMiller is aiming for a 25 percent water footprint reduction by 2015.
Raise a Glass
This St. Paddy’s Day see if you can find out more about where your beer comes from.
TNC’s Richter participates in the Alliance for Water Stewardship, a consortium of nonprofits and businesses working to unveil a water footprint label for products like beer. This may not materialize for a couple of years, but will make it easier to figure out which beer makers are the most water savvy. Until then Richter advocates for going local when you can.
“It’s not all about water, it’s about energy too,” he says. “It does take a lot of energy to transport a finished product over a long distance. From the energy perspective, drinking local helps.”
And in terms of water, Richter advises supporting companies that are paying attention to their supply chain and making commitments to reduce water use.
Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E,The Environmental Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.
[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]