Comment: A pitch to study BREW: The beer-renewable energy-water nexus

by Michael E. Webber
Wednesday, August 16, 2017

K. Cantner, AGI

Over the past few years, the food-energy-water nexus has become trendy for multidisciplinary systems-level research as it ties together three of the most critical elements of a modern society. Food security, energy security and water security are all inextricably linked, and the demand for all three is increasing. In recent years, the U.S. National Science Foundation has set aside $72 million to support research that spans these three topics. While I applaud this research path, I would like to suggest another topic that also warrants dedication from researchers: the beer-renewable energy-water nexus, or BREW. And I would further like to be the first to volunteer to personally collect field data at pubs and breweries nationwide.

Like the food-energy-water relationships, the relationships among beer, renewable energy and water have been strong throughout history, and until very recently, the demand for all three was increasing. Today, they are headed in different directions. While the demand for renewable energy and water has never been higher, beer consumption has begun falling. Meanwhile, energy sources are becoming more distributed, as are beer producers, and we face increasing threats to our water supply (and, thus, beer). Clearly, this is a field ripe for study.

Changing Energy Sources

In the late 19th century, around the time of the second industrial revolution, the world transitioned to using coal as a major energy source, but beer producers made that transition nearly two centuries prior. Coal was a lower-cost, higher-performing fuel, producing more heat and less ash and smoke than wood. Coal’s greater energy density made it perfect for steel-making, improving the quality, consistency and robustness of the metal. But coal, or specifically, coke — coal first baked in ovens to remove impurities so that it burns hotter and cleaner — also improved the quality of beer. The introduction of coke into beer-making in the early 18th century enabled production of a higher and more consistent quality of beer favored by wealthier consumers.

Coal transformed society. Out was the variability of renewables (wood in this case) and in was the consistent quality that urban affluence demanded. But that also led to industrial consolidation worldwide, as smaller companies were absorbed into larger multinational conglomerates. The same trend happened with beer.

As fossil fuels became widely available, coal- then diesel-fired rail and truck transportation with refrigerated cargo holds made the movement of beer much easier. Consequently, a wave of consolidation unfolded for a century, with the number of brewing facilities reaching a low point in 1978 when the United States had fewer than 100.

While fossil fuels were liberating for society as a whole, they changed the beer industry. We went from small local breweries — originally designed to serve local markets because the lack of refrigeration and slow transportation made it hard to ship beers to far-flung markets without spoilage — to remote, massive, centralized beer factories that gave us reliable distribution, but of a bland, easily digestible liquid.

But that trend is reversing nowadays, for both energy and beer. Just as the energy sector is moving from massive, centralized, corporatized (largely coal-fired) power plants toward distributed local systems with more variable power sources, such as wind and solar, many consumers are demanding the same thing for beer, pushing for distributed craft production of high-quality brews with a variety of unique local flavors and styles, including seasonals. Today, there is a boom in microbreweries, craft beers and beer festivals. At the end of 2016, there were about 5,300 breweries operating nationwide, breaking the long-standing record set in 1873.

Biofuels and Beer

Biofuels and beer also have a historical connection, although today it is more adversarial. Corn-based ethanol was among the first major fuels used for the internal combustion engine. Ford’s famous Model T worked on ethanol from corn. Car designers at major automotive companies liked working with alcohol-based fuels — they used to call it gasohol — because they allowed for higher compression ratios, which enabled higher performance, which is especially useful for racing. Some race cars still rely on a fuel made from 98 percent ethanol. Alcohol is still the primary renewable fuel used for transportation in the world today. It’s almost as if we’re putting beer into the gasoline tanks of our cars.

Today, beer and fuel ethanol production are in direct competition, as the two industries (along with agriculture) jockey for limited supplies of grain. This competition is what led breweries to fight against the national biofuels policy, which in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 required that 36 billion gallons of liquid transportation fuels (about 20 percent of that year’s consumption for transportation) come from renewable sources. The act was appealing because it might have improved energy security by reducing imports of petroleum. But a byproduct of the biofuels policy was a rippling effect on commodity prices throughout the agricultural sector, which raised, among other things, the cost of malt barley, a key ingredient in beer.

Water and Beer

Another key ingredient in beer, perhaps the most important one, is water. Historically, brewing was a way to purify water, or at least to get your daily liquids in a safe way. Ancient people discovered that the fermentation and distillation process killed pathogens, providing a sanitary, although intoxicating, means of staying hydrated. One suspected reason why monks were not afflicted with cholera at the same rates as other groups is because they only drank beer they brewed on their own.

Today, the role of beer as a protector of water quality plays out a little differently.

In 2010, Enbridge Inc., a company operating in the Canadian oil sands, spilled diluted bitumen from a pipeline into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, from which a local brewery, Bell’s, drew its water. Enbridge was ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency to initiate a massive dredging program to scrape the pollution from the sand and soils at the bottom of the river. Due to concern about what other pollutants the dredging might release, Bell’s Brewery sued to halt the dredging near brewery operations. “When energy’s impact on water starts screwing with my beer … that’s it, man. That’s where we draw the line,” noted a writer in a July 2013 Daily Kos article on the case.

That’s not the only example of a brewery working to protect local waterways. The Red Hills Brewery in Alabama works with conservation groups and scientists at Auburn University to protect water quality on behalf of the brewery’s adopted mascot, the native salamander, which needs moisture on its skin to breathe. Many other breweries across the country are also involved in water protection. In fact, the Natural Resources Defense Council even has a program called Brewers for Clean Water.

A New Discipline?

Given this collision of national policies related to alcohol consumption, energy, the environment, water, national security and agriculture, there is clearly much to study. Luckily, few things universally interest scientists and engineers more than beer. We like to drink it. We like to talk about it. Some of us like to make it. Sometimes we even like to research it and write about it.

BREW: the next great field of study.

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