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POINT OF BREW ----- Michael J. Lewis

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Pacific Ocean as seen from Lahaina Shores resort Pacific Ocean as seen from Lahaina Shores resort

Water Quality Concerns Flow to the Supreme Court.

Beer is mostly water. I always thought it was a mistake for brewers to advertise that “it’s the water” or “from the land of sky blue water” in case consumers, paying good money for mostly water, rebel. In a sense, that is happening. Overall sale of beer is slipping a little bit every year.

Craft brewing sales remain robust, however, maybe because the idea that beer is mostly water is somewhat less obvious in craft-brewed beer: they tend to be more alcoholic (some are highly alcoholic) and full flavored. Craft brewers often use lots of malts, including special malts that give much color and flavor, and hops for bitterness that is sometimes intense e.g. in IPAs. Those beers are still mostly water, it’s true, but perhaps that’s more acceptable or, at least, less of an issue than with domestic lagers. Craft beers offer a lot of beer-bang for the buck.

Craft brewers also pride themselves on making beers that are local. Many such beers bear the name of the town where the brewery is located or some geological feature that reminds consumers of the special bond that does (or should) exist between them and the brewer and the beer.

The vast bulk of the 7,300 or so breweries in the USA prize this localness because their beer does not travel any great distance to market: they truly are local beers. These days, much beer is sold in the brewery tap-room.

Now while any brewer can buy malt in the national and, indeed, international market, large and small breweries depend absolutely on the supply of local water for the main ingredient in their product. The reliable composition of that water and its unquestioned purity is of central importance because that contributes greatly to consistent brewing.

The possible presence of pollutants in the water, that survive the brewing process into beer, will likely affect beer flavor and stability and, more important, may have telling health consequences for those who consume it.

That’s why 60 craft brewers are at the Supreme Court.

The case that has caused this action concerns the changes made by the Trump administration to the Clean Water Act of 1972. Over the decades the Act has significantly cleaned up the nation’s waterways. The Act requires discharges into waterways and groundwater to be by federal permit only and pollutants are not allowed. Now, it seems, since the original Act does not specifically mention groundwater, discharge of any polluting material into groundwater is considered OK.

Farmers and manufacturers are naturally delighted. Since brewers may depend on that groundwater for beer-making they are understandably disturbed.

It’s the old story of whose ox is being gored.  

The specific case concerns the Lahaina Wastewater Recovery System on the island of Maui. The facility treat millions of gallons of waste water each day and discharges the treated waste into wells that lead the water far underground. The water resurfaces in the Pacific Ocean. Now we do not know what level of pretreatment the waste receives. It is quite common for wastewater to be incompletely treated and the final polishing to purity is left to more natural environments, such as a river. But that is beside the point for the moment.

The crucial point the craft brewers make is that if the Justices approve the Maui case, it could take the lid off pollution of groundwater not only in Maui, but anywhere in the USA. If any waste stream may be disposed of at any time without permit simply because it is discharge into the ground, then all a manufacturer or farmer needs to solve his waste problem is a pipe into the ground perhaps a few feet from a river or into the groundwater used by a brewery.

Brewers make the further point that if they can no longer rely on the purity of ground water they will have to invest heavily in equipment to monitor water quality and expensive equipment to clean it up. Now such expense is tiresome but manageable for large breweries because most of them probably have most of what is required.

It is the little brewers who will be most affected and some of those filing their objections with the Supreme Court are very small indeed: one brewery makes only 1,000 gallons a year. Such a brewery is a borderline home brew operation but has a concern and a voice that should be heard.   

The main points of the craft brewer’s amicus brief are:

A.  They depend on clean water and that in turn depends on the Clean Water Act’s regulatory status quo

B.   It’s generally agreed that the Clean Water Act applies to groundwater

C.  Maui and EPA overstate the advantages of their new interpretation but vastly understate the negative consequences of allowing such groundwater discharge.

Now I should think that towns and cities like Davis, that rely on ground water for domestic use, would also have a dog in this hunt.


Michael J Lewis MUG Picmonkey

Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and the academic director and lead instructor of UC Davis Extension’s Professional Brewing Programs. Lewis has been honored with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas’ Award of Merit and the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award. He is an elected fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He is also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award. 

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