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Being Water Wise

Being Water Wise

With drought an ongoing issue here in the Southland - how can home brewers do their part while still being water efficient?

In case you hadn't noticed - this is the third very mild (and currently freakishly warm) winter in a row for LA. With the warmth comes a decided lack of rain. Now, this in and of itself wouldn't be a bad thing except that the drought like conditions have extended all the way to other parts of the state that provide a large amount of our water. The Northern California snow melt that normally fills reservoirs and aqueduct is at 20% it's normal levels. All in all, that's led the state to declare a Drought Emergency. Governor Brown has called on Californians to reduce water usage by 20%. 

Beer brewing can be an extraordinarily wasteful use of water. Debate all you want about the quality of their product, but the big brewers have been striving for years to improve their water efficiency and yet it still takes MillerCoors 3.82 barrels (~118.5 gallons) of water to produce 1 barrel (31 gallons) of beer. Our friends at Sierra Nevada Brewing had a target goal to hit 4 to 1 by the end of 2013. Given their dedication to other forms of sustainability, I don't doubt they hit their target.  (Numbers here)

What about us lowly inefficient home brewers? We're probably closer to the industry standard of 5-7 gallons of water to 1 gallon of beer. That means - the water you strike with, sparge with, chill with, clean your gear, cool the fermenter with - any way in that process from grain to glass. 

There are a few simple tricks to reducing your water usage:

  1. Brew Extract Beers: Extract brewing gets unfairly maligned by brewers who've moved on in the hobby because they have memories of terrible extract beers they've made or that people have brought into their club. Well, guess what, it doesn't have to be that way, your early extract brews mostly sucked because you didn't know what you were doing with fermentation. Seriously - just take a crack at making Plainweiser - it's about as simple as you can get, but as an advanced brewer with full kettle boils and skilled fermentation management you can make an extract beer sing! (Double bonus: you can knock out a brew in no time!)
  2. Reuse: One of the legs of "green" savings is to reuse. In this case since we're talking water - we'll need to figure out how do we re-utilize our brewing water. Here's a few thoughts.
    • Compost: We lose a fair amount of water every time we mash to that pesky grain. It sucks it right up and won't give it back. But, if you're capable of composting the grain, you'll at least be able to get it back to earth in a friendly way.
    • Drink It: This is particularly easy for any brewer out there doing Brew-In-A-Bag. After you've removed all the "free" wort you can from a mash, suspend it in a bag or colander over a clean vessel. Apply pressure and squeeze the mash. The resulting weak barley fluid can be boiled and serve as a fine basis for a barley tea or "Hot Scotchy" (warmed wort mixed with whiskey) Seriously, both of these are awesome.
    • Start It: When you make your wort, throw a few extra pounds of grain and then aggressively drain your last bit of wort into another kettle and create starter wort ready for canning.
    • Spiese It: Another use for leftover wort. Freeze excess wort (or keep it cold in sanitary conditions) and use it to prime your bottles/kegs. (Search Brau Kaiser for speise carbonation rates) 
    • Clean: The easiest in my mind - use excess water to clean. Every brewer I've been to always has something needing cleaning. Use your leftover water to clean with. For instance, I always use the left over Hot Liquor Tank (HLT) water to clean my cooling rig, dirty fermenters, dirty kegs. I'll even hold onto the PBW filled water in a bucket to throw in the kettle after the boil. 
    • Sanitize Efficiently: Right along with cleaning - make sure you re-use your sanitizing fluids as much as possible. If you mix Star-San/Sani-clean with distilled or Reverse Osmosis water, it will last for a long while in a sealed bucket or pot. Some brewers like to use a spray bottle full of chemical to sanitize. I prefer the "halfway" rule. I will fill my vessel halfway, let it soak, and then flip it and let the other half soak. I only do this because I need enough sanitizer to fill the cooling chain and keep it cycling. (I also use 5 gallons of sanitizer when I need to fill a keg and flush is completely of O2)
    • Pump It Up: For both cleaning and sanitizing, pumping is your friend. Professional breweries use a process of "CIP" or "Clean in Place" to maximize the efficiency of their cleaning and sanitizing. To do it like the pros, you'll need a spraying attachment like a spray ball. CIP also applies to the way I clean/sanitize the cool rig. I pump cleaner/rinse water/sanitizer from the HLT through the counterflow chiller (CFC) to my post chill ice-bath Immersion chiller (IC) and then back into the HLT. I let the pump run for 15-30 minutes and then move the cleaner/rinse/sanitizer to the fermenters.
    • Grass or Grass and Beer Stains: Another great technique - when you're chilling - we don't have the luxury of glycol or pre-chilled water. Chilling is probably the single biggest water waster for home brewing. A very simple technique to save extra water- use some the hot water for additional cleaning or fill your top loading washing machine. Your chill water will give you enough water to do a load of wash, easily. If you have a garden or lawn - collect your water in a few buckets, let it cool and then water the plants. Alternatively, if you have a rain barrel, divert your cooling water to the rain barrel and use as expected.
  3. Reduce: Another leg of the classic environmental "R"s - reduce. We looked at how to reuse our water - now let's see what we can do to reduce the amount.
    • Clean More Now: A percarbonate based cleaner like PBW is only maximally effective for a small period of time (like overnight). You can't just store a bunch of PBW solution in a bucket and expect it to be continuously effective. So, maximize your usage of it and stack up a line of items to go. When I clean kegs, I rinse them out after use and dry them. When I have at least four ready to go - I do them in series. Fill the first keg with PBW, soak and push it to the second keg. Rinse the first keg and fill with Saniclean. After that soaks I push it off to the second keg and repeat the process down the line. Works like a charm!
    • Sanitize Less: This comes straight from Jay Ankeney, member of both Strand and the Falcons. He's advocated for over 20 years some simple techniques to make better beer. One, that helps save water, is to skip sanitation and use HDPE liner bags inside your fermenter. Jay pulls a fresh bag from a roll, lines the fermenter and puts the wort in the bag. The beer is racked into the bag and fermented normally. After siphoning the beer off for bottling or kegging, he simply pulls the liner out of the vessel and throws it away. Since the bags are basically sanitized by heat during manufacturer, they don't need sanitizing when added to the vessel. (See below for an update from Jay about the liner bags)
    • Chill Less (without Refrigeration): A big problem we face here in SoCal is our ground water temperature. During the summer, I think myself lucky if my water is in the mid-70's. Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics and the inherent inefficiency of human systems, no matter the cost of your chiller, you're not hitting close to your ground water temp. I beat this by rigging an IC after my CFC. The CFC chills the water to ~80 and then the wort is driven through the IC submerged in a bath of 10 lbs of ice (per 5 gallons). The result is 60-65F wort with less water usage because I can drive the wort through faster. Remember speed is of the essence!
      • Immersion Chiller? Stir and Pump: If you have an IC and no CFC - two tricks will save you time and water. 
        1. Move Your Wort: swish the chiller around, stir the wort with a sanitized spoon, make like Jamil and pump your wort so it starts spinning the pot. Moving wort prevents a thermal jacket around the chiller that lessens chilling efficiency.
        2. Late Water Chilling: Chillers work on the difference (delta) between the temperature of your substance to be chilled (wort) and your chilling medium (water). There's a large delta between just boiled wort (~210F) and your ground water (~80F). At this stage, the ground water absorbs a lot of heat and chilling is efficient. As the temperature differential drops the water absorbs less energy and chilling becomes less efficient. In order to increase the delta T again, many brewers will wait for their wort to drop below 120F and then switch chilling medium sources. They switch from ground water to a bucket of ice water. They use a cheap submersible pump to push the ice water into the chiller and then return the water to the ice bath - post race through the wort. Additional ice may be needed to replenish the bath, but it works like a charm for those hot summer months. (Some folks have even reported doing this with a CFC, but I haven't, so I can't comment)
    • Chill Less (with Refrigeration):  If you have refrigeration on site, you can forgive a lot of chilling errors. Make sure your sanitation is spot on and save pitching your yeast until the wort is chilled to temperature. Don't think this is unusual - there are a number of "break" anal retentive brewers who post chill their wort to settle out the back and then rack into a clean vessel so they have ultra clean wort. I'm not sure that's really necessary, but at least you know it's a thing and not a "drew thing".
    • Chill None: Our antipodal brewers are experiencing their own brutal droughts and brush fires currently. Naturally, Aussie brewers are heavily invested in reducing their water usage. One very popular technique amongst them is "No Chill Brewing". The basic process - get a heat resistant plastic vessel (Aussie's like their HDPE cubes) , carefully transfer freshly boiled wort into the sanitized vessel, squeeze out the remaining air, seal the cube, roll it around a few times to ensure even vessel heating (to avoid cracking) and wait. The wait is at least overnight until cool. Once chilled, rack the wort into your fermenter and pitch your yeast. Voila! Done! The Aussies swear you can make great beer via this method - including IPAs and APAs. The consensus from fellow Amurican brewers is to shift your hop additions around and allow for some last minute "flameout" to adjust the aroma.
    • Potted Chilling: An alternative - Transfer your hot wort to a holding vessel - clean and sanitize your boil kettle and rack the beer back into the kettle. Close with the lid and wait. Once chilled, pitch your yeast and go! (This is incidentally very close to how home brewer extraordinaire Jeff Renner does his beers)
  4. ​Recycle: Finally the last tier of the whole "green" thing and we only have one tip here: Drink more craft beer/homebrew since the beer is stronger (alcohol and flavor wise), you'll need less beer to have a fulfilling night! That's a lot less water!
  5. Offset: You could probably find some sort of green water credit to purchase to offset your water usage, but a simpler solution may be to skip a shower a week. One 10 minute shower can consume 25-45 gallons of water! Just make sure you cleanup after your brew day! (Maybe check with your boss too if it's ok to skip that shower. )

So let's do our part! Don't forget - the very same Governor signed the bill that legalized home brewing in California. So even if you think of Governor Brown as "Governor Moonbeam", let's save some water! Remember it doesn't take much - just a little mindfulness will save a ton of water. 

Any other tips? Comment below!

From Jay about his source for the liners:

Uninu International, (888) 468-6468, were willing to sell me 1,000 bags which I split with other homebrew club members.    I'd suggest organizing a club buy of the bags. 18" X 36" 2 mil low density polyester, FDA approved plastic bags work best in a "Sparkletts" sized carboy. You can go up to 4 mil thickness if you are using a bucket, although frankly I've rarely experienced a need for that extra strength.

Alternatively, this BBQ group sells bucket liners that may be usable:

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