Water Report Card - Macro vs. Craft
by Silvia Turner
For years craft beer lovers have denounced corporate macro brewers like InBev (Budweiser)
and Miller/Coors as makers of flavorless product that is essentially colored water. That then
logically begs the question of just how diluted is their product ? In a new report, the US
Department of Agriculture has numbers.
Most beers, industrial or craft, get their substance—what experts call body, or mouth feel,
as well as any sweet and toasty flavors—from malted barley. Malting is the process of
germinating barley grains, which frees up their sugars for fermentation. The USDA
researchers crunched data on the US barley and beer markets, and found that craft
brewers on average use four times more barley per barrel of beer than the giants do.
That statistic seemingly makes craft beer seem like a bit of a bargain. A six-pack of Miller Lite
retails for about $6 while typical craft beers go for about $10 per six—not even twice the price
for four times the barley (and flavor). And that doesn't count the fact that craft beers also tend
to contain much more of the other main ingredient in beer, hops. In essence. Now while that
might show craft beer prices are really low, it can also show that the macro beers are incredibly
overpriced and a blatant gouging of an inspecting public.
A somewhat more skewed (or is it screwy?) interpretation of that statistic is that the macro
beers are easier on the environment. Less barley embedded in each beer means less fertilizer
for barley production, less pesticides, etc. However, sadly for the macro corporation's PR
departments, there's no real evidence that people consume fewer resources per beer
when they consume corporate beer than they do when they drink craft. For example, let's
assume it takes Sally four Miller Lites to be filled up and it takes Sam only two substantial craft
brews. Sam may have consumed more overall barley, but he has two fewer empties and less
energy embedded in fabricating and recycling fewer cans or bottles. That also means less
space in trucks, coolers, etc. An environmental case for watered-down beer exists, I guess, but
it's as weak and uninteresting as the resulting beer itself.
Between 1993 and 2013, the researchers find, the amount of beer made by craft brewers
expanded nearly ten times, growing by an average rate of nearly 14 percent annually. On the
other hand, macro beer output has dropped by an average of 0.6 percent annually over that
period. Craft still accounts for only about 7.8 percent of beer produced the in the US—meaning
there's plenty of room for additional growth.
The researchers conclude that the craft beer renaissance could boost domestic barley
production—total US harvested barley acres peaked at about 11 million in in the 1980s and
have since fallen well below 5 million acres. For comparison, US farmers typically plant about
90 million acres of corn and 80 million acres of soybeans. About a quarter of US barley is used
as animal feed; the great bulk of the rest gets malted for beer.
Currently, the malted barley industry is global in scope and dominated by a handful of
companies. But alongside the craft-brew explosion, small, locally oriented malt houses are
springing up nationwide, providing a link between brewers and nearby farmers. And that could
be a good thing for the environment. If US farmers incorporated a "small grain" like barley into
the dominant corn-soy rotation, it would break insect, disease, and weed cycles, drastically
reducing reliance on toxic pesticides, according to a study at Iowa State University.
Admittedly, all things being equal, it takes just as much water to produce 1 barrel of Bud Light
as it does to make 1 barrel of Dogfish 90. In reality, though, since grain absorbs water, and the
more grain you use, the more water. So on average the craft brewing industry uses more water
per barrel of beer than the big industrial brewers. If you take into consideration all water,
including cleaning & sanitizing, the big brewers are (they almost have to be) more efficient in
their use of water.
However when the question of "waste" comes into play craft brewers are far more efficient. For
example, In the Bud plant in Van Nuys, CA, they have more beer left in the miles of pipes used
for transferring which they eventually flush down the drain as incidental waste. The volume of
that disposed liquid is more than the entire production of most small craft brewers. Add to this
the fact that they will not hesitate to dump entire batches of thousands of barrels if it deviates
from a very strict profile and you have an incredible amount of wasted resources.
Small brewers on the other hand generally tolerate a certain degree of variation batch to batch
especially since they often can't afford to dump a batch if it's just a touch different than the last
one. Furthermore, craft brew drinkers are tolerant of recipe variation, understanding that
monolithic sameness is largely the purview of big factory brewers.
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