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All That Is Not Beer: Reducing Wastewater at Maine Breweries

by | Jun 11, 2021

The production floor at Geary Brewing. photo/Tom Major

 

A lot has changed since Robin and Alan Lapoint bought Geary Brewing in 2017. If folks who visited five years ago returned now, they would discover rows of shiny, new closed fermenters, brought in for all the new yeasts used to make Geary’s contemporary lineup of beers. The centrifuge might catch the eye (and ears) of visitors as it noisily separates yeast and hops particles from fresh beer. In the packaging room, new canning and bottling lines are saving time and money by reducing spillage and breakage.

But the most important changes at Geary Brewing are the least visible. Every step of their production process has been refined to reduce the impact of their wastewater downstream. These improvements earned Geary Brewing the Best Management Practices designation from the Portland Water District — surely the least flashy, but most commendable, distinction a brewery can earn around here.

Most of us beer drinkers only think about wastewater when our bladders are bursting and the line to the restroom is unbearably long. But producing beer not only creates more waste than its consumption does; wastewater from production is generally more concentrated with organic solids and caustic chemicals. (That is, unless you’ve been drinking some really turbid triple IPAs and viciously acidic kettle sours.)

The Best Management Practices classification exempts Geary Brewing from requirements that it sample and report on its wastewater every quarter. In other words, Geary Brewing has so consistently kept its wastewater within the limits that they can be trusted to regulate themselves. Some smaller breweries may be just as responsible, but were already exempt from those rules because their wastewater output falls below the industrial usage level.  

“Despite the [high] number of Greater Portland breweries, at present we are not experiencing issues with their wastewater,” said Michelle Clements, Public Relations Director of the Portland Water District. She noted that “many of the breweries in Portland are small enough” to be excempt from the district’s regulation.  

Maine’s largest brewery, Allagash, has a much greater volume of wastewater, so it continues to regularly monitor its quality and submit reports to the PWD. Their Green Team — an environmental action squad within the brewery’s staff — has analyzed every detail of production to minimize impact.

The first is to divert, or sidestream, organic matter. Allagash, like Geary and most other breweries, gives spent grains to local farms for animal feed, while spent hops, yeast and trub (i.e., fats and proteins) are sent either to farms, for use as fertilizer, or to biodigester companies like Garbage to Garden and Agri-Cycle.

One of the most important things a brewery can do is simply to use less water. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2009 that it took 20 gallons of water to make a pint of beer, but that appallingly high figure likely included the irrigation of barley and hops farms. In 2016, The Growler magazine reported that the national average was seven gallons of water used for one gallon of beer produced — a ratio that only accounts for water consumption on site, but that also reflects conservation efforts made over the years.

Maine Beer Company, in Freeport, the state’s third-largest beer producer, embraces their motto, “Do what’s right.” They’re hyper-methodical about their brewing processes, having calculated the water-to-beer ratio at 5.59:1 in 2019. Their baffled septic system allows solids to settle out of the wastewater, and its pH to stabilize, before the water is sent to the Freeport Water District.

Allagash has a 30,000-gallon equalization tank that enables them to regulate the pH of the effluent. For a sense of scale, Allagash didn’t brew 30,000 gallons of beer annually during their first decade. Still, the Green Team looks for every efficiency, no matter how small. They reclaim the water used to rinse the inside of the bottles at the beginning of the filling process so they can use that water to rinse the outside of the bottles once they’re full and capped. These efforts have enabled Allagash to achieve a 3.75:1 ratio of water to packaged beer — an even tougher standard than beer produced, since it includes spillage and other losses before packaging.

Breweries of any size can help ease the strain put on municipal wastewater-treatment systems. “It may sound silly,” said Allagash’s Brett Willis, “but sweeping the floor before hosing it down makes a considerable difference.”

 

Comments about beer, and most liquids that are not beer, can be sent to Tom Major at majorinbeer@gmail.com.

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