Protecting the Beershed

The importance of water in the making of your favorite libations.

We Seattleites take water for granted. Be it salt water, fresh water, or rainwater, we’re surrounded by it. Throughout Western Washington, that water gets put to nearly infinite uses, but the one I’m concerned with is the massive but rarely mentioned role it plays in making beer, wine, and spirits. Protecting all that water is essential to all of us, but brewers, winemakers, and distillers are particularly dependent on plentiful and palatable water, yet just like the rest of us they’re often unaware of just how precarious our water quality and quantity can be.

Most of the discussion around beermaking centers on hops, malt, yeast, and other ingredients. Yet water makes up the vast majority of beer. It’s no coincidence that breweries have traditionally been situated near sources of high-quality water, be they springs, rivers, or lakes. Seattle’s craft brewing movement was in no small part enabled and aided by our vast reserves of fresh water, and the future of the industry will depend on protecting that resource. That future was the topic of a recent event thrown by the Washington Brewshed Alliance (WBA), where I had a chance to explore some of the issues facing our waterways, and how they might affect the industry.

My first question was: what in the world is a “brewshed?” Derived from the term watershed, the idea is that the members of western Washington’s brewing community draw from a communal pool of water to make their beer. Thus, it’s very much in their interests to ensure that said water remains clean, plentiful, and easily accessible. Created by Washington Wild, a non-profit founded in 1979 to protect wild lands in the state, the WBA is a way to focus public attention on water quality problems in an approachable way. After all, most of us like beer.

Almost 200 people filled the room to enjoy over 40 different beers poured by over 20 different breweries.
Photo by Hannah Tappan

Many brewers at the conference admitted that long-term planning was more about saving for new equipment, or experimenting with new strains of yeast that might make a better beer. The thought that water quality could be an issue wasn’t something they’d even considered, until they joined the Alliance that is. That’s not to say that they’ve all become diehard activists, but their involvement with the WBA has opened their eyes to the fact that water doesn’t just come out of the faucet.

The WBA focuses attention on public lands, particularly National Forests. Given that those lands are used for a variety of different purposes, many of the challenges facing local waterways involve commercial and recreational usage. Most people are aware that logging wilderness areas causes erosion, damaging water quality and sometimes choking off streams and rivers. The less-understood challenge comes from off-road vehicles, mostly dirt bikes and ATVs, that also often generate erosion, especially when new trails are created.

For the most part, water concerns seem to be more an issue of future planning than immediate emergency. Yet as Western Washington grows, more pressure will be put on our “beershed,” not the least of which will be from thirsty beer-lovers. Thus, it’s incumbent on all of us who enjoy the end product to protect the most important input: water.

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