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Megadroughts and the Future of California’s Breweries

Will California’s historic drought spell doom for the craft beer capital of the world?

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Drought and the Future of California's Breweries

There’s an old saying,

“Whiskey is for drinking, but water is for fighting.”

quote about farmer’s water rights in the west

Funny how truer this adage is now than it was when it was written in the past. 

Much of the Southwest has been experiencing extreme drought conditions for the better part of two decades now. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has declared a water shortage in Lake Mead, and Lake Powell, of the Colorado River for the first time in recorded history. This is actually a really big deal considering this water provides for more than 20 million Americans in much of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and of course our most populated state, California. 

Overall the United States doesn’t have a water supply problem but rather a water distribution one. But this fact doesn’t help our Western states in the short term. And they need solutions now.

California, having served as the unofficial epicenter of climate change in America, has felt the water pinch since the early 2000s. Between being the largest populated state in the country, lack of new reservoir creation or revamping of existing water supply infrastructures, very high energy demands, and poorly regulated public congestion matters, California has found itself in the perfect storm of an unmitigated megadrought disaster. 

Don’t misunderstand, much of California’s predicament isn’t entirely their fault. Climate change is a global event. Be that as it may, California also has a long and notorious history of reactive (versus proactive) approaches when it comes to governing itself well in an ever changing environment. Until recently it’s been a lot of talk without the walk. 

So what does a megadrought mean for the future of California? Or to put it another way, what does the outlook of the craft brewery capital of the world look like for the coming decade or two? 

California flag with American flag

California has by far the most craft breweries than any other state. Some estimates put the number somewhere shy of 1,000 breweries — more than double the breweries than its closest rivaling states. And that’s not even counting it’s vast wineries and distilleries either. It goes without saying California breweries need one essential ingredient that’s becoming increasingly scarce: water. And they need a lot of it.

Water is basically the new gold rush in “The Golden State.” People and businesses require it for overall business operations, sanitation, and, well, survival.

Even the state’s vast agriculture hikes this precious demand even further through very old and outdated water rights claims. There’s simply too many water requests with a shrinking water supply. This makes our beloved Californian beer a precious commodity in its own right – a liquid gold even. And breweries know this fact all too well.

No way around it, craft breweries need water. Some are waiting on political solutions from the top-down. Quite a few legislative proposals have been discussed. These include everything from water importing and water recycling methods, to desalination from the Pacific Ocean and extreme water conservation efforts. Even water capturing technology in fog patterns has been floated around in the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, others aren’t willing to wait on Sacramento to solve its problems. This isn’t the first time Californian craft breweries have had to get creative during massive water shortages. 

Water is basically the new gold rush in The Golden State.

While difficult to get an exact figure, each gallon of beer requires about 4-6 gallons of water. On the face of it, this seems pretty wasteful from a water conservation perspective. Other ingredients in beer like grain, hops, and yeast largely come from out-of-state agriculture where rain is not an issue. This means water is really the only major local ingredient required for California breweries to continue brewing their IPAs, stouts, porters, lagers, et cetera.

Even with all that in mind, a report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) surprisingly concluded that the craft brewery industry in the state posed “little to no impact on California’s drought.” 

So if grain, hops, yeast, and California water (all the main ingredients in beer) are not negatively impacting its water shortage concern, then is there a problem here? Well some water conservationists and activists have criticized those quick to jump on the PPIC bandwagon. They fear true water usage to make California beer is far more complex than what this report would suggest, making it difficult to fully assess the actual water costs and environmental toll. Either way, these are just some of the reasons breweries are taking matters into their own hands. Waiting on state government action could leave too much to chance (and possibly too little help in the end).

California breweries have gotten creative though. Meticulous water tracking, new wastewater treatment systems, drilling their own wells, and even enhanced technologies are just some of the unique innovations they’ve already started implementing into current batch production and overall operations — with most already reporting positive results and cost-savings in some circumstances.

Does this mean we have to cut back on our favorite Golden State-produced suds? No, not at all. It would seem California’s amazing craft brewery scene is safe for now. Let Sacramento and Washington D.C. hash it out.

We can all play a role in reducing our carbon footprint, but this is going to require policies on a grander scale unfortunately. In the meantime, let’s continue enjoying delicious brews from the beachside coastline all the way to the tops of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Cheers to California beers!

Libation Nation Contributor. Drink(s) of Choice: Pinot Grigio, Lagers. Favorite Brewery/Distillery: Lakewood Brewery, and Kiepersol Distillery, both in Texas. Favorite Music: Female Pop, and Radiohead.

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Libation Nation Podcast Episode 2 – Droughts and the Future of California’s Breweries

Second episode of the Libation Nation Podcast covering the historic drought situation in California and what this means for the future of its amazing brewery scene.

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Libation Nation Podcast Episode 2 Megadrought and Future of California's Breweries
Second episode of the Libation Nation Podcast covering the historic drought situation in California and what this means for the future of its amazing brewery scene.

Second episode of the Libation Nation Podcast covering the historic drought situation in California and what this means for the future of its amazing brewery scene.

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November 28 is Small Brewery Sunday

It’s the 3rd annual Small Brewery Sunday! Support your local small & independent brewery this day.

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Small Brewery Sunday

A proud day indeed. Today is the 3rd annual Small Brewery Sunday.

It’s a day of intentionality…getting out there and supporting our local small & independent breweries. So go show them some love!

Buy a pint, fill up those growlers, stock up on some of your favorite beer-to-go. Heck, buy some merch and be a walking billboard for them.

Always look for that Independent Craft Brewer Seal.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving is Small Brewery Sunday.

Find a brewery near you.

For more information, visit the Brewers Association for Small & Independent Craft Brewers.

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First episode of Libation Nation Podcast covering actor Kelsey Grammer’s new brewery company, inspired by his popular TV character Frasier.

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Libation Nation Video Podcast Episode 1
First episode of Libation Nation Podcast covering actor Kelsey Grammer's new brewery company inspired by his popular TV character Frasier.

First episode of the Libation Nation Podcast covering actor Kelsey Grammer’s new brewery company inspired by his popular TV character Frasier.

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