California drought's impact on beer? Well, it is 90 percent water

SAN DIEGO - When it comes to brewing beer, San Diegans take it seriously.

San Diego County is home to 87 of the 423 craft breweries in California, including Stone Brewery, the 10th largest craft brewery in the nation.

The local craft brewing industry also saw sales of $781.6 million in 2013 and was described as "one of the fastest growing segments of the San Diego regional economy," according to a February 2014 report by the National University System Institute for Policy Research.

But with 90 percent or more of beer being made up of water, California's drought could mean a change in how San Diego's booming craft brewery industry operates.

"This is really unprecedented for our industry," said California Craft Brewers Association executive director Tom McCormick, who has worked in the industry for more than 30 years. "The last drought we had was in 1976-77 right before the craft brewing industry was born."

McCormick said CCBA, which represents more than 300 of the state's craft breweries, has been in contact with members about the challenges they face amid the drought.

"We're hearing from members that the mineral content is changing," he said. "We're also hearing of likely restrictions on water usage."

Last year, the state recorded its driest year in 119 years of record keeping. The news prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency on Jan. 17, the State Legislature to pass a $687 million drought-relief plan and the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) to issue a Level 1 Drought Watch last month.

The drought also caused a change in where San Diego County is getting its water. Until about six months ago, the region received water from the Delta and the Colorado River but now 100 percent of the water comes from the Colorado supply. This change is forcing some brewers to use more water.

Stone Brewery's brewmaster Michael Steele said the brewery brings in water through its carbon filter and runs it through a reverse osmosis system until the hardness of the mineral content is just right. Because the water is now all coming from Colorado, which has higher levels of hardness, more water is needed. Steele said the level of hardness of mineral content is 300 parts per million when in the past it was typically 100-150.

"It's a big concern," Steele said. "It affects the bitterness, the character of the hopping and the flavor of the beer."

Steele said the company is looking at filtration costs, a tough situation for a company that already prides itself in its conservation efforts. The brewery uses about 80,000 gallons of water every day and recycles about 50,000 of it.

"Other breweries are dealing with the same thing we are," Steele said. "We're expecting it to get worst."

Tim Suydam, the operations and maintenance manager for SDCWA, confirmed the Colorado water has higher levels of hardness, alkalinity and salt.

However, he doesn't foresee the level of hardness increasing further. SDCWA also isn't planning water restrictions in the "foreseeable future."

Suydam said he hopes the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, which will be in operation in early 2016, will alleviate the problem Stone Brewing Co. and other regional breweries are experiencing.

"The Carlsbad Desalination Plant will reduce the hardness in the water supply and Stone Brewing may see some of that water. That would reduce their cost to some degree," he said. "We're trying to make maximum use of the water to get it out to as many agencies as possible."

Until the desalination plant is in operation, Stone Brewing may pay more to produce beer but the company doesn't plan to increase its retail prices.

"We don't want to scare anyone—we don't envision changes to the consumers," said Stone Brewing spokeswoman Sabrina LoPiccolo. "We're not going to run out of beer."

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