Craft Beer Brewers Team Up to Improve Water Standards

Beer is 90 percent water. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

It's not easy to get people's attention when talking about legislation to clean up water pollution. But pour them a glass of beer and suddenly they're all ears, said Ian Hughes, assistant brewery manager of Chicago-based Goose Island Co.

Hughes's company is one of 40 craft beer brewers that have teamed up with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a New York–based environmental group, to support stricter regulations on water pollution.

The campaign "is a beautiful thing because it allows something so simple as a glass of beer to be a speaking point for the importance of clean water," Hughes said. The campaign is also a way to leverage the popularity of Goose Island's products, like 312 Urban Pale Ale, to get people talk and care about policies that affect water quality, he said during the SXSW Eco meeting this week in Austin, Texas.

Beer, after all, is 90 percent water—plus hops, yeast and malt—and you can't "paint the masterpiece that is beer" on a messy canvas, Hughes said.

The NRDC and the brewers, including the California-based Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada brewing companies, are asking citizens to write to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to finalize a proposed rule that would give federal government more latitude to enforce the Clean Water Act. The agency is currently considering public comments until November 14, before putting the finishing touches on the fine text of the rule, known as the "Waters of the United States."

The rule would help the EPA enforce contaminant limits on the "60 percent of our nation's streams and millions of acres of wetlands [that] currently lack clear protection from pollution under the Clean Water Act," agency administrator Gina McCarthy wrote in the Huffington Post (of all places).

The rule would clarify what waters are subject to the Clean Water Act and would include tributaries and streams upstream of "navigable" waterways that are currently in a legal "gray area," according to the EPA. The proposed rule would help fix that, said the NRDC's Josh Mogerman.

Hughes said he was inspired to join the effort in part because of several recent incidents in which heavy rain has backed up sewers in Chicago and sent human waste into Lake Michigan, from which the city gets its drinking water—and from which Goose Island makes its beer. The new rule could lead to the improvement of sewer systems in some areas, Mogerman noted.

"Clean up the water or the beer gets it," Mogerman said, half-jokingly.