It’s probably safe to say that when you have a beer in hand after work, you’re not giving much thought to California’s epic drought. Unless, that is, you work for a brewer–like Anheuser-Busch InBev, the largest beer company in the world, which happens to have breweries in Los Angeles and Marin County.
A bottle of beer–Kirin Ichiban, say, or Rolling Rock, both made at the L.A. plant–is made up of about 95% water. Even more water is used to run the brewery itself, and a massive amount more is used to grow barley for malt. So Anheuser is looking for every possible way to save water.
“We’re trying to look long-term with our risk,” says Hugh Share, senior global director of the “Beer & Better World” program at Anheuser-Busch. In part, that means investing heavily to protect local watersheds, so the company can–in theory–know that it will have a source of water to keep bottling beer in the future. “We’re thinking 10 to 15 years out, or even longer in some cases, trying to do the things that are most critical to that watershed now.”
The quest for saving water also means finding more efficient ways to use it within a brewery, like cleaning equipment with reclaimed water. Instead of sending wastewater down the drain, the company now reuses it for irrigation, firefighting, and other local uses. At a plant in water-stressed Peru, effluent is used to water a soccer field; in Brazil, wastewater is reused by other manufacturers making everything from aluminum to bricks.
But the biggest changes are happening in barley fields in places like Idaho and Montana, where the brewer is piloting a new “Smart Barley” program with 2,000 growers to help them cut down on water used for irrigation, using tools like sensors in the field. They’ll also connect farmers to learn from each other. “We saw a big difference within the same irrigated region between growers–that was surprising to us and to our growers,” says John Rogers, who heads the global agricultural development team at the company.
They’re hoping farmers will use the same tools to reduce water use across all of the crops they grow. “Our goal is to leverage our brand, the size we are in the market, to really bring some of these advancements not just to barley but to agriculture generally,” Rogers says.
A barley research team at Anheuser has also been breeding and testing seeds that can better survive a drought; one variety, which should be ready for market in the next two years, can reduce irrigation needs by at least 25%. They’re also quantifying how much water can be saved if farmers plant barley in the fall rather than the spring.
Even without the rollout of the changes in farming practices, the company has been able to dramatically reduce the amount of water used to produce a can or bottle or beer. It’s still a lot–3.2 bottles of water for one bottle of beer–but that’s dramatically less than some others, who can use as much as seven bottles of water per beer. From 2013 to 2014, the company saved as much water as it takes to make more than 4 billion cans of Bud. It now uses less water than any other major brewer.
Still, it raises some questions. Does it make sense to brew beer in places like California that have ongoing struggles with drought? Earlier this year, after bottled water companies came under fire for using California’s scarce water supply, Starbucks decided to move its Ethos brand out of state. In places like India, Coke bottling plants have been shut down for using (and polluting) local drinking water.
Anheuser–which has been in L.A. for over 60 years–has no plans to move. “We’ve been able to manage our water risk,” says Share. Unlike smaller craft breweries in Northern California, which have started to talk about relocating out of state, the behemoth company doesn’t worry about the changing flavor of local water supplies; everything is carefully purified to a homogenous taste everywhere. The company argues that it has to balance environmental issues with social impacts–it doesn’t want to take away long-established jobs from a community.
But if water supplies continue to dwindle, the brewer may get more creative. Though the company doesn’t have any plans to do this yet, it
hasn’t completely ruled out the idea of using recycled, purified wastewater, like some craft brewers are starting to use in experiments. [Update: Anheuser Busch wants to make it clear that they would absolutely never, ever use recycled wastewater to besmirch your Budweiser. We regret the error.