For Iowa brewers, water quality is ‘a really big deal’

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

According to Iowa brewers, a beer is only as good as the water used to make it.

Inside West O Beer’s taproom in West Okoboji is a poster that proudly states, “To us, the water is a really big deal.” West O owner Matthew Matthiesen said the poster has been there since the taproom opened, emphasizing how important clean water is to the brewery not only to make award-winning beer, but also for the economy in Iowa’s Great Lakes region. Good water means good beer — and boating, fishing and swimming on the lakes.

Though Matthiesen said it would take something catastrophic to make his water supply unsuitable for drinking and brewing, he is paying attention to the state’s ongoing struggle with agricultural runoff and its effect on waterways. It is something other Iowa brewers are doing as well to ensure that the most important ingredient in their product is safe to use.

“If we don’t have good quality water, we can’t make quality beer,” Kent Ball, the head of quality at Iowa City’s Big Grove Brewery, said.

David Cwiertny, a University of Iowa professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, wishes the water in Iowa’s streams, rivers and lakes was better. Thanks to a complex mix of chemicals being applied to cropland, especially phosphorus and nitrogen, Cwiertny said Iowa’s waterways are “bearing the brunt of our agricultural intensification.” Although U.S. waters may not appear as dirty as they did in earlier decades (he cited the fires on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in the 1970s, caused by pollution), the problems are still there.

“There are still challenges today that we need to take more seriously,” he said.

Chris Jones, a research engineer with IIHR — Hydroscience and Engineering center at the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering, said that while the level of phosphorus in Iowa’s waterways has remained steady, the amount of nitrogen has increased 75 percent since 1999. The presence of both in Iowa’s water not only causes problems downstream, where algae blooms lead to a low-oxygen dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, they also cause problems at the local level. Water treatment plants need to remove the chemicals from the water, and algae blooms can make the state’s lakes and rivers unsuitable for recreation.

So far, though, brewers say they have not been affected. They are concerned, saying they would like to see increased use of prairie buffer strips and cover crops and the restoration of wetlands to control and naturally filter runoff. But they voice confidence in the state’s water treatment facilities and the technology at their breweries to keep their main ingredient clean and useable.

While phosphorus and nitrogen unintentionally taint the state’s waterways, brewers are more concerned about a chemical intentionally added to water by treatment plants to kill bacteria: chlorine. Filtration systems that remove chlorine are commonplace at Iowa’s breweries.

Chlorine stresses yeast, resulting in a smoky, plastic flavor, according to Quinton McClain, the director of brewing operations at Cedar Rapids’ Lion Bridge Brewing Company. That’s why Lion Bridge uses a carbon filter to remove chlorine from the city’s water before brewing.

John Martin, president and head brewer at Des Moines’ Confluence Brewing Company, said he is blessed to work with Des Moines Water Works water, but the brewery still uses a carbon filter to remove chlorine. He said his employees often fill growlers with the brewery’s water because it tastes so much better than what they have coming out of the tap at home.

Martin said he has had no problems with Des Moines’ water and is confident the city’s treatment facility filters out everything that should not be there. However, he said the state’s water quality is something he is not only watching, but also working to improve. Confluence recently partnered with Confluence, a landscape architecture company with the same name, to release Local Cause Belgian White, whose net proceeds will benefit Iowa Rivers Revival, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Iowa’s rivers and streams.

West O is also involved in the effort to improve Iowa’s water. Matthiesen said the brewery donates a portion of its proceeds to help preserve and protect the natural resources in the Iowa Great Lakes region. West O also donates 20 percent of the profits from Tuesday evenings over the 12 weeks of summer to a local nonprofit. A different organization is chosen each week; Matthiesen said Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, a state-owned facility that provides science classes and research opportunities to university students, was the first to benefit this year.

Martin said everyone has a hand in taking care of the waterways and trying not to pollute — something Big Grove’s Ball has taken to heart. Ball said he is very cognizant of the brewery’s impact on local waterways. Big Grove, which uses a reverse osmosis system to ensure the beer brewed at its locations in Solon and Iowa City is consistent, uses as little water as possible and reuses what it can. Yeast and spent grain are repurposed as animal feed so neither contribute to the nitrates already leaking into the state’s water.

“We are all about good quality water in Iowa,” Martin said.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 267.

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