Monday, August 24, 2015

Farm Breweries in Loudoun Permitted to Use Millions of Gallons of Water

With the passage of SB 430 last year, Virginia created an easy to obtain limited brewery license for breweries that operate on a farm. Specifically these breweries must manufacture no more than 15,000 barrels of beer per calendar year, be located on a farm in Virginia, and use agricultural products that are grown on that farm in the brewing of the beer. These “limited breweries” are simply what is known nationally as craft breweries with a rural twist. This bill holds the potential to create a rural destination brewery to complement the growing wine industry in a state that remains largely agricultural.

Local counties went on to create their own ordnance beginning with Loudoun County the home of a growing wine industry. In addition to the requirements set out in the state law, Loudoun’s ordinance requires farm breweries to have at least ten acres of land; the building structure is not subject limitations beyond the ARI 11% lot coverage. Loudoun was the first county in Virginia to incorporate the state code into its local zoning ordinance and their experience will impact how these limited breweries are handled here in Prince William and elsewhere in Virginia.

Beer production is not often associated with environmental issues since it is not a “smokestack industry”. Excluding an accidental spill of a hazardous chemical such as anhydrous ammonia or chlorine (typically used to treat water), the main discharge from beer production is wastewater. However, these new limited breweries will all be built in an agricultural areas serviced by private ground water wells to supply the water and septic to treat the water and that can create a problem.

Beer is about 95% water; however the amount of water used to produce a pint of beer is far greater that the amount of water contained in the beer. Although water usage varies widely among breweries and is dependent upon specific processes, the U.S. average is about 7 gallons of water for each gallon of beer produced, but varies from 3.26-7.44 gallons of water to gallons of beer. That figure is from the 2011 study by the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER). Craft breweries tend to be on the higher end of the range because small packaging uses more water and the size of the brewery, but water recycling equipment packages are available. According to the BIER study facilities with larger production volumes tend to have lower water use ratios. It seems that smaller craft breweries do not have or cannot afford water recycling equipment and staffing.

Nationally, most craft brewers obtain their water from municipal water companies. However, these farm breweries will more typically be supplied by well water, and the sustainability of our groundwater resources needs to be considered when permitting a water intensive business. Regionally, water sustainability is a growing issue. Let’s take a look at how water intensive a brewery is. Loudon recently licensed a brewery, B-Chord Brewery, in Bluemont. This brewery is currently under construction down the road from my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, and this water intensive business will be drawing their water from a series of three existing wells.

If B-Chord Brewery has applied for a permit to manufacture and sell up to 10,000 barrels of beer annually on-site (only two thirds of the maximum under the regulation) and also, sell off-site. Each beer barrel contains 31 gallons of beer; so, the B-Chord Brewery is asking for a license to manufacture and sell up to 310,000 gallons of beer annually from about 26 acres. At the industry average water use per gallon of beer that will require 2,170,000 gallons of water each year or 41,730 gallons of water weekly. That is the equivalent water use of more than 79 people Every. Day. Forever. Loudoun County assumes that the water use ration will be a more modest 6 gallons of water needed for each gallon of beer. That is still 1,860,000 gallons of water pumped a year or the average annual water use of 69 people. All this water pumped out of the aquifer under a 26 acre parcel which may or may not be sustainable water use despite being two and a half times the required amount of land. I have ignored the water use for irrigation for the moment. The impact on groundwater resources should be considered on any future breweries.
from K. Rapp

Loudoun County has very complex geology. Western portion of the county where the B-Chord Brewery is consists of older metamorphic rocks and granite west of the Bull Run Fault that runs north-south near Route 15. Modern wells are drilled past the water table to draw water from water bearing fractures in the bedrock. The groundwater that feeds the wells exists in water–filled and interconnected fractures, pores and cavities in the rock. The size and density of the pores and fractures vary with rock type, depth and location.

When a well pumps, a cone of depression develops in the water table around the well as the water is pumped out of the well. When several wells are operated in a limited area the cone of depression in one well may affect the water level in another. Continued high volume pumping of three wells on the B-Chord Brewery property could possibly cause the water table to drop and potentially dewater the wells in the immediate area. In addition, this could change the gradient of the water table and draw the base flow from nearby creeks. In truth, Loudoun County does not know the water content of the aquifer and what is the sustainable withdrawal rate for the groundwater in this area. There are groundwater models and data available that could model what is sustainable use is and this should be done before allowing any additonal high volume pumping of the wells impacts the water table.

You may be thinking there haven’t been any problems with the recent proliferation of wineries, and that is true. While wineries are also water intensive, most of the water use is for irrigation which is supplied to a large extent by rainfall and the waste water from washing crush tanks and bottles. The water used in the actual making of the wine is 1.5-3 gallons of water per gallon of wine and most of that is used for washing tanks and bottles. The grapes themselves contain the liquid. Basically an acre of land grows 3.3 tons of wine grapes. Each ton of grapes produces 780 bottles of wine. There are 12 bottles in a case and a boutique winery produces less than 10,000 cases a year which translates into 23,810 gallons of wine. So, the water needed to make 10,000 cases of wine would be 71,430 gallons of water which is less than the annual water use of three people. In addition, the land necessary to grow the grapes for 10,000 cases of wine would be a little less than 47 acres-a far less intense water use.

To make beer you have to malt a base grain usually barley but rye, maize, rice and oatmeal can also be used. In the first stage the grain is malted to convert the carbohydrates to dextrin and maltose which is a several day process requiring lots of water. The malt is crushed using iron rollers and transferred to the mash tank. Water is also needed to extract the sugars from the grain in the mash tank. The resulting liquor, known as sweet wort, is then boiled in a copper vessel with hops, which give a bitter flavor and helps to preserve the beer. The hops are then separated from the wort and it is passed through chillers into fermenting vessels where the yeast is added to convert the sugars into alcohol. The beer is then chilled, centrifuged and filtered to clarify it; it is then ready for bottling or drinking.
from the IEHS

Despite significant improvement this century water consumption and wastewater disposal are the biggest environmental hurdles that breweries and the brewing process face. Many breweries in other parts of the county have found innovative solutions for water and wastewater management that can be adapted to our local needs. These solutions go beyond facility water conservation programs to find collaborative, sustainable solutions for the community and for the environment and needs to be part of the development of the industry in our communities. We need to ensure that our use of our local water resources remains sustainable. See also Doing Breweries Right in Prince William County .


  1. Mrs Ward-

    It’s a shame that you didn’t do even the most basic sanity check on your data and the arguments you have made with it. It’s laughable that you are assuming that a farm brewery could or would produce 10,000 barrels of beer per year. Did you stop to think about how that works out? 10,000 barrels per year would mean that a farm brewery that is open every single day of the year would need to sell over 10,000 -12 once beers each and every day- its really unbelievable that you didn’t think this out. How do you think it would be possible to sell or distribute 10,000 beers each day? I am all ears. Lets be even more realistic and close the brewery 2 days a week and a few holidays each year and now we need to sell almost 15,000 beers each day.

    Further, you have some additional incorrect information in your article. Farm Breweries use even less water per gallon of beer made than any other producers because we DO have the time and desire to recycle water. Since we are not running a massive factory we can store the water while it returns to room temperature and use it again the next time we brew.

    Farm Breweries grow hops and other products we use in our beer- we are careful stewards of the land and we are providing a sustainable demand for locally grow products. We have invested extensively in our own hops yards and are growing 5 different verities of hops to be used in our beer. Our spent grain will be fed to our own cows. Beer making and farming go together very well and should be embraced- Farm Breweries represent another way to keep more farms and have less houses.

    With regards to B Chord Brewery you mention that there are 3 wells and you leave the reader the impression that there will be Continued high volume pumping of three wells on the B-Chord Brewery property could cause the water table to drop and potentially dewater the wells in the immediate area. Once again I ask did you think this out? Even if we produced the 10,000 barrels per year (and you helped me find a way to sell it all) I would only need 1 well to provide that amount of water. If you assume a mediocer yielding well for a single family house provides 8 gallons per minute that would yield 4.2 million gallons per year. If we went with the 10,000 barrels per year and the 7 gallons of water for each gallon produced we would only need the yield of half of that single well. The reason there are 3 wells on the property is because the previous owner intended to subdivide to farm into 3 lots for houses. There are 3 wells and 4 approved drain fields. Obviously I think the farm and brewery is a better use for the 26 acres then the houses.

    I invite you to stop by our farm or any other farm brewery and see first hand how a farm brewery works. If you visit my farm I could also show you how we have worked with Loudoun County Soil and Water to design a stream crossing and fence all of our cattle out of sensitive areas of the property. We have already installed thousands of feet of no-climb fencing and frost free water systems in an effort to protect our environment. (and the cows are happier too)

    Marty Dougherty
    B Chord Brewing Company

  2. A bit complicated for my simple brain, but sees quite detailed. I guess my questions are - did you speak in opposition to the Gov. McAuliffe's grant program, which encourages entrepreneurs like Mr. Dougherty to bring breweries to Loudoun County? Was your voice heard in the hearings that led up to the Board of Supervisors near unanimous vote in January 2015 on the additional county regulations that would govern such businesses? I really hope that you spoke up then...and not only now when it appears to be a NIMBY issue (well possibly a NIMBY issue for your brother-in-law and sister-in-law). Folks like the owners of B Chord have followed the rules, gotten proper permitting done, and built the foundation of the physical plant (which required a significant upfront investment) per the requirements of the ABC licensing process.

  3. I concur with STQ; It seems the B Chord folks have followed all of guidelines set forth by this county and the state. In so much as that is concerned they are not the issue and should not be directly attacked as such. Your issue is apparently with the laws and guidelines as they exist today. It would be much better to work towards changing the laws rather than obstructing farm-to-table (or glass in this case) local operations that are in my mind MUCH more green and organic than other businesses.

  4. This is a bit misleading, though I think not intentionally. The use of water for Beer production is nothing like that for milk and dairy - and carries none of the problems of animal treatment and waste. Beer production is also far below that for Cotton and other crops. I do agree that any wastewater from beer production should be recaptured and used - for irrigation and it is often a great source of nutrients for planting. I believe the B Chord folks have been looking into that recapture method. Monks kept brewing alive throughout the Middle Ages because it is easy on the land, does not need much water, and provides something the community desires. B Chord has the right to brew on its land and the responsibility to explain how they will be Green and recapture their wastewater.

  5. A sanity check is what my article asks for. Your permit allows 10,000 barrels per year and does not require water recycling. This permit was issued without verifying what is the sustainable level of groundwater use in the area- that's insane

  6. Thank you Elizabeth Ward for publishing this piece as we are all very concerned about the impact this will have on our neighborhood. I have seen that Mr. Dougherty has done much in the way infrastructure which exceeds the necessary requirements of the county given the current laws and conditions and for that we should all applaud him.
    This attempt to resemble some sort of farm to table is amusing and also misleading; beer is not included on the Food Pyramid. Most of the comments are amusing such as the livestock arguments; on the few occasions we have had cattle trotting up and down the road they rarely do much in the way of mischief, or for that matter trot fast enough to raise dust. I do hope that some of that splendid water you have from those three wells will go towards keeping the dust down for your neighbors.