Worthy Brewing’s brew deck was already buzzing with activity as early as 6 a.m. on a Tuesday in September. Brewers Jordan Davis and Zane Tarabochia-Martin started with a new batch of Worthy’s Piney and Tropical Northwest IPA.
A long pipe pumped a steady stream of grain trimmings and clap into a tank known as a mash tun to steep it in hot water. Davis gently placed his hand on a dial behind him, making careful adjustments to the temperature of the mixture from time to time.
“If you screw up that part, the whole day can get pretty tough,” Davis said.
And it’s a terrible thing to waste a good batch of beer, especially considering the amount of water it takes to make it.
Central Oregon’s beer scene has grown while the region’s water problems have worsened. As local water managers try to meet growing demand for a shrinking resource, the brewing industry has come under scrutiny.
Related: The beer boom in Bend puts a strain on the water infrastructure
In the west, breweries are taking steps to reduce their water consumption. Brewers in Oregon, Colorado and California have experimented with making beer from recycled wastewater. A giant nationally and in Bend, Deschutes Brewery treats its own wastewater in-house.
Worthy is one of several breweries in the area trying to reduce water usage while also breaking into the competitive craft beer market.
“As a society [we’ve] more aware of what a volatile resource water is in the West,” said Dustin Kellner, director of brewery operations at Worthy. “As a company, we are also aware of the ways we can try to reduce our water loss and keep as much water as we use in the product rather than going down the drain.”
Brewing is a notoriously thirsty business. It requires water to clean and sanitize equipment, mash grain, rinse sugar out of grain, and more.
The most efficient breweries use about three gallons of water for every gallon of beer they make. Average breweries have a water to beer ratio of around 5 to 1, while some can crawl as high as 10 to 1.
Waiter, who brewed at home and worked at a small pub in Santa Cruz, California, said the amount of water wasted in brewing is more evident at larger operations like Worthy’s.
The brewery has installed water meters at each drain that measures how much waste is sent into the town of Bend for treatment. Kellner said he’s constantly working to find ways the brewery can reduce wastewater.
One way to do this is to brew more. Worthy cleans and disinfects equipment at the beginning and end of each day. In summer, when demand is higher, the brewery can produce more beer with the same amount of water for brew deck hygiene.
“Trying to bundle multiple beers into fewer days is no different than trying to run as many errands as you can when you get in your car,” Kellner said.
But the brewery’s water use isn’t limited to what goes into the kettles and kegs. There are also restaurants, bathrooms and landscaping. To that end, Worthy is transforming its Bend campus into a water efficiency training ground.
That’s the responsibility of Rick Martinson, who runs the brewery’s environmental nonprofit, Worthy Garden Club. He’s a lumberjack-turned-archaeologist-turned-environmental-scientist-turned-landscape artist specializing in xeriscaping — drought-tolerant landscaping.
Martinson’s current project is an overhaul of the native plant gardens and bioswales that surround the building. He also hopes to turn a disused fermentation kettle into a giant rain barrel to wean Worthy off of irrigated water.
Signs surrounding the brewery and attached organic farm preach the benefits of water conservation and regenerative soils alongside sandwich boards highlighting the latest pale ale.
“We can provide other examples here that are available to the public and serve as educational opportunities to engage other people in water conservation,” Martinson said. “A lot of people in central Oregon think we have a lot of water … the water is going away fast.”
Beer is firmly anchored in the national and regional identity. Bend’s brewery scene attracts big tourist bucks and even full-time residents who want to work in the industry and enjoy the fruits of the industry.
But the brewing industry sits alongside residential water users, agriculture, fisheries, wildlife and others who are feeling the pressure as central Oregon’s water demands grow. Waiter said while brewing is easier here than in drier states like California or Arizona, Oregon brewers need to do more to make their business sustainable over the long term.
“I think if breweries don’t do more at their own level to at least help with these issues,” he said, “certainly we could see a point where the city of Bend or Deschutes County would say, ‘We can’t breweries support more.’”