Home brewing: a staggering lesson about embedded water

When Dan in our Communications Team tried home brewing, he was surprised to discover how little of the water involved ends up in the bottles. Join him for a step-by-step look at the brewing process – and the hidden water demands of the products we love.

Like beer? Be thankful for water

This International Beer Day, I wanted to talk to you about a topic close to my heart: water efficiency. Wait, please stay – I mean, water efficiency and beer.

On the South Coast, we’re lucky to be home to so many great breweries, pubs and bottle shops. Though I’ve always enjoyed the end product, I’d never given a second thought to how it’s made. But, inspired by some of my favourite ales, I decided to try recreating them at home. During my baby-steps into home brewing, I was amazed how much water was involved.

When we talk about water efficiency, we often think about washing our hands or flushing the toilet – the direct ways we interact with water in our daily lives. Yet we rarely consider the hidden role water plays in other areas of our life.

Home brewing showed me first-hand how much water it takes to make a product we know and enjoy – something known as embedded water.

What is embedded water?

Embedded water is the water equivalent of a carbon footprint. These days, we’re used to thinking about how much fuel a journey takes or how much energy an appliance uses. Embedded water is similar.

Have you ever considered the water used to grow the crops we eat – or to manufacture products like the clothes we wear? How about the water used to carry out vital services – like cooling the servers in a datacentre so we can keep streaming and scrolling? Water plays an essential role in our everyday lives in ways we cannot see.

Making beer was no exception – it took far more water than ends up in the bottle.

Time to get brewing

Living in a flat, I had to keep my brewing operation small. So, I went for a kit that contained all the bits I’d need to make a small batch. That’s one US gallon of beer – or 3.8 litres here in the UK.

What kind of beer? I chose a ‘clone’ (to use the home brewing lingo) of a popular IPA. I wanted to see if what I made at home could compare with what I’d find down my local.

To make life easy, all the hops and grain were pre-measured. So, I’d be doing the brewing equivalent of painting-by-numbers. All I had to do was follow the instructions.

The brewing process – a running total

Here we go, a brewing step-by-step – including a running tally of the water we use:

  1. Sanitising – Before I can get brewing, I need to sanitise all my equipment to stop any bacteria spoiling my beer. To do this, I mix my sanitiser with a gallon of water – that’s about a sink full – and soak all my kit in it. (Running total: 3.8 litres.)

  2. The mash – Time to get brewing! First, I need to mix the grain with hot water – like making a stew. I fill a pan with 2.4 litres of water, heat it and drop in the grain and set a timer. (Running total: 6.2 litres).

  3. The sparge – This is the fiddly bit. The mix has to be passed through a strainer into another pan. Once the liquid has drained through, I need to pour another 4.25 litres of hot water through the grain to extract the last of its sugars. (Running total: 10.45 litres).

  4. The boil – The grain has done its job. Now, I need to boil the smelly, sticky broth left behind – the liquid is called wort and I need 4.75 litres of it if I’m going to make a full gallon of beer (some will boil off or evaporate during fermentation). I’ll be dropping hops into the bubbling wort at set times to determine whether they’ll add sweet or bitter flavours to the beer. Phew, no additional water needed at this stage! (Running total: still 10.45 litres).

  5. Fermentation – Once the boil is over, I need to quickly bring the temperature down – time for an ice bath. Another sink full of water topped up with four trays’ worth of ice cubes. I plunge the bottom of the pan in the water and dunk a thermometer in the wort so I can see when it drops to the right temperature for the yeast to work its magic. Once it’s cool enough, I siphon the wort into a demijohn. Then I sprinkle in the yeast, give it a shake and pop an airlock on the top. Now, the brew can sit in a dark cupboard for two weeks to bubble away and start turning into beer. (Running total: 15.05 litres).

  6. Bottling day – After two weeks, it’s time to bottle the beer. Once again, I need to sanitise my equipment to protect my beer from infection. That takes another sink-full of sanitiser solution to soak my bottles, caps and kit. Next, I siphon the beer into bottles and add a little sugar which will give the beer its fizz. Then, I cap the bottles – proudly admiring how much they look like real, shop-bought beers! Now, they just need another two weeks in the cupboard. (Running total: 18.85 litres).
The end result – just 20% ended up in the bottle

Two weeks after bottling day, they’re ready to drink. I crack the top off my first cold homebrew. Reaching this moment took a month and nearly 20 litres of water. That means only 20% of the water I used ended up in bottles.

That’s staggering, yet we haven’t even talked about the water used to grow the hops and grain, print the packaging – or manufacture the bottles, the caps and the rest of the equipment. Clearly, without water, this moment would be impossible. With that in mind, I’ll appreciate every drop!

What’s your daily water footprint?

Beer is just one product – and one to enjoy responsibly. Yet, each day we use countless other goods and consume all kinds of food and drink.

In fact, the food you eat each day could take 3,496 litres of water to produce – if you want to know how, take a look at the fun, interactive guide at thewaterweeat.com. Cheers!