Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The city of Boulder is teaming up with a local beer maker to use brewing byproducts to treat wastewater.
Boulder's Wastewater Treatment Facility had been searching for new ways to reduce nitrogen levels in wastewater for years. According to city Wastewater Process Optimization Specialist Cole Sigmon, this meant finding new kinds of food for the bacteria the facility uses to break down nitrogen. Those bacteria love sugar, which is why, after testing other sources, the city found Avery's weak wort to be a great food source for them—as well as cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the industry-standard acetic acid.
Elsewhere, wastewater specialists have used other kinds of food byproducts to treat water, including the whey from dairy and tofu. Sigmon wanted to try something novel and wholly local. "That's why we looked at Avery," he says.
By the same token, Avery was producing more weak wort than it could use—just one among many sugar, yeast, and protein byproducts that come along with the brewing process in general. And when breweries simply dump down the drain the thousands of gallons that go into a week's production, it can wreak havoc on local water treatment.
Unlike some other, larger breweries, Avery hasn't been illegally dumping their chemical byproducts. They've actually maintained a fairly small operation until this year, as they open a new taproom, restaurant, and state-of-the-art brewing facility. There, they'll significantly raise their production capacity—as well as their byproducts. Steve Breezley, Avery's director of operations, says that if Sigmon hadn't approached them with the idea to collaborate, the brewery might have had to start paying an excess-waste surcharge to the city, which Sigmon says could have been upwards of $5,000 per month.
But by delivering roughly 6,000 gallons of liquid wort per week to the nearby municipal treatment facility, Avery—whose new brewery is customized to streamline the process—will get the fee waived.
"Boulder is known to be environmentally conscious," says Breezley. "But I think it's pretty cool that they're being stewards in ways that help breweries out, rather than punish or restrict."
Sigmon says the collaboration could start as soon as this summer. And both he and Breezley say it's quite possible that other municipalities will follow suit. With more breweries dotting the U.S. than at any point in history, and as the EPA continues to tighten nitrogen regulations for water supplies nationwide, there's never been a better time to figure out how making beer can actually benefit cities—besides for the obvious, that is.
"Everyone likes to work with brewers, because we have beer during meetings," says Breezley. Cheers to that.