In the first part of this five-part briefing, Ben Cooper looks at the use of water in the brewing process, and brewers' attempts to reduce the amount wasted, as part of their sustainability efforts.

There are a host of reasons why water is viewed as critical - arguably the lead issue - in the hierarchy of sustainability criteria the beer sector is addressing. 

First, one of the chief over-arching trends in sustainability across virtually all sectors in recent years has been the growing prominence attached to water, and how water interconnects with other sustainability issues around energy and food security, a frame of reference now being increasingly known as the energy, water and food security 'nexus'.  Beverage companies have been at least in step with - and in some cases ahead - of this trend.

Brewing is the most water-intensive production process in the beverage sector, around 1.5 to two times more water-intensive than soft drinks production, while there is also huge water usage in the production of beer's principal agricultural raw materials. This is a particularly important issue for brewers with production sites in water-stressed areas.

The other critical factor related to water is its significance from a reputational standpoint. Any suggestion that a brewer's environmental impact, either in relation to processes within the brewery or in the agricultural supply chain, might be having a negative impact on the water supply of local communities represents a huge reputational risk.

For this reason water tends also to feature prominently in brewers' community investment and development initiatives, which provide proactive reputational protection while also helping to build long-term sustainability and security into their water supply, both for the brewery and in the agricultural supply chain.

Water efficiency in the production process

Although by far the main contribution to water use in the production of beer comes in the agricultural supply chain, the beer production process itself is water-intensive. Water is not only beer's principal ingredient but also essential in the brewing process for steam raising, cooling and washing.

Water-saving innovations can be as basic as regular maintenance of taps and piping systems, monitoring of leaks and building employee awareness on water conservation through better training. However, brewers have also built on-site water treatment facilities at their breweries, along with systems to recapture and reuse waste water generated in the brewing process itself. Breweries have also installed systems to collect and purify rainwater.

In addition, biogas captured through anaerobic treatment of waste water can replace fossil fuels used to power boilers or generate electricity, helping to lower carbon emissions. This is a clear example of where water and energy efficiency are closely interconnected. Meanwhile, improved water efficiency reduces energy consumption by requiring less pumping and lowering heating and cooling costs. The solid waste created through anaerobic waste water treatment can also be used as fertilizer and the lime from the process used as soil conditioner, as both are rich in nitrogen.

Making strides to improve water efficiency

Although water use in the brewery only represents a relatively small proportion of water used in the entire value chain for beer production and distribution, corporate environmental sustainability strategies in general have tended to begin with areas under companies' immediate control.

Consequently, water efficiency within their production sites was the initial primary focus for global brewers. Headline targets have been set and consistent progress has been reported in recent years.

Anheuser-Busch InBev

As part of its sustainability strategy, which prioritises water efficiency, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and recycling, Anheuser-Busch InBev has a water efficiency target of 3.5hl per 1hl for its brewery operations by the end of 2012.

The company has made solid progress towards achieving that target since 2007, with the ratio dropping from 5.03 hl/1hl to 4.04 hl/1hl in 2010, the most recent year for which the company has reported. It will be filing its 2011 figures in April, and believes it is on track to achieve the 2012 target.

Instrumental in achieving the progress to date and making further progress going forward has been the company's Voyager Plant Optimization (VPO) system which is aimed at bringing greater efficiency and standardisation to its brewing operations, according to Daniel Navaresse, A-B InBev's global director for energy and fluids.

As with other companies, addressing water-stressed areas is a priority, and last year A-B InBev conducted a water risk assessment across all its sites.

Carlsberg

Carlsberg improved water efficiency in its breweries by 5.6% in 2011 from 3.5 hl/hl to 3.3 hl/hl. The brewer said it achieved this by implementing its 'Lean Utilities' programme, which measures the performance of each site against an ideal brewery to identify areas for improvement. In 2010, it set a target for 2013 of 3.2 hl/hl. Last year, Carlsberg completed a water risk assessment at all its sites.

Carlsberg's activities once again underline the relationship between water and energy efficiency, with the company highlighting the upgrade of the waste water treatment plant at its Slavutich unit in Ukraine as particularly notable. In 2010, boilers were modernised and a system was installed to capture the biogas generated from the brewery's wastewater treatment, reducing the brewery's carbon footprint significantly. Energy generated from captured biogas now amounts to 13.5% of the site's total fuel use, the brewer states.

Diageo

Diageo has a target to improve water efficiency across the group by 30% by 2015, from a 2007 baseline. In its most recent sustainability report, it posts a 3% improvement for 2010/2011 and cumulative progress of 15.8% from 2007 to 2011. Group water efficiency has fallen from 8.0 hl/1hl to 6.7 hl/1hl in 2011.

The company has set a separate target to reduce water wasted in water-stressed sites by 50% by 2015 from a baseline of 2007, and has so far achieved a 9% reduction between 2007 and 2011.

Diageo's operations in water-stressed areas are heavily skewed towards Africa, and consequently to its beer production. The company has identified nine locations as water-stressed, seven of which are in African countries where Diageo produces beer, namely Ghana, Uganda and Kenya. Another reflection of the importance of Diageo's beer operations in its water strategy is its total water use figures. Total water use in 2011 was 23.1m cubic meters, with global beer production accounting for 14.6m cubic meters.

Michael Alexander, head of environment communications and policy at Diageo, points to the sustainability benefits of cross-learning between its operations in different sectors through its Manufacturing Excellence Programme. "We will share technologies from distilling to brewing and vice versa," says Alexander, citing the transfer of water reduction technology from its Huntingwood packaging plant in Australia to its breweries in Ghana as an example.

Heineken

Heineken reported a reduction in the water use ratio across its all its production units (primarily beer but also including cider, soft drinks and water) from 4.8 hl/1hl in 2009 to 4.5 hl/1hl in 2010. Its target is to achieve a 25% reduction by 2020 from a 2008 baseline of 5.1 hl/1hl.

In 2011, Heineken raised the focus on water use in water-stressed areas as part of its Brewing a Better Future sustainability agenda launched the year before, which global sustainable development manager Vera Zandbergen describes as a "step-change" in the company's approach to sustainability.

Using the Global Water Tool of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Heineken ranks its sites in terms of water stress exposure using a number internationally recognised tools.

The company has undertaken water footprint studies in markets from all its regions, namely in the Netherlands, Mexico, Egypt, Slovakia and Vietnam. In addition it made a water footprint study at its Albert Maltings. These results are to be published in its next sustainability report which will be available in April 2012.

Molson Coors

Working from a baseline of 2008, Molson Coors has set a global target to reduce water use by 15% per unit of production by the end of 2012, which would bring its water efficiency ratio down to 4.4hl/1hl. According to its most recent data, the brewer's efficiency ratio had fallen to 4.7hl/1hl in 2010.

That year also saw completion of watershed assessments at all of the company's sites and based on those assessments Molson Coors has identified locations that are either water-stressed or have apparent risks to water availability. At the same time, the brewer was able to determine that each brewery had secure water quality and ensure that effluent systems meet or exceed local regulations.

All the global brewers recognise the centrality of the water issue and its interconnectedness with other issues such as energy and waste. However, Molson Coors chief corporate responsibility officer Bart Alexander makes another salient observation. "Water efficiency is in many ways a proxy measure for efficiency of a brewer overall," he suggests.

Molson Coors does not have the exposure to water-stressed countries in Africa which some of its peers have, but it nonetheless recognises the importance of maximising water efficiency and identifying water security risks where they exist. In balancing its priorities between energy and water, Alexander says both are "important drivers of our thinking". He continues: "Probably from a pure cost standpoint energy is more important; from a standpoint of risk water may be more important."

Alexander also points out that Molson Coors has just begun brewing in India; the move could bring the water issue further to the fore and present the company with new challenges.

SABMiller

With its substantial footprint in Africa, SABMiller has significant exposure to water-stressed regions, and it is no surprise to find the company has a well-developed water strategy. It has set a target to reduce its water use ratio by 25% by 2015 against a 2008 baseline, which would bring its water use ratio down to 3.5hl/1hl. Its water use ratio stood at 4.6hl/1hl in 2008, fell to 4.3% in 2010 and by a further 3% to 4.2hl/1hl in 2011.

Andy Wales, head of sustainable development at SABMiller, highlights that the relationship between water and energy efficiency goes beyond optimising water usage so energy is not wasted in unnecessary pumping, heating or cooling. Like other brewers, SABMiller uses waste water with a high organic content to generate power through anaerobic digestion. "In a way you see a positive microcosm of the water-food-energy nexus within the brewing process," Wales says.

Last year, new treatment plants were built and commissioned at its breweries in Uganda and Tanzania, while work began on an aerobic treatment plant in Panama. Further funding has been allocated for treatments plants in Ecuador and Colombia.

Wales believes water efficiency in the company's breweries could be further reduced. "I think post 2015 we may be able to do some more. I think 3.5 itself as a global average for the all the operations we have around the world is a challenging target, and we're working hard to hit that."

Conclusion

Maximising water efficiency in production units is clearly important for a number of reasons. As has been suggested, it is a proxy for efficiency, beer production is the most water-intensive of the beverage sectors, water management has an impact on other key environmental impacts, notably energy and waste and, particularly where breweries are located in water-stressed areas, it is crucial from a reputational standpoint. For a brewer to be seen to be profligate with water when water scarcity and security is a concern for local communities is unsupportable in today's environment.

However, notwithstanding these important factors and the progress in water efficiency that the major brewers have achieved in recent years, the reality is that the water used in the brewery is a small proportion of the total water footprint of beer production. For this reason, it has been vital for the major brewers to extend their water strategies into their supply chains, a subject examined in the following section of this management briefing.

Click here to head to part two of this briefing.