Colorado’s beer industry hops into water politics

Coloradans are fond of saying, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting,” to evoke just how hot-headed the debate over water politics can become. But that statement might need amending as more and more of the state’s monied craft breweries make a splash in the environmental politics of water.

New Belgium, Odell and Aspen breweries, three of the state’s largest craft-beer producers, have signed onto the Brewer’s Climate Declaration:

The Brewer's Climate Declaration, signed by several dozen breweries nationwide. Via Ceres.
The Brewer’s Climate Declaration, signed by several dozen breweries nationwide. Via Ceres.

“Craft brewing is just taking off in Colorado in a really huge way,” said Kim Stevens, a campaign director for Environment Colorado, who recently hosted a party to celebrate the new loophole-closing-clean-water rule at the Denver Beer Company.

“New Belgium was the first to really step up and develop this whole sustainability department and start taking stances on issues that impact brewing,” said Stevens. “Clean water is a no-brainer. You can’t have beer without clean water. They’re also impacted by climate change because growing hops requires really stable conditions.”

Bryan Simpson, a spokesperson for New Belgium, wrote to The Colorado Independent that the Fort Collins brewery donates “around $1 million per year toward sustainability issues in the categories of healthy watersheds, sustainable agriculture, smart transportation and environmental education.”

The facility also generates nearly 20 percent of its own electricity through an on-site waste-water methane-capture system and solar panels.

“As a consumer of natural resources, we feel we have a responsibility to advocate for sound resource management and to minimize our own usage,” Simpson wrote. “We have done well by the communities who support us, and we want to give back to those communities as best we can by advocating in areas we feel enhance the quality of life for all people while taking into consideration the health of our planet.”

Corey Odell, the sustainability coordinator at Odell Brewing, said she sees sustainability efforts gaining steam in breweries large and small.   

“I defiantly think it’s a trend in the industry, in large part due to our collaborative nature,” said Odell. “In addition to protecting the environment and helping communities, lowering our usage lowers our costs.” 

Odell added that brewers in the northern part of the state regularly meet to discuss water politics and innovative ways to reduce water-use. She noted that even mega-outfits like Anheuser-Busch are joining the conversation.

Water, which makes up anywhere from 90 to 95 percent of beer, has so-far been breweries’ major environmental focus.

“The clean water rule for us is pretty much everything,” said Willis Brown at the Aspen Brewing Company, which recently contributed to an Environment Colorado video lobbying congress to support the new rule, which closes loopholes in the Clean Water Act.

“Without clean water we can’t make beer, and we especially can’t make good beer,” Brown said. “It’s everything to our business and our vitality as a brewery.”

Brown added that for many breweries, protecting the environment is a natural outgrowth of what brought them to the industry in the first place.

“You know it’s what we believe in,” he said. “We believe the state of the environment is a direct reflection of how we treat it. As a brewery team, we also live a lifestyle that’s very outdoor oriented. We all mountain bike, ski, snowboard and float the rivers. When you spend that much time outdoors playing and that much time in a brewery – where all these different aspects of the environment need to come together so we can produce the beer – I think in general that’s very eye-opening.”


The crowded patio of the Denver Beer Company on the afternoon of Environment Colorado’s “Brews and Canoes” Clean Water Act celebration. Photo by Tessa Cheek.