Beer fight brewing over EPA rule

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A battle is brewing in the beer industry over a new regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency that spells out the agency’s authority to regulate bodies of water.  

Dozens of small craft brewers, such as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, are rallying behind the EPA’s proposed Waters of the U.S. rule, arguing it will help ensure that they have clean water for their products.

But farmers who supply beer ingredients like barley, wheat and hops, say the rule has the potential to massively cut production on their lands, raising beer prices in the process.

The divide has put trade groups for the beer industry in a tough spot, caught between what one industry lobbyist described as “competing interests.”

“Obviously, water is a major element of beer, but barley and hops are pretty darn important as well,” said Bob Pease, CEO of the Brewers Association, which represents thousands of small craft brewers and some farmers.

The Brewers Association is currently talking to members from all corners of the beer industry, as it decides whether to weigh in on the EPA’s controversial rule, Pease said.

“A decent number of our breweries support it,” he said. “But there are always competing interests, and we want to better understand where that opposition is coming from.”

The EPA proposed the water rule in March, arguing it was needed simply to clarify the agency’s authority over smaller bodies of water, such as the tributaries that feed into larger lakes and rivers.

Business groups and some in the agriculture industry have criticized the rule as an overreach by the Obama administration that could lead to burdensome regulations on private property owners.

But many brewers are fully behind the rule, arguing it’s important to ensure that water — which makes up 90 percent of beer — is protected.

“For brewers, it’s all about protecting their water supply,” said Karen Hobbs, who has organized several dozen craft brewers as part of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) "Clean Water, Great Beer” campaign. “They’re not going to be able to brew the same beer if the composition of the water changes."

The NRDC has led the lobbying effort for the brewers who are pushing for clean water.

Their concern is that without further EPA regulation, the small streams that feed into larger bodies of water could potentially pollute the lakes and rivers where brewers get their water.

“Essentially, it means that the water the brewers are using could potentially be polluted,” said Cheri Chastain, sustainability manager at Sierra Nevada, which is based in California and is the second largest craft brewer in the country. 

Though brewers take steps to make sure they are not selling “dirty beer,” those safeguards can be expensive and affect the taste of their products, brewers say.

If brewers have to treat water too much for pollution, the process can filter out the natural flavors that are unique to different areas of the country.

This is why brewers say it’s so important to start with clean water, something they hope the EPA’s rule will deliver. 

New Belgium, the nation's third largest craft brewer, has been arguably the largest industry supporter of the new rule, going as far as to send a representative to testify before Congress this summer.

“It’s a matter of just keeping [pollution and contaminants] out of the water, so we’re not bringing them into the brewing process and we’re not bringing them into our beer,” said Dana Sedin, who monitors the quality of beer at the Colorado-based New Belgium, the maker of Fat Tire.

For other brewers, it’s simple a matter of being good corporate citizens. 

Jason Spaulding, who along with his wife owns Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, Mich., thinks of himself first as a member of the community.

“A healthy lifestyle is part of the craft beer culture,” Spaulding said. “So supporting clean water just makes sense to us." 

“I don’t know how you can argue against clean water. Even if it means we have to pay more for water, we would do it if it means we have better, stronger regulations,” he added.

But not everyone feels the same way. The Farm Bureau has come out against the rule, because it fears it could be expensive for many farmers to comply with.

Farmers also say the rule is unnecessary. 

“The American farmer is more concerned about the quality of water on his farm than probably even the EPA,” said Bernard Peterson, who owns a Kentucky farm that supplies corn and wheat to bourbon distilleries.

Many corn farmers also supply beer companies like Anheuser-Busch, which makes Budweiser. 

Barley farmers and hops growers are also concerned about the EPA’s waters rule.

Doyle Lentz, president of the National Barley Growers Association, owns a farm in North Dakota that sends most of its barley to Anheuser-Busch.

But under the EPA’s proposed waters rule, Lentz is concerned the agency could stop him from farming as much has 80 percent of his lands, because at some times of the year they are covered in water.

“We, frankly, just don’t trust the EPA to manage the water on our farms,” Lentz said.

Brett Blankenship, vice president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, shares the same concerns. Many brewers use wheat to make beers like Hefeweizen.

“We all want clean water, and we all do our part to make sure the waters are improving, but we cannot afford EPA overreach,” Blankenship said.

The same is true for many hops farmers, whose crops are used to flavor beer.

“Heck, yes, we’re concerned,” said Ann George, executive director of the Hop Growers of America. “It gets to the point where I think everyone supports clean water, but how clean does it have to be?”