Does the path to clean, safe water lead through a brewery?

Andy Wales, head of sustainable development at global brewer SABMiller, maintains it can happen.  The maker of Miller beer — and 20 other brands, from Aguila in Colombia to Zolotaya Bochka Klassicheskoye in Russia — likes the environmental angle, but the main impetus is to ensure production of their products in what is a highly variable business from location to location.

“Water is obviously a critical part of high quality beer,” Wales said by telephone from London. One important part of this equation is figuring out how to use less water and still make good beer.

What this means in practice is working with groups like World Wildlife Fund and GIZ, a German organization that coordinates international development and sustainable development efforts. It also means recognizing the potential for water scarcity and the need for conservation. The four countries seen as having the biggest long-term water risk are South Africa, Ukraine, Tanzania and Peru, Wales said.

“The goal is to reduce our water use per liter of beer by 25 percent by 2015 over a 2008 base,” Wales said. “So that’s from 4.6 liters per liter of beer to 3.5 liters by 2015. Water efficiency’s a big part of our operations everywhere.”

What does this have to do with making good beer? In South Africa, beer-making hops grow in the George region of the Eastern Cape — an area where weather patterns are shifting due to climate change. To keep the hops growing and beer flowing, SABMiller worked with a government scientific research organization called CSIR to understand risks to that watershed, and risks to the supply of water for irrigation of hops.