How to Brew Cleaner Water

Milk River is a tributary of the Missouri River, located mostly in Montana but also steering into Alberta, Canada for a bit. It gets its name from its white-ish hue; when explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark came across it in 1805, Captain Lewis noted in his journal that “the water of this river possesses a peculiar whiteness, being about the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tablespoonfull of milk.” That milky hue comes from erosion — the river’s basin has a lot of rocks with a high amount of clay, and over time, that clay has seeped into the water supply — and hasn’t stopped the river from becoming a healthy ecosystem which supports fish and other wildlife.

That almost changed, though, when people got involved. The city of Havre, Montana is home to just under 10,000 people and those people do things that most (all?) people do: they take showers, they use the toilet, and they wash stuff. That creates wastewater, and that wastewater has to go somewhere — and Milk River is, ultimately, one of those “somewheres.” Like many other places, Havre has a wastewater treatment plant which aims to take that sewage and make it less of an issue before it’s returned to the surrounding environment; that’s the good news. The bad news: Havre’s wastewater plant wasn’t quite doing a good enough job, and fixing things could have cost more than $1 million. 

Then, they found a better solution: beer.

The problem with the water was straightforward: even after treatment, the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen was still too high. Algae and other microbes feast on those, and a river filled with algae isn’t good for the fish that also live in those waters. Thankfully, Havre is home to a small craft brewery called Triple Dog Brewing Company. Their Aberdeen Scotch Ale won first place at the 2016 Missoula Brewfest, which is probably a good thing but doesn’t help the fish. But the waste from making all that beer does the trick.

The brewing process yields beer, yes, but it also gives you a lot of sludge made from barley. Mike Garrity, the owner of Triple Dog, told Yellowstone Public Media that the waste “just smells like oatmeal. That’s pretty much what it is. Put a little sugar on it, you’ve got yourself some breakfast” — although he wasn’t actually suggesting anyone eat it. Being waste, Garrity would just send it out to the local composting facility. In 2017, though, that changed. Drue Newfield, the superintendent of the wastewater treatment plant, approached Garrity with a request: he wanted the waste barley mash.

Yellowstone Public Media explained why:

Bacteria play a big role removing nitrogen and phosphorus at wastewater treatment facilities. But to be really effective, bacteria need some extra food at the end of the treatment process when they’re starving for carbon and volatile fatty acids. Luckily, spent barley has both.

So instead of investing in tens of thousands of dollars in additives — and perhaps as much as a million dollars in fixed cost improvements — Harve treatment plant employees just dump a few gallons of Triple Dog’s barley waste into the water each day. The wastewater, wth the beer byproduct added, is now able to be returned safely to the ecosystem. It’s a win on all fronts: the townspeople have their award-winning beer, Triple Dog has a better way to get rid of its inedible oatmeal-y stuff, and the fish in Milk River are free to swim another day.

Bonus fact: Beer byproducts can also help make beer more environmentally-friendly in another way: they can be used as a plastic substitute, at least insofar as six-pack rings are concerned. The rings, as they’re normally made, aren’t biodegradable and sometimes make their way into the ocean, endangering wildlife. But in 2016, a small brewery in Florida came up with an alternative ring system made from wheat and barley. As Discovery notes, “their six-pack holders are fully biodegradable and completely digestible.” Further, “rather than ensnaring curious animals in a corset of litter, the company’s six-pack rings could serve as a satisfying snack.”

From the Archives: Mister Beer Belly: The man who brewed his own beer — in his stomach.