No Water, No Beer

Local breweries, growing up around a water theme, may be Gainesville’s best example of how business can help elevate the water conversation in North Central Florida

By Stacey Marquis

At the Hogtown Craft Beer Festival in April, more than a hundred breweries served beer from across the country, but two tents constantly had long lines: First Magnitude Brewing Company and Swamp Head Brewery, the largest craft breweries in Gainesville.

Among a sea of exotic choices – from small batch, homebrewed ciders to Uinta Brewing from Utah – patrons flocked to the local tents the most. Part of the attraction is clearly the big, local names. But First Magnitude and Swamp Head have something else in common: Brands inextricably tied to the natural resources and environment that make Gainesville’s good life – including the beer that flows here – possible.

According to census data, the median age in Gainesville is around 25 years old. This age group is more aware of climate change and human impact on the environment than other age groups, according to a Pew survey, and local breweries are tapping into this demographic.

At First Magnitude, co-owner Christine Denny sees her business as not just giving customers good beer and a place to drink it, but an opportunity to sneak in an environmental message at the same time.

It’s a clear theme at Gainesville’s home-grown breweries: The beer is important, but it would not be here – and neither would we – without the natural freshwater that keeps taps and rivers flowing. The tasting room at First Magnitude is filled with pictures of North Florida springs. Swamp Head Brewery’s solar panels are visible from the parking lot, and it too displays scenes of springs and forests behind the taps. First Magnitude’s name and logo directly reference Florida’s freshwaters, recalling the most powerful springs that produce “over 100 cubic feet of water per second.

These subtle-and-not-so-subtle references to springs are planned, and meant to encourage patrons to ask about their meaning, Denny said.

“I have a big interest in connecting people with a message when they don’t know they’re being connected with a message,” she said. “Sustainability is really important to a large portion of our customers, which I think is great. To me, the bigger, even more important piece is to get the people who don’t think that way, or don’t know they think that way, to get engaged through beer.”

Denny has spent 17 years working in environmental science, and a large portion of her research involves Florida’s springs. When she and her husband, John, first envisioned the brewery, they knew that they wanted to incorporate her experience and knowledge about sustainability into the plans.

First Magnitude co-owner Christine Denny. (photo by Andrea Cornejo)

Part of First Magnitude’s sustainability efforts come from supporting local organizations, such as the Springs Eternal project to raise awareness about the plight of our region’s springs; the Current Problems organization devoted to waterway clean-ups; and Alachua Conservation Trust (ACT).

Swamp Head also collaborates with ACT and other local organizations for events and new beer releases. It teamed up with Solar Impact, the company that provides its solar panels, in 2015 with its first Tree Fest. For every beer purchased at the event, ACT planted five trees. In all, 20,543 trees took root in the county thanks to the event.

“We’re constantly coming up with new beers and exploring new ideas,” said Brandon Nappy, Swamp Head’s marketing manager, such as its “Florida Forever” series launched last year with the Florida Springs Institute, a Gainesville springs-awareness organization. “It’s allowed us an interactive way to align with and bring awareness to organizations that save, protect and improve natural resources.”

Swamp Head Brewery created its Eternal Blonde Ale with the Florida Springs Institute. When the beer was on tap, a portion of each glass sold went to the organization, and the brewery donated beer to the institute during its events throughout the year.

Water use is a concern for all breweries, especially those in the western United States facing water scarcity. When Swamp Head owner Luke Kemper went to college in Colorado, he said he noticed a lot of water-sustainability efforts at western breweries such as New Belgium Brewery and Odell Brewing Company. They inspired him to set up Swamp Head with some of the same innovations. First Magnitude’s brewers also are working with industry peers to figure out how to use water as efficiently as possible.

Still, no matter how environmentally minded the company, brewers have got to tap their main ingredient – and significant energy in the process. “You use a lot of energy when you heat the water,” Denny said. “You have to heat a giant kettle of water. We use natural gas for that. You also use a lot of water in the brewing process. On average, for every pint of beer you use six pints of water.”

According to data from Gainesville Regional Utilities, First Magnitude consumed 50,000 gallons of water in a recent month, or an average 1,667 gallons a day. As part of its commitment to water sustainability, the brewery does not irrigate. Swamp Head uses more water to brew more beer, tapping 215,000 gallons for the same billing period, or about 7,000 gallons a day. But the company also irrigates, with a separate meter that recorded 57,000 gallons in the month-long billing period, or an average 2,000 gallons a day for irrigation.

The breweries’ consumption rates fall into the category of “medium” (First Magnitude) and “high” (Swamp Head) for businesses in Gainesville, using an analysis of Alachua County water use by the University of Florida’s Program for Resource Efficient Communities. The analysis found that the city’s highest users are hotels and motels, followed by casual dining establishments, then shopping centers. Just like homes, businesses with the highest water use tend to be those with automatic irrigation systems.

Kemper agreed that automatic irrigators can run counter to their goal of regulating water use; Swamp Head’s system recently wasted water after a power surge. He said the company irrigates because of the landscaping installed when it built its new brewery at 3650 SW 42nd Avenue, but he hopes to only do so for the first few years of operations to establish the young trees and plants.

Keeping carbon out of the atmosphere

The breweries’ major impact may be in energy savings and reduction of carbon emissions. Saving energy automatically saves water, which is as key to most kinds of energy production as it is to beer. Meanwhile by reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, the breweries can be a model for other local businesses and their customers that we can move to a lower-carbon economy.

First Magnitude and Swamp Head are both working with the nonprofit We Are Neutral to become carbon neutral – in other words, to make up the amount of carbon they release with some sort of offset. First Magnitude is on track to become the first carbon-neutral brewery in Florida.

“(We Are Neutral) measures an organization’s carbon footprint and they determine how much would need to be done in order to offset that,” Denny said. “The carbon footprint could come from day-to-day operations, power use, water use, shipping, traveling, all of these different things. We give them money, and they offset our carbon footprint by planting trees locally.”

Anna Sampson, outreach and operations manager at We Are Neutral, said the organization calculates the carbon footprint in metric tons of carbon emissions, and tells the business how much it will cost to offset those emissions. We Are Neutral charges $15 for each metric ton of emissions produced.

Calculating a carbon footprint is not easy. A metric ton of emissions includes not only greenhouse gases produced, but also water use, methane and more. “The biggest chunk of our footprints normally is going to be electricity, gas, natural gas, water and wastewater,” Sampson said. “You can go down a rabbit hole. You can offset the carbon footprint of all the straws you buy.”

On top of measuring the carbon footprint and providing offsets, We Are Neutral works with clients to figure out ways to reduce consumption in the first place.

“We want to reduce first and reuse second, and recycle is your last thing,” she said. “It’s still a really good thing to do, but it still takes a lot of energy to make an old plastic bottle into a new plastic bottle. You do as much as you can. You’re going to need to brew beer. Reduce what you can and offset the rest.”

Nappy said creating carbon dioxide to carbonate the beer is one of the most harmful elements of the brewing process. “We do use a lot of carbon dioxide, and that’s to get the bubblies in the beer,” he said. “We’ve got steam that we’re creating with gas, and we’ve got CO2, and we’ve got electricity. Those are the three big ones.”

Nappy said the brewery’s main sustainability goal for this year is to increase its carbon offsets. Swamp Head released its first sustainability report in 2015, in which it detailed that it released 535 metric tons of carbon last year. The brewery made a dent in those emissions by offsetting 19 metric tons through the use of solar power, 81 metric tons through tree offsets and 13 percent through purchased offsets. The report also details the extent to which the company uses local ingredients for its brews. That’s also a big theme for up-and-coming Alligator Brewing.

Aaron Kahn, head brewer at Alligator, said he tries to use local, in-season items to find inspiration for each of the beers he creates. “We put a large focus on ingredients and the feel of the beers that we’re making,” he said. “We have a strong commitment to the community.”

He also tries to reuse every ingredient in the cycle, from water to mash. “Our spent grains … after the mash or immersion of the starches … that all goes to a local pig farmer,” he said. “It’s super healthy in protein and fiber for livestock. We don’t use solar power, unfortunately, unlike other brewers in town.”

The people want it

For craft breweries, these efforts resonate with many customers. Jessica Hightower, a Gainesville resident, said she enjoys First Magnitude and Swamp Head for the variety of beer they produce, but also for their involvement in local causes.

“I think the best thing about First Magnitude is their partnerships with different NGOs and non- profits,” she said. “It definitely makes me want to go there more often. Same with Swamp Head.”

The new bat house that Swamp Head Brewery installed with the help of the Lubee Bat Conservancy caught her attention and both of the breweries’ partnerships with the Alachua Conservation Trust is a big draw for her.

Local brewers say one of the best things about their industry is the collaborative spirit among brewers. After working with both Swamp Head and First Magnitude for around two years, Sampson of We Are Neutral has noticed that there has never been competition or ill will between the two companies.

“Breweries are similar to non-profits because they are always collaborating,” she said. “They’re working together and they’re all trying to be the best they can in a group. It’s not like they’re competitors. They both have different things that they try to celebrate.”

Denny echoed those sentiments: “The craft brewing industry is a very collaborative industry, so we share a lot of information,” Denny said. “No one wants to be wasting water. Brewers, by nature, are generally conservation-minded, community-minded folks. That’s just the nature of this business. They share a lot of information, they try to minimize their footprint, and we all try to do good.”

“Sustainability is really important to a large portion of our customers, which I think is great. To me, the bigger, even more important piece is to get the people who don’t think that way, or don’t know they think that way, to get engaged through beer.”Christine Denny, co-owner, First Magnitude Brewery

About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.