What are you Drinking?

When It Comes to Cleveland Beer, It’s All About the Water

A beer snob may tell you that beer you drink is watery, but a S.N.O.B.—a member of the Society of Northeast Ohio Brewers—will tell you all beer is watery. Beer is somewhere between 90% and 95% water. Most brewers obsess over that 5% to 10% over which they have the most control—the grain, hops, and yeast, but brewers who use Cleveland water feel pretty good about the rest.

“It’s widely known that water from the big lake is excellent for everything—drinking, all kinds of use,” says Sam McNulty, owner of Market Garden Brewery. “It’s extremely well-suited for brewing: coffee, beer, you name it.”

The big lake is, of course, Lake Erie, 127.6 trillion gallons of water sloshing at the edge of our city, of which 80% flows from the upper Great Lakes and the remainder is evenly split between over-lake precipitation and the flow of rivers, according to Cleveland Water, a division of the city’s Department of Public Utilities (what we usually just call “the water department”). Cleveland Water draws from Lake Erie’s large and deep Central Basin, which contains about 3/5 of the lake’s total volume. The water department treats and delivers up to 300 million gallons through 5,300 miles of underground water mains to 1.4 million people in 80 communities in Cuyahoga, Geauga, Medina, Portage, and Summit counties. Some of that flows right into your beer glass.

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McNulty says that getting water from surface fresh water like the Great Lakes, as opposed to rivers and underground aquifers, is one of the reasons Cleveland water is so good. “We have a whole ecosystem that essentially scrubs the water. And it’s consistent the whole year long,” he says.

Water sourced from rivers, on the other hand, is susceptible to more dramatic changes due to weather conditions and seasons in general: while salt content from road salt runoff is very slightly higher in lake water, it fluctuates much more in river-fed sources.

The consistency and predictability of Cleveland water has brewers at every level—from larger microbreweries like Market Garden and Great Lakes Brewing Company to home brewers—the ability to experiment with many different styles of beer and, says McNulty, it’s been good for all of them.

“Lake Erie water is the Swiss army knife of water supplies,” he says. “We have yet to find a style that it isn’t extremely well-suited for.”

Although Paul Shick is a math professor at John Carroll University, he knows an awful lot about the chemical makeup of water used to make beer. An award-winning home brewer and certified beer judge, he has presented his research on it to a number of groups (only an audience of chemists actually wanted to hear more about the chemistry than Shick was interested in discussing).

“Beer styles that developed in the ways they have developed are pretty much because of the water where they developed,” he says. The best example of water chemistry dictating beer style is the Czech Pilsner. There’s also Dublin’s water, perfect for stouts; Munich’s, good for light lagers; and Burton-on-Trent, England’s—the source for India Pale Ales.

“If we’re being sloppy, we might call it the ‘hardness’ of the water,” Shick says about the kinds of factors that have an impact on the beer a water supply produces. “The water in Cleveland is moderately hard,” says Shick. “It’s pretty good for most beers.” Although he thinks the best beers from Cleveland water tend to be on the darker side, he, like McNulty, lauds the water for its wide flexibility. “With appropriate adjustments, you can make pretty much anything. None of the local breweries do anything heroic with the water,” he says.

Like McNulty, Shick credits Cleveland Water’s consistency as one of its primary virtues. “It turns out having an enormous lake is a really good thing,” he says.

Testing The Waters

It’s not just the enormity of Lake Erie that accounts for its consistency and quality—it’s also from where in the lake Cleveland Water draws its supply.

Cleveland Water has four treatment plants that obtain water from the large Central Basin, each one pumping source water from separate intakes located in deep water three to five miles off shore and spreading out over 15 miles of the lake, according to Scott Moegling, Cleveland Water quality manager. “This distance off shore is important because the water is not influenced by land-based activities,” Moegling says. Most water treatment plants that use Lake Erie have intakes much closer to shore—typically less than a half-mile. Water treatment plants sourced from rivers have even more fluctuations in the water chemistry, he says.

“The net result of distance, depth, and spread is that we get very consistent source water, which allows us to provide very consistent treatment and ultimately a very consistent final product: safe drinking water,” Moegling adds. “When a brewer looks to provide a consistent beer product, consistency in their main ingredient, water is paramount. Consistent tap water means the brewer can use the same recipes each day and get the same predictable result with minimal to no variations in the final product.”

Cleveland Water is not shy about its connection between water and beer: On April 7, it tweeted, “Are you enjoying a pint at one of Cleveland’s great local breweries for #NationalBeerDay?” and included a graphic showing the importance of water to brewing beer. In addition to the familiar statistic that beer is mostly water, it also points out that, on average, it takes seven gallons of water to produce one gallon of beer.

While the importance of water quality may make environmentalists of brewers at every level, intensive water usage is still involved.

Great Lakes Brewing Company is known as one of the most sustainability-focused breweries in the country. Since 2016, they’ve been able to reduce their water usage rate by 9%. Over the last three years, it’s been a savings of about five million gallons per year.

The company provides incentives to its employees who find ways to achieve greater efficiency, including ideas to preserve water. The ideas, to which 60 to 70 employees contributed, ranged from simply identifying and eliminating leaks to capturing rinse water and using it downstream to rinse the outsides of the bottles.

Saul Kliorys, the brewery’s sustainability manager, says, “We approach if from a couple of different directions. We are, to some extent, concerned about water efficiency here in the brewery. But we’re going to have a difficult time draining all the water in Lake Erie. We are very fortunate to be on the shores of this great resource.”

One of the goals Great Lakes has is to serve a model for other breweries, including those in places like Atlanta and Las Vegas, places with water sources that are neither close nor plentiful. They are active in the Brewers Association, whose current membership is about 7,000, for which the brewery works on sustainability issues, including water and energy usage, wastewater management, and sustainable design and building strategies.

Great Lakes, through the nonprofit Burning River Foundation, also hosts the annual Burning River Fest, a music and beer festival that has raised $680,000 for groups working on clean water, specifically for the Great Lakes. Among its funded projects was possibly the first research that discovered microplastics in Lake Erie. The foundation is also working to restore the former Coast Guard Station at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, the site of the Burning River Fest, to use it for environmental education about the Cuyahoga River and the Great Lakes.

This year’s Great Lakes Burning River Fest is set for June 21-22 at Coast Guard Station on Whiskey Island. The festival coincides with the 50th anniversary of the last time water surface debris caught fire on the Cuyahoga River and is part of a series of commemorations under the umbrella Cuyahoga50. For more information on the festival and series, visit BurningRiverFest.org and Cuyahoga50.com.