Expert Topic Sustainability and Hops, Protecting Waterways and Preserving Beer

The Pacific Northwest is home to America’s most important hop producing region, one that locals work every day to promote and protect. Changes to the climate and concern over preserving the future viability of the storied agricultural land is leading farmers, brewers, and conservationists to team up to better inform drinkers of the importance of shielding its water sources.

At the center of this partnership is Oregon Wild, an organization that works to protect and restore Oregon’s wildlands, wildlife, and waters. Founded in 1974, Oregon Wild seeks to protect and restore millions of acres of wilderness, waterways, and essential ecosystems across the state. In 2015, Oregon Wild announced the formation of the Oregon Brewshed® Alliance, a coalition of brewers, craft beer affiliates, and conservationists advocating for the protection of forests and watersheds. Members of the group work to educate beer drinkers about protected watersheds and their essential role in Oregon’s celebrated craft brewing industry and its production of hops.

Dozens of breweries, cideries, and other industry members work together on projects ranging from consumer education to fundraising. At its core, the alliance promotes a simple concept: “Great beer starts with clean water.” In April, the group got together to release a series of beers tied together by support for protecting the Oregon watersheds. Coleman Agriculture and Yakima Chief Hops donated Citra®, Mosaic®, and Simcoe® hops to the participating breweries, which included pFriem Family Brewers, Hopworks Urban Brewery, Ecliptic Brewing, Fort George Brewery, Grand Fir Brewing, Little Beast Brewing, Ruse Brewing, Falling Sky Brewing, Sunriver Brewing, and Worthy Brewing.

“As beer lovers, we recognize that there is a natural connection between clean water and great tasting beer,” said Levi Wyatt, Yakima Chief Hops’s (YCH) Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility in a press release. “We have to acknowledge the great responsibility that comes with that, responsibility to ensure these waterways stay protected and stay wild for generations to come.”

The project aimed to inform beer consumers about the negative impacts pollution, dams, logging, and other developments have had on the local waterways.

The collaborative beer series also sought to draw attention to the River Democracy Act, a bill authored by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. The act proposes to expand river protections across Oregon, including designating 3,200 miles of the state’s waterways as federally protected wild and scenic rivers. Fifty Oregon breweries sent a letter to Senator Wyden voicing their support for the act and for protecting Oregon’s rivers, creeks, and streams.

“Supporting the passage of the River Democracy Act should be a top conservation priority for anyone who values clean water and Oregon’s amazing brewing community,” said Oregon Wild’s Jonathan Jelen in the release.

All segments of the brewing industry are water intensive but the farming process for barley and hops in particular require a significant amount of irrigation. Recognizing that the quality of the water directly impacts the yield and health of the hop plants, Coleman and YCH are keen to protect their sources. They note that elevated alkalinity levels in irrigation water can increase soil pH, making nutrients like zinc, manganese, and iron less available for uptake. Both companies support the River Democracy Act to prevent industry related contaminants that could compromise the water quality they require to grow hops.

Coleman Agriculture joined the alliance more than four years ago as it recognized the importance of protecting the Oregon watershed, which is key to operating the sixth generation family farm. “We are hyper-conscious not only of the water we use for irrigation, but also the effect we have on the watersheds via our management practices,” the company said in the release. “This is why we take measures to limit our water inputs via drip irrigation, minimize runoff and erosion with cover cropping and take part in sustainability programs such as Salmon safe to limit our use of chemicals that might negatively affect watersheds. The Brewshed® Alliance has been a great unifying force between our organization and other like-minded businesses in the beer industry who care about preserving the Oregon watershed.”

YCH recognizes that land use change and water availability are the greatest environmental risks facing the hop industry. Working in conjunction with Oregon Wild, YCH aims to support watershed protection and contribute to restoration programs in hop producing regions to ensure access to clean water for growers, brewers, and recreationalists alike.

As part of the collaborative beer series, pFriem Family Brewers brewed Oregon Wild IPA, which it brewed with Salmon Safe hops from Coleman. “We always say, ‘you need great water to make great beer,’” said pFriem’s CEO Rudy Kellner in the release. “We are lucky to live in a watershed abundant with beautiful, clean, crisp water. Water is the primary ingredient in beer, and all brewers should be obsessed with protecting this irreplaceable natural resource.”

Worthy Brewing brewed Canopyia IPA as an ode to the Tumalo Creek Brewshed, a waterway that would gain new protections under the River Democracy Act. “As a life-long Central Oregonian, it can be easy to take the pristine water I’ve always had access to for granted,” said Worthy’s Head Brewer Brian Chapman in the release. “I’ve been lucky enough to have been raised on some of the best water in the world and now I’m lucky enough to attribute it to the success of the beers we brew. None of that could be possible without the activism of organizations like Oregon Wild and the outreach and fundraising they so passionately provide.”

At Grand Fir Brewing, owner and Head Brewer Whitney Burnside brewed Tendril Session IPA, which had notes of candied pineapple, Meyer lemon, and Chantilly cream. “Clean water is the foundation for our existence and here in the PNW, we are so fortunate to have such beautiful pure sources,” she said in the release. “But we are in trouble and will continue to be unless we make some serious change together. Here at Grand Fir Brewing, we believe that small businesses just like us, that rely on this precious resource to make our products, can make a big impact. Now is the time to support as much as possible to ensure our lush forests and rivers are cared for and protected.”

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