Freud’s second stage of psychosexual development — come back, this is still a beer column — is all about a preoccupation with human waste. It’s where we get the term “anal retentive” to describe someone who is fussily, perhaps obsessively concerned with neatness and order. The opposite is “anal expulsive,” and without getting into too much detail, it’s a reckless phase, childish and messy and convention-defying.
If you ask me, those two sets of developmental traits sound kind of like the American craft beer industry, which to be fair is still growing out of its baby fat in a lot of ways. Boy, can the broader beer world be defiant and puerile sometimes. But at the same time, if your kit isn’t tidy, sanitized properly, and your recipe well-formulated, your beer will suffer. The process of brewing has to be clean.
Clear, pure water is an exemplar of cleanliness in our society. When water is impure, people protest. And maybe it’s a sign that we never leave that second stage of development that when employees from the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District brewed a beer with treated effluent — cleaned-up wastewater — did the media ever turn out to cover it. Full disclosure: Your beer columnist here was no exception.
The idea of a wastewater beer is nothing new, despite a flurry of activity on the subject. Theera Ratarasarn, an accomplished homebrewer, made waves in 2015 for his “Activated Sludge” beer made with treated effluent from Milwaukee. Indeed, he was instrumental in making Nine Springs Effluent Pale Ale (or EPA, so many layers of pun here) happen in Madison. He put Madison’s effluent through the same extra filtration and reverse osmosis treatment to turn it from “safe to release into the environment” into “safe to drink.”
The Nine Springs Effluent Pale Ale debut and tasting this last Sunday was at the front end of a week full of activities related to World Water Day, which will be officially recognized on Wednesday, March 22 this year. Conservation, pollution, access, and sustainability will drive the conversation at events all over the Madison area.
There will be another Madison-area World Water Day event with a particularly beery focus at the River Alliance of Wisconsin — because water is, obviously, of central importance to the brewing process. Brewers’ concerns about water are nationwide.
In 2014, California was a few years into its drought, out of which it is really only now starting to emerge, when brewers who use the Russian River for a water supply started to worry that either production would have to diminish, or costs would have to go up to bring in water from farther away. A small brewer in Half Moon Bay, California, brewed with treated wastewater sourced from NASA, which knows a few things about water conservation and dealing with human waste in innovative ways.
Back on terra firma, circa 2016, mining’s impact on water has touched on the brewing industry directly and tangentially, too. Minnesota brewer Bent Paddle was legislatively removed from the shelves of Silver Bay’s municipally owned liquor store because the majority of the city council disapproved of Bent Paddle’s vocal objection to a mining project near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. Mining is a known threat to the safety of nearby water tables, and Hoyt Lakes is in the Lake Superior basin, which means pollutants from that area could potentially enter Bent Paddle’s water source. As of this month, the city still hasn’t reversed its controversial stance.
Jargon like basin and watershed and effluent has been soaking into my brain since Sunday, when in addition to tasting the Effluent Pale Ale, I took a tour of the Nine Springs Golf Course to see other ways the environmentally safe effluent is being used — in this case, as a supplement to the golf course’s stormwater irrigation system. There’s not a lot of room for me to work that into a beer conversation, but anyway, you want to know if the EPA was good.
There were actually two versions. One was brewed by Ratarasarn, and the other by Sewerage District employees Ralph Erickson, Laurie Dunn and Jim Post. Ratarasarn’s was made with Chinook hops in the brew and a dry-hopped dose of Citra. Though it was showing a little age — I was told it had been held in the fridge for this week’s event since December — it still had a pleasant resiny bite, with just a little citrus aroma hanging around.
It may be unfair to compare it with the District’s brew, as the latter was much fresher, but forewarned is forearmed. Erickson described their batch as a Bass English Pale Ale reference, maltier than Ratarasarn’s version. The color was certainly darker, not quite to amber, but getting there. A brown sugary nose preceded a flavor profile that was reminiscent of underripe fruit, lightly astringent and just a little bitter. For a beer brewed with extract malt (compared to Ratarasarn’s all-grain malt bill), the District’s EPA had an impressively complex palate. (The District is hoping to find a broader market for its version of Nine Springs Effluent Pale Ale, brewing this batch as something of a “proof of concept.”)
That’s what they were made of, but were they good, you ask — perhaps horrified by the thought of effluent in your beer. I can’t say it any more plainly than this: I would never have thought anything weird or novel about these beers had I not been told ahead of time what went into them.
Want to try it? Erickson says they are “looking at venues to use up our two brews.” He mentions a sustainability event on April 7 that he hopes “could work for ale tasting by the public.” Another possibility? “A wastewater professionals education seminar later in April in Madison will likely be our last stop for this brew,” says Erickson.