Month: October 2019

Water for Beer on a Hopped-up Planet

The Greenland Brewhouse in Narsaq, Greenland, brewed beer with water melted from chunks of icebergs that were towed to the brewery. Image credit: Algkalv/Creative Commons

By John Roach

Beer is about 90 percent water. This fact weighed on Rasmus Broge as he mulled an opportunity to help launch the first microbrewery in Greenland. At the time, Greenland’s southern glaciers were sloshing seaward at least twice as fast as they were five years earlier. For scientists and journalists, this accelerated glacial melt served as a sign that Earth’s climate is hopped up on greenhouse gases. Broge saw opportunity. Melted icecap water is ideal for brewing beer. “It was one of the reasons I said yes to the job,” he told me. “I could see a possibility in the marketing in the rest of the world for this product.”

The Greenland Brewhouse opened in July 2006 in the hamlet of Narsaq, a few paces from a bay sparkling with icebergs calved from a nearby glacier. Broge and his partner, Salik Hard, hired a local fisherman to occasionally blast apart icebergs with a shotgun and tow the chunks to the brewery where the brewers melted the ice for their beer. Every few weeks, Broge and Hard shipped fresh batches of beer to Straslund on Germany’s north coast for bottling and then on to Denmark for distribution. “Today, with all the pollution, you cannot get cleaner water than melted icecap water,” Hard told Jan Olsen, an Associated Press reporter on hand for the inaugural tasting in Copenhagen. Fleming Larsen, an electrician, told Olsen that the beers were “different from other beer … smooth, soft but not bitter. Maybe that is because it is icecap water.”

Olsen’s story was picked up and re-worked by news outlets around the world. A few of the versions mentioned the logistical quirks of brewing beer for export in a hamlet cut off from the rest of the world save for a heliport, the occasional ship and spotty internet service. They all made a connection between the beer and climate change. One of my editors at National Geographic News, for example, dubbed the suds “global warming beer” in the headline he wrote for a “Photo in News” blurb that featured a shot of the bottled ales and a few paragraphs that summarized some of my reporting on the science of the ice melt acceleration. Marketplace, the business news radio program produced by American Public Media, wrapped up a weeklong series on the economic impacts of climate change with a cheery piece on the brewery. Steen Outzen, a financial backer of the venture, told reporter Stephen Beard, “The hotter it gets in the climate, the more ice would come from the glaciers, and, obviously, giving us more raw material to brew from.”

“More ice and more beer?” Beard asked.

“Yes, exactly.”

Two weeks after news of the Greenland Brewhouse hit, a new study based on gravity measurements from a pair of wedge-shape satellites in Earth orbit indicated the Greenland ice sheet was melting three times faster than it was five years earlier. I covered the findings for National Geographic News, confident the story would make the “most viewed news” list. It didn’t. That day, and the next, the most viewed story was “Photo in the News: ‘Global Warming Beer’ Taps Melted Arctic Ice.”

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I thought, and fetched a cold one from the fridge.

I fetched a bottle of Fish Tale Organic India Pale Ale, a beer that caught my eye the previous fall. It was wedged into a cooler at a neighborhood grocery store loaded with a dizzying array of craft brew. I’d just moved back to Seattle, my childhood home, from a ski town in Idaho where I spent the decade from my mid-20s to mid-30s working as a news reporter and gaining a reputation as a beer snob. Beer snobbery in rural Idaho meant my preference at the local watering holes was for one of the few microbrews on tap such as Fat Tire from New Belgium and Mirror Pond from Deschutes. The cooler at the Seattle grocery store was overwhelming. Organic beer? I pointed it out to Matt, a friend from my ski town days who’d followed a girl to Seattle a few years earlier. The girl moved on to Los Angeles. Matt stayed. He scoffed at the price for the organic beer. I left it on the shelf and reached for a stout from Deschutes, the makers of Mirror Pond, that I’d yet to try.

A few weeks later, my wife and I were out to dinner at an Italian joint. As we explored the wine list and settled on a spicy red, the bartender could hardly get a break from pouring pints of an imperial India pale ale brewed locally by Maritime Pacific. I took a mental note to try it the next time I saw it on tap. When the opportunity came, I was floored. Imperial IPAs pack a punch – a heavy base of malt, the source of sugars for conversion to alcohol, balances the overly generous addition of hops. I didn’t know this at the time, I was just wowed at the kick from such a tasty and easy drinking beer. In a quest to learn more, I Googled IPAs the next morning and learned the style emerged during the late 18th century to help English pale ales survive the voyage to the East Indies. Hops are a preservative. IPAs, by tradition, are loaded with hops. Armed with this knowledge, I was no longer just a beer snob, I was a budding hophead. I started to buy and try every IPA I could find. A six pack of Fish Brewing’s offering found its way to my fridge.

As I sat there sipping on the organic IPA and re-reading the news about the beer in Greenland brewed with melted icecap water, the framework for this story appeared. How can we keep drinking beer on a planet hopped up on greenhouse gases? To find out, I needed to learn more about the ingredients in beer.

Out of the gate, the Greenland Brewhouse was operating at full capacity, producing 50,000 liters a month to be bottled in Germany and sold around the world. Then the push to meet the demand ran up against the reality of brewing beer with iceberg water in Greenland. The brewery relied on regular shipments of barley and hops from Denmark. Delays were common. An un-navigable flotilla of icebergs held back one shipment for two months.

“Of course, we also needed to get rid of the beer, to get it to markets, but we weren’t even able to brew it then and it was a big problem,” Broge told me. “We had promised some customers in Denmark that we could get them their beer and they were waiting for it.”

More problems cropped up when Hard, Outzen and other investors bickered over control and direction of the brewery while a batch of unpasteurized beer sat in storage tanks for six weeks awaiting payment for transport to Germany. When it finally reached Stralsund, the beer was sour. “We couldn’t bottle it and we had to wait at least five more weeks until we had something ready. And at that time the big supermarkets had waited too long already,” said Broge.

Two years after it opened, the Greenland Brewhouse went bankrupt. Media reports on the closure amounted to a few blurbs. “It was sad, but unavoidable,” Hard, the brewery’s founder, told the Sermitsiaq, a Greenland newspaper. “I’ve put a lot of energy and resources into this.” Among the reasons for the collapse, he said, were a doubling of ingredient costs and the loss of contracts with a Danish grocer and a Canadian importer. I contacted Hard for more information. He declined the request for an interview.

Broge, who I found working at a brewpub in Copenhagen in the fall of 2009, shared his version of the story over the course of several emails and phone calls. From his perspective, the iceberg water was a marketing ruse. Salts and other minerals in brewing water affect chemical reactions during the brewing process and the taste of the finished product, he explained. If brewers know their water’s chemistry, they can filter out unwanted minerals such as iron, which can hamper yeast activity, and add beneficial ones such as salts that facilitate the conversion of starches to fermentable sugars. The ability to manipulate a water’s chemical profile allows brewers anywhere in the world to match the profile of any other water. That’s why a Budweiser brewed in St. Louis, Missouri, for example, tastes just like one brewed in Jacksonville, Florida. The Greenland iceberg water was “perfect from the start,” said Broge – unpolluted and free of minerals that water elsewhere picks up as it filters through the ground. He dressed it up with desirable salts, but spent no time or energy filtering out unwanted minerals. Besides, even though he could have matched the profile of icecap water anywhere in the world, he knew the story of the icebergs sold the beer.

There were, would be and are other beers brewed in Greenland. I’ve even heard rumors of attempts to restart the Greenland Brewhouse. But, for me, the story lost its charm. Beer brewed in the Arctic for export around the world was a misfit capstone for a story about sustaining the ingredients in beer on a hopped-up planet. I went searching for a different story about brewing water that was closer to home. I found it in the beer aisle at Whole Foods, the upscale grocery chain that appealed to socially responsible shoppers and is now owned by Amazon. The bulk of the beer aisle in Seattle-area stores is dedicated to bottles and cans from the Pacific Northwest’s abundant craft brewers. The can that caught my eye belongs to a beer with regional roots that dates back to the 1890s and is still marketed with the slogan “It’s the water.”

A waterfall is seen in the foreground with the old Olympia Brewery building in the background.
The abandoned Olympia Brewery overlooks the Upper Tumwater Falls on the Deschutes River in Tumwater, Washington. Photo by John Roach

Leopold F. Schmidt, a brewer and Montana state legislator, learned about the water that would make his beer famous while out for a haircut and shave in Olympia, Washington, in 1895. The port city sits on a gnarled finger at the southern end of the Puget Sound, a glacial-carved fjord where saltwater from the Pacific Ocean mixes with runoff from the surrounding snowcapped peaks and the region’s abundant rains. Schmidt was on a legislative committee charged with drawing up plans for Montana’s seat of government and was in town to check out the Washington State Capitol for ideas and inspiration. Beer, however, was never far from his mind. When his barber tipped him off to an artesian well near the base of a waterfall a few miles up the Deschutes River in the town of Tumwater, he set out to investigate.

Artesian wells tap layers of water-saturated soil that are confined by impermeable rock. The layers of soil in the Puget Sound region were deposited from fat fingers of the great northern ice sheets that repeatedly advanced and retreated as the Earth wobbled in its orbit around the sun during the 2 million years of the geologic epoch known as the Pleistocene, which came to an end about 10,000 years ago. Each of these advances reached just south of Olympia, gouging and scouring the land beneath the ice. At times, friction from the movement of glaciers formed impermeable layers of glacial till that bind and confine the region’s artesian aquifers. At other times, the glaciers pushed, shoved and dropped boulders, rocks, sand and silt into unconsolidated layers that are easily saturated with water as it percolates from the surface and follows the force of gravity to the Puget Sound. None of this geology is a guarantee of liquid greatness, but the taste of the pure, clean water gushing from the ground in Tumwater that day put a smile on Schmidt’s clean-shaven face. “It was perfect for the lager that he wanted to make,” Gary Flynn, a historian of Pacific Northwest breweries, told me.

Schmidt bought an old tannery on the banks of the Deschutes River for $4,550 in cash. The deal came with rights to use the lower Tumwater Falls as a power source as well as access to the Puget Sound and the Union Pacific Railroad, enabling means to distribute his beer far and wide. He raised $125,000 via a stock offering and, a year later, the Capital Brewing Company was selling bottles of Olympia Pale Export, a lager that one local newspaper editor deemed “unqualifiedly the best beer made on the West Coast.” The praise was notable: At the time, the brewery was one of more than 2,000 in the United States. In 1902, Schmidt changed the name of the brewery to the Olympia Brewing Company after its flagship beer and started to market it with the slogan, “It’s the Water.”

Schmidt died in 1914, the same year voters in Washington approved statewide Prohibition, forcing the family to cease brewing beer in Tumwater and, eventually, to abandon the brewhouse on the banks of the Deschutes River. After repeal, Schmidt’s sons reestablished the business, built a new brewhouse above the original site, drilled new wells and expanded output throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s. By the early 1970s, more than 4 million barrels of Olympia Beer brewed with artesian well water left the Tumwater plant each year. Shareholders pushed for more growth. Olympia acquired Hamm’s in Minnesota and Lone Star in Texas, breweries that also used water drawn from artesian wells. Modernization of the Hamm’s and Lone Star breweries stretched thin Olympia’s finances, leaving the company with a limited war chest to fight the escalating advertising wars and price battles to win over drinkers to its American style lagers that tasted similar to every other brand. Anheuser-Busch and Miller ate into Olympia’s market share. The brewer slipped from sixth to seventh place in the national rankings. It sold fewer barrels of beer in 1977 than it did in 1976 and fewer again in 1978 – all while the number of barrels of beer sold nationwide rose.

On May 15, 1979, The New York Times spelled out the challenges for Olympia, a regional brewer competing in a national market: “The American beer industry has become increasingly dominated by a handful of companies. When Mr. Schmidt’s grandfather, Leopold F. Schmidt, founded Olympia Beer in 1896, there were more than 2,000 breweries in the United States. Now there are 42, with the five largest accounting for nearly 80 percent of total industry sales. Many of those regional brewers failed or were absorbed into other companies, industry analysts say, because they lacked the sophisticated marketing and management techniques that characterize the industry leader, Anheuser-Busch Inc., and its runner-up, the Miller Brewing Company.”

The Olympia Brewery ran a popular advertising campaign featuring mythical creatures called Artesians.

Even a popular national advertising campaign featuring mythical creatures called “Artesians” that are responsible for Olympia’s brewing water failed to boost sales. The Olympia Brewing Company reported its first yearly loss in 1981. Takeover talks intensified and, in 1982, Pabst Brewing Company acquired Olympia and the Tumwater brewery, growing Pabst’s portfolio of regional brewers that now includes iconic brands such as Pabst Blue Ribbon, Old Milwaukee, Schlitz and Rainier, another Pacific Northwest favorite. By the late 1980s, Olympia was one of about a dozen beers that Pabst and its contractors brewed in Tumwater, and even then, the plant used just over 60 percent of its 4.5-million-barrel-a-year capacity. In 1999, Pabst’s leadership decided to outsource the brewing portion of operations and focus the business on marketing and sales. Pabst sold the Tumwater brewery for $20 million to Miller and contracted with Miller to brew Pabst’s portfolio of brands. The transaction included a contract with the local sewer district for the treatment of the Tumwater brewery’s wastewater.

The water in any given bottle or can of beer is a fraction of the water used to brew and package it for distribution. There’s water for mashing – the process of soaking malted barley and other grains in warm water to extract the sugars that yeast ferment into alcohol, for example. More hot water is sprayed onto the mash to rinse out residual sugars, a process called sparging. The mash and sparge steps result in a tub of sugary-sweet liquid called wort. The wort is boiled for about 90 minutes to kill off residual enzymes that foul the flavor of beer and extract oils and bittering acids from hops, among other things. Many breweries use water in the form of steam to distribute heat evenly across their brewing kettles. Yet more water is piped into coils often used in a heat-exchange process to rapidly chill the wort post boil in preparation for fermentation. Then there’s water needed to lubricate bottling lines and apply labels. After all that, it’s time to clean up. That means water to hose down, scrub and sanitize equipment for the next batch of beer. Even some of the world’s most efficient breweries use between four and five pints of water for every pint of beer they produce. All the wastewater is routed to treatment plants and returned to the environment. At the time Miller purchased the Tumwater brewery from Pabst, the brewery was the largest customer of the local wastewater treatment plant, which was struggling to comply with the Clean Water Act.

Miller pushed ahead with expansion plans, investing $10 million in upgrades to the bottling line, warehouse and electrical facilities to accommodate a boost in production by up to 2.5 million barrels a year. The expansion required more wastewater treatment capacity. Miller set out to renegotiate the contract with the local sewer district. Political clashes over budget and growth concerns combined with the environmental regulations stymied progress. Miller offered to disconnect from the government-owned wastewater treatment plant and filed for a permit to build its own. The permit application was denied in 2001. The following May, London- and Johannesburg-based South African Breweries acquired Miller in a deal valued at $3.6 billion. The newly formed SABMiller closed the Tumwater brewery in 2002. Olympia would continue to be brewed, noted the Seattle Times in an editorial on the Tumwater plant’s closure, “but it will not be made in Olympia, and if it uses the century-old motto ‘It’s the Water,’ people might wonder what water they’re talking about. River water? It is unlikely to be the artesian water that Olympia long boasted of.”

Olympia is now brewed in Irwindale, California, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles in the sun-parched San Gabriel Valley with water drawn from an aquifer that is partially recharged with recycled water. It is one of several beers in Pabst’s portfolio of regional brands brewed under contract by MillerCoors, a joint venture formed in 2007 between SABMiller and Molson Coors Brewing and subsequently spun off as part of the $100 billion 2016 merger between SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch InBev. What’s remarkable about the water in Olympia today is that a brewery draws any water at all from the aquifer below the San Gabriel Valley. The 255-square-mile groundwater basin holds 10.7-million-acre feet of water and serves a population today of more than 2 million people. Sporadic rainfall, which averages about 19 inches a year, and percolation of runoff from the nearby mountains recharge the aquifer. But since the 1950s, more water has been drawn from the basin than is naturally replenished each year. To compensate, San Gabriel Valley water managers tap into the California State Water Project, a more than 700-mile-long system of reservoirs, aqueducts, pumps and power plants that conveys water from wetter northern California to the south. Today, about a quarter of the San Gabriel Valley’s water is imported via the project. In addition, the valley receives water from the Colorado River Aqueduct, a 242-mile canal that siphons water from the Lake Havasu reservoir on the Arizona-California border. Without the imports, the valley would be starved for water today.

In anticipation of shortfalls in imported water during drought years, the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, which supplies the Irwindale brewery, proactively pursues alternative sources of supply, including recycled water. “Recycled” is corporate speak for treated sewage water. Today, about 2 percent of the water district’s supply comes from recycled water. Most of this water is used to irrigate golf courses and farmland, but a portion of it is intentionally spread onto the surface where it percolates into the aquifer and, ultimately, back out kitchen faucets and industrial spigots.

The first big water recycling project in Miller’s neighborhood was set to get underway in 1994 when the local water district approved a $25 million plan to pipe recycled water from a neighboring sewage treatment plant to spreading grounds about three miles from the Irwindale brewery. Miller sued the water district, claiming the treated sewage could irreversibly pollute the groundwater, making it unsafe to drink, let alone be used to brew beer. Water managers were confident in the safety of the water and speculated the brewer was concerned about a public relations nightmare as word leaked out about the water conservation project. Indeed, as news of Miller’s opposition spread, headline writers had a field day. “Yum! Miller may brew beer from sewer water,” the Lodi News Sentinel told its readers, for example. But the public relations battle split both ways. The more Miller made waves about the potential risk to the water supply from recycled sewage, the more the public voiced opposition to the project. Without the treated sewage, water officials feared they would lose out on a claim to a viable source of water that could help make up for shortfalls in the imported supply. Two and a half years after Miller filed suit, the water district agreed to scale back the scope of the project. Instead of bringing in enough water annually for 60,000 homes in the San Gabriel Valley, it would transfer enough for 25,000. In addition, the new pipeline was two miles shorter, ending in the San Gabriel River where it seeps into the aquifer, instead of the spreading grounds closer to the Irwindale brewery. Miller dropped the lawsuit. Since then, the use of recycled water in the San Gabriel Valley has continued to rise.

Water conservation appeared on the Irwindale brewery’s green agenda in 2008 when parent company SABMiller set a goal to reduce water consumption by 25 percent at its more than 75 breweries around the world by the year 2015. If successful, the company would achieve an average of 3.5 pints of water for every pint of beer produced. Andy Wales, the company’s director of global sustainability, told me in a 2013 interview that the push was essential to maintain growth on a planet that studies suggest will be 40 percent short of water by the year 2030. “We know that if we are not part of the solution to water scarcity and to water supply risk then it could become a potential disruption to our business over the long term,” he said. To achieve the goal, the company began to micromanage waterflow throughout its breweries. Leaky faucets were fixed. Running hoses were shut off. Wastewater recycling programs were launched for washing and cleaning. But there’s only so much a brewery can do to conserve water. “The risk is much more outside the fence line,” said Wales. Studies the brewer conducted in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, for example, found that 90 percent of beer’s so-called water footprint is in the agricultural supply chain.

Image of a wetland in Idaho with a creek running through the middle.
MillerCoors funded a fencing and wetland restoration project on a barley farm along Stalker Creek. The creek feeds The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve, a world-class fly-fishing destination near Picabo, Idaho. Photo by John Roach.

John Stevenson bounded down the hillside from a house on the southern edge of a triangle-shaped swath of Idaho farmland that affords big-sky views of high-desert foothills bleeding into the Northern Rockies. “You came all the way out here to meet me?” he asked. Yes, kind of, I replied. I was working on a feature for BigLife Magazine, a mountain lifestyle glossy, about the beer industry’s efforts to sustain farmlands in the Pacific Northwest. Stevenson’s farm is ground zero for MillerCoors’ sustainability efforts around water conservation and wildlife habitat restoration. I read about the initiative in the company’s annual corporate social responsibility report, which was echoed in marketing materials produced by The Nature Conservancy. The conservation organization owns and manages Silver Creek Preserve, a nearby nature preserve with access to a world-class trout stream that lures fly-fishing enthusiasts from around the world, and agreed to partner with the beer company on environmental initiatives. Nearly two decades into a journalism career that launched in a ski town a few dozen miles north of the farm and preserve, I was curious how this story came together beneath the veneer of marketing and public relations.

The Big Wood River courses over porous soils at the tip of the triangle-shaped swath of farmland that Stevenson’s ranch house overlooks. Much of the river water seeps underground and flows southeast until impermeable sediments and rock force it to emerge in a series of springs. Some of the springs refill the Big Wood, others feed Silver Creek. Dayna Gross, the Idaho conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy, explained this hydrology while pointing out landmarks on a tattered GIS reference map on a wall in the cluttered office of the Silver Creek Preserve. The spring water is clean and nutrient rich. Wetlands and wildlife abound. “That is why we have these epic hatches,” said Gross with a hint of in-the-know cool. “People come from all over the world to fish here.” Rough calculations by The Nature Conservancy suggest that visitors to the 851-acre preserve contribute around $6 million to the local economy each year.

Barley farms surround the preserve and straddle Silver Creek. Sediments wash and blow off the fields, clogging the waters. Wetlands are scarce. The aquifer is sinking from decades of over pumping and, as a result, the springs trickle with less vigor and creek waters are warming. MillerCoors contacted The Nature Conservancy in 2009 in search of ways to help growers of its barley be better neighbors. Gross suggested a fencing and wetland restoration project on a farm along Stalker Creek, one of the feeder springs. The brewer bit. “It was a real success,” said Stevenson, who had grown malting barley for 43years at his Hillside Ranch when I interviewed him for BigLife Magazine in the summer of 2015. “And then we got more into irrigation,” he recalled. Agriculture, he noted, accounts for more than 90 percent of the water required to make a can of beer.

In 2011, the Stevenson’s farm manager Gary Beck started to use the MillerCoors funding to experiment with water conservation. For example, he replaced and lowered nozzles on an irrigation pivot and turned off its end gun, which shoots water to the corners of the field where barley yields and quality are marginal. The moves shaved the pivot’s monthly power bill in half and saved millions of gallons of water. Impressed, MillerCoors branded Stevenson’s ranch the “Showcase Barley Farm.” Over the years, the program broadened to include more farms and strategies such as variable rate irrigation, which alters the speed of pivots to accommodate mapped differences in soils throughout a single field. “We have gone from a showcase farm to a showcase valley that last year saved 550 million gallons of water,” Kim Marotta, the sustainability director for MillerCoors, told me for my story. The brewer sources more than 70 percent of its barley from about 860 growers spread across Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The irrigation practices pioneered in the Wood River Valley are now implemented with growers in other water-stressed regions such as the San Luis Valley in Colorado where the aquifer is nearly depleted.

Gross and I ate lunch at a fly shop and convenience store in Picabo on the southeast side of the triangle with Pat Purdy, the fifth-generation helm of a 4,300-acre family farm that spans six miles of Silver Creek. He sports a groomed salt-and-pepper goatee and holds attention with stern brown eyes. We geeked out over data from MillerCoors-funded soil moisture probes that compelled him to cut back on irrigation in the early spring and again in the weeks before harvest. He was equally animated about his efforts to transition to no-till farming, which involves abandoning the plow for a seeding drill and a systems approach to raising crops. “It does a better job conserving water; it doesn’t completely eliminate, but it almost eliminates the soil erosion issues; it gets right at the soil health issues; it reduces inputs; and it improves the habitat because it leaves the barley stubble standing all winter long,” he said. The switch serves another purpose as well. The Purdy family acquired an outfitter’s license in 2013 and opened Picabo Angler. Guide fees reach hundreds of dollars a day. Clients gain access to a private stretch of Silver Creek and skies clouded with waterfowl.

Fish Brewing is located amid a nest of old warehouses a few paces from the capitol building in Olympia. On a drizzly mid-August evening in 2013, I sipped on a pint of the brewery’s organic IPA at a high-top table in the second-floor balcony overlooking the Fish Bowl brew pub. Paul Pearson, the recently hired heavily bearded head brewer and general manager, looked at me through tired but bright eyes and pointed a finger at my beer. “The artesian water story is not BS,” he said. “All great breweries have great water and we have great water here.”

Pearson signed on for the head brewer gig at Fish Brewing the previous December. He was a fresh face put in place after the company’s majority shareholder, Washington Wine and Beverage, rescued the brewery from bankruptcy, cleaned house and more than doubled capacity to about 50,000 barrels a year. Though never directly spoken, I learned that most of the new stainless-steel fermenters were unlikely to be filled with organic beer, an expensive niche in a competitive market. Nor did I get the sense that Pearson, who’d come from a brewery on the Oregon coast, was wedded to the new job.

As I wrapped up this story, I learned that Pearson is now the head brewer at Well 80, a brewery and pub on the site of one of Olympia’s famous artesian wells. The brewery opened in the spring of 2018 and is committed to following in the footsteps of Leopold Schmidt and his partners “who made great beer from some of the best water in the world,” according to Well 80’s website. Among the beers on tap are Artesian Cowboy IPA, Handsome Paul’s Pale Ale, which is named after Pearson, and Original Lager Year ’64, which is a “homage to Olympia” that Pearson concocted in collaboration with a former brewer from the Olympia Brewing Company, according to a story in The Olympian about the opening of Well 80.

If the Greenland Brewhouse had stayed in business, Broge told me, the plan was to produce one shipment of beer a year brewed with locally grown ingredients. The Vikings settled in Greenland during a warm spell known as the Medieval Warm Period from about AD 800 to 1300. Recent research indicates the Vikings grew barley and drank beer while they were in Greenland, so they must have brewed beer as well. “And if you look at the glaciers now and you look at the temperature from that period compared to now, it is still a little colder now compared to what it was back then,” Broge said. “So, it has been possible and, of course, it is getting warmer right now.”

Broge’s conjecture about Viking beer brewing is supported by an excavation of ancient rubbish piles in a series of long-abandoned settlements in southern Greenland by Peter Steen Henriksen, an archaeologist with the National Museum of Denmark. In four separate sites dated between 1000 and 1400 A.D. he’s found barley grains. At three of the sites, the grains could have been locally grown or imported but “at the fourth site, I found rachis segments from barley which are removed at the threshing,” he told me in an email exchange. “This indicates local cultivation as it is very unlikely that cereals were transported unthreshed to Greenland.” To complement the idea of local cultivation, his team has also found ancient irrigation systems that siphoned water from streams gurgling with melt water.

“How the barley was used we cannot know,” he added, “but beer brewing is a good guess.”

Just before the Greenland Brewhouse closed, its experimental crop of barley looked promising. “We could see that if this was growing and we were big enough that we could pay to have our own maltery, it would actually be less expensive for us to produce beer on barley grown in Greenland compared to the transport and compared to the price of the malt that is taken from Germany and Hungary and wherever else we got the malt from,” Broge said. “But we never got farther than growing a test square meter and trying to harvest that by hand.”

Note: This story is part of a long-term, long-form writing project about sustaining the ingredients in beer on a hopped-up planet. If you’re interested in learning more, please get in touch.

Storytelling for Microsoft about research and innovation

A barge deploys an underwater data center in open water off the coast of Orkney Island, Scotland.
Microsoft’s Project Natick on deployment day off the coast of Orkney Island, Scotland. Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures

By John Roach

When Microsoft launched an iPhone application that uses artificial intelligence to capture sharp, people-focused images with the smartphone’s built-in camera in July 2016, I wrote a story about the app for Microsoft’s news site. Since then, I’ve continued to write about research and innovation for Microsoft, mostly in the form of what the company calls journalism-style storytelling.

The gig leverages the reporting skills I honed over nearly 20 years as a science and technology journalist and has grown my skill set in the development and execution of content strategy. Along the way, I’ve learned about new technologies from the people who innovate them and shared this knowledge through stories with readers around the world.

Most of my stories for Microsoft are about AI, technology that gives machines the ability to recognize sounds, images and words, and to learn and reason in ways similar to people. While computer scientists have been working on AI for decades, the field has exploded in recent years due to advances in cloud computing, the accumulation of data and breakthroughs in methods to develop and train AI systems.

Some of my stories for Microsoft highlight AI tools that, for example, help machines conceptualize, accelerate deep learning and improve the accuracy of gene editing. Other stories focus on services that, among other things, automate machine learning, streamline the development of chatbots and teach people AI skills.

Subsets of stories highlight specific AI services such as Microsoft Translator, a platform for text and speech translation that can erode language barriers, enrich how people experience different cultures and help people who are deaf or hard of hearing learn, and AI features in products such as Bing that, for example, put numbers in perspective and predict outcomes of political elections and football games.

Another set of stories help set the stage for emerging technologies, including the next generation of intelligent assistants that leverage breakthroughs in conversational AI, and tools to embed AI on bread-crumb size computer processors that could lead to a proliferation of intelligent devices for so-called edge computing.

My stories have also helped Microsoft shape thought leadership around sensitive topics such as methods to reduce bias in facial recognition technology and ways the industry can ensure the data used to train AI systems reflect the real world, are safeguarded against unintended bias and are handled in ways that are transparent and respectful of privacy and security.

I’ve written profiles to help Microsoft mark major appointments, elections and awards as well as to tell backstories such as the relevance of principle researcher Chris White’s experience making sense of big data for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, to his work on Power BI, a business intelligence platform.

Then there are stories about unique research efforts including a bot that draws what it’s told to, an effort to improve sub-seasonal weather forecasts, the deployment of a self-sufficient underwater datacenter that’s powered by renewable energy, and an ethereal and translucent architectural structure that translates data into a choreographed dance of color and light.

More stories for Microsoft are in the works. Follow me on Twitter to know when they go live.

Can data-driven agriculture help feed a hungry world?

A barley harvest in Washington’s Palouse Hills. Data is increasingly being used by farmers to boost efficiency and profits, while simultaneously lowering the environmental impact of agriculture. Photo courtesy of USDA ARS.

By John Roach

From Bonneville County, Idaho, to Buenos Aires Province, Argentina, tablet-toting agronomists with Anheuser-Busch InBev — the world’s largest brewer by volume — are visiting farmers who grow the company’s malt barley, a key ingredient in beer. These meetings are a decades-old ritual: Growers review contracts as agronomists offer advice on ways to maximize productivity and profitability. Only these days the conversations are  increasingly steered by a computer app called SmartBarley that farmers use to log details on more than 40 variables that affect barley production, such as variety planted, soil type, and tillage method, along with applications of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Growers use the platform to compare their practices and yields with other farmers who operate in similar soil and climate conditions.

The program is one of many agribusiness-led initiatives to harness the bits and bytes of data that increasingly are being used in agriculture worldwide to boost efficiency and profits, while simultaneously lowering the environmental impact of agriculture. Other agribusinesses that market data-crunching farm-management tools include seed company Monsanto, chemical company DuPont, and precision-irrigation company Valley Irrigation. FarmLink, which leases combines, recently entered the data game with TrueHarvest, a yield comparison tool that leverages data collected by its fleet of farm machinery to help farmers fine-tune their operations to maximize yield and profit.

For now, using big data to improve agricultural productivity is largely centered in the developed world. But sustainable agriculture and development specialists are working to expand access to important agricultural data to the hundreds of millions of small farmers in the developing world. Already, in an effort to improve yields and profits, farmers in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and India are using mobile phones to exchange information about weather, disease, and market prices. And these trends are only expected to grow as information technology spreads. Meanwhile, big data advocates argue that smaller farmers stand to benefit from data-driven agricultural advances, such as improved crop varieties.

At its core, big data in agriculture is about trying to corral the mass of increasingly available information on the environmental, biological, and human factors that govern crop growth and yield in order to provide farmers with tailored insight on how to grow crops more efficiently. While humans have used accumulated knowledge and technology to grow ever-more food for thousands of years, modern computing power has led to breakthroughs in the ability to collect, exchange, process, and synthesize data in ways that promise to transform agriculture into a sustainable enterprise that meets the projected mid-century food demand of 9 billion people.

But to avoid a massive expansion of agriculture into wetlands and rainforests, to the detriment of biodiversity and the global climate, this yield increase must come on existing farmland. And here, experts say, big data can play a vital role.

“To date, humans have not yet developed agricultural systems that can continue to raise yields and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture concomitantly,” says Kenneth Cassman, an agronomist at the University of Nebraska. “We have been successful raising yields, or reducing environmental footprint, but not both at the same time, and that is the greatest scientific challenge facing humankind. Big data will be essential to bring together all the information a farmer needs.”

For now, big data is in its infancy, Cassman notes, and current initiatives and products fall well short of their potential. Agribusinesses are primarily developing data services that promote or leverage the products they sell. A seed company, for example, might find in the data an opportunity to sell a drought-tolerant corn variety to a farmer facing increasing irrigation costs. An irrigation company might find an opportunity to sell that farmer a variable-rate pivot, which lowers water usage. The farmer gains from a higher-yielding crop, along with shrinking water and power bills. The environment benefits from water conservation and lower power-sector greenhouse gas emissions.

But the services themselves often are built on proprietary technology that hinders the aggregation and analysis of data flowing from disparate systems. And the quality of data available on everything from weather to soils varies widely, which raises questions about its usefulness.

What a data-driven sustainable agricultural system is supposed to look like is also under debate. “There is not even agreement that the issue is only about producing more food,” Jane Maland Cady, International Program Director for the McKnight Foundation, says. For example, she notes, several studies suggest plenty of food is already grown to feed the world and that it just needs to be distributed differently. Cady oversees grants made under the foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program, which helps small farmers improve yield. “We see data as a means to better understand and make change,” she notes.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the world must grow 70 percent more food by 2050 to meet global demand. But “the quantum leaps that we enjoyed with the green revolution 50 to 60 years ago are not going to be repeated,” Cassman says. The triad of improved crop genetics, increased use of synthetic products such as fertilizers and pesticides, and expanded irrigation can no longer provide the necessary gains.

“That is why we need big data,” he explains. “An agricultural system is so finely tuned — it’s responding to temperature, water, humidity, diseases, pests, insects, soil, and nutrients in time and space varying across landscapes, and there is just no other way to do it except by bringing together the data needs so that every field can be managed to bring out its best.”

Cassman is a co-principal investigator of the Global Yield Gap Atlas, a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other groups. The initiative is harnessing data to identify the gaps between current average farm yields and the potential yield in major crop-growing regions around the world. The atlas is a piece of Cassman’s broader vision for a global database populated with publicly available soil, weather, and water data, along with anonymous, farmer-owned and protected data on crop management and yield. When farmers go online and type in their data and geographic location, the database will allow them to compare their management practices and yield against all other similar farms.

“Such a system,” he explains, “would be like having a distillation from hundreds, or thousands, of field experiments to guide future management decisions on each farmer’s field.”

But for the moment, Cassman notes, the road to achieving the vision is a slog. The quantity and quality of the available data is insufficient for farmers to make valid and useful comparisons. And even when the data is created, it is often in a form that is incompatible with data from other sources.

“This widespread incompatibility has left most of the data produced by ag today largely inaccessible, even to the farmer,” Aaron Ault, a senior research engineer with the Open Ag Technologies and Systems Group at Purdue University in Indiana, says. He is the project lead for the Open Ag Data Alliance, a multinational organization that is developing software and standards to allow for the seamless flow of agricultural data. “The biggest hurdle to doing anything with data is simply the handling of it,” he explains. For example, sending an advisor ten years’ worth of yield data is about an-hour-and-a-half job of clicking computer buttons. “There is so much manual intervention necessary to get data from point A to point B that people just don’t do it,” he says.

To overcome data quality concerns, Missouri-based FarmLink controls the aggregation and analysis of the information it uses. In 2011, the combine-leasing company outfitted its fleet with sensors and computers to calculate the yield of every 150 square feet of farmers’ corn and soybean fields. To date, more than a billion records have been collected across 26 states. The data is correlated with 50 variables that affect yield, such as soil type, slope, elevation, sunlight, rain, and temperature. The result is a tool called TrueHarvest, rolled out in 2014, that helps farmers evaluate farm management decisions such as water, fertilizer, and pesticide applications.

The key to the platform’s success, Ron LeMay, FarmLink’s chairman and chief executive officer, says, is quality control. To grow the business, LeMay is considering partnerships with large landowners in South America, where single firms harvest several million acres per year and have years’ worth of proprietary, quality-controlled data about their operations. “With those sorts of firms,” he says. “You get a lot of breadth and a lot of experience and a lot of carefully controlled circumstances.”

The rub for advocates of small farmers, who grow 70 percent of the world’s food, is that data-driven agriculture is mostly focused on conventional, industrial-scale operations. Overlooked are practices such as organic farming and agroecological intensification, which boosts farmland productivity through improved farm management based on enhanced understanding of how natural systems function. These farming practices are proving to be viable and sustainable means to “increase yields, improve water supplies, rebuild soils, contribute to biodiversity, and raise farmers’ incomes,” Danielle Nierenberg, the president of Food Tank, a Washington-based advocacy, says.

Acquiring local data in the fields where these practices are used is an essential component of programs designed to support and evaluate alternative farming practices. Other programs where agricultural data benefits small farmers include the McKnight Foundation’s Agroecological Intensification Exchange , a Web-based platform open to researchers and farmers to share information. Data exchange via mobile phone, says Nierenberg, “makes huge differences and that is only going to grow.”

One concern is that the big data tools will allow industrial-scale farmers to flourish at the expense of smaller farmers. Flush with fresh capital, larger growers can buy out smaller farmers, accelerating the decades-long trend of farm consolidation. To avoid such a scenario, Nierenberg advocates for the democratization of big data — putting the control and ownership of data into the hands of small farmers first.

Cassman says his envisioned global database applies to organic and small farmers, although the impact is smaller. Each conventional corn grower in the United States, for example, would have between 1,000 and 10,000 similar fields for comparison. An organic farmer might have 10. “How we double yields in the next 35 years is if every farmer has access to what is working under their same conditions every year and in real time during the season,” he says. “I can’t tell you how fast that would accelerate the rate of gain in yields. It works best with lots of farmers, but it could also work with small numbers of farmers.”

For the SmartBarley program, Anheuser-Busch InBev chose to forgo a larger-scale program in favor of the data verification and working closely with farmers, says John Rogers, the company’s global director of agricultural development. “There is a lot of information out there in the world that someone can take and maybe not fully utilize, or misinterpret, or misunderstand without the technical advice or guidance behind it,” he explains.

However data is used, he adds, it will transform agriculture over the next decade. Anheuser-Busch InBev recently opened what it calls the Bud Lab on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where data scientists are improving algorithms to analyze factors that influence barley production. The plan is to share those insights via the SmartBarley platform with growers.

“Big data is here to stay,” the McKnight Foundation’s Cady says. The key question, she adds, is, “How do we use it?”

The story first appeared on March 3, 2016 in Yale Environment 360.