Duel between Oregon and Wisconsin for top ‘effluent lager’ honors comes down to the last drop

The beer was flowing Tuesday afternoon at the WEFTEC 2015 Innovation Pavilion. But perhaps more important, the standing-room-only crowd was engaged in exciting conversation on the feasibility of sustainable water reuse.

The first ever Sewage Brewage Smack Down pitted two “Titans of Treatment” against each other, as the Beast of the East ­­— the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District — took on the Best of the West — Oregon’s Clean Water Services — in a duel to the last drop.

In September 2014, Clean Water Services initiated a project to donate their high-quality treated effluent to craft brewers to make “effluent lager” for special events. The program, which we covered in detail in the May 2015 issue of our sister publication, Treatment Plant Operator magazine, pitted 13 homebrewers in a taste-test contest with one key caveat — all had to start with water from a river downstream of a wastewater treatment plant discharge.

Related: Blog: WEFTEC 2015: Great Water Cities Panel Discusses Leadership

Similarly, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a wastewater engineer, Theera Ratarasarn, undertook an independent project of brewing Activated Sludge Wheat Ale, a beer made from purified Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District wastewater plant effluent.

In both cases, the agencies sparked a national conversation about water reuse. The initiatives received hordes of media attention, including coverage in the Milwaukee Journal SentinelThe Oregonian, and NPR Blog. Of course, the “Yuck” factor made for easy one-liners on late-night comedy shows and morning radio comedians as well, including a monologue mention from Conan O’Brien.

It was at an industry trade show earlier this year that the two utilities learned of each other’s projects, though. Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, the deputy general manager for Clean Water Services, happened to notice that Kevin Shafer, the executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District, was walking around with a six-pack of Activated Sludge. A conversation — and a challenge — was drummed up.

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“Diane said their effluent brew out in Oregon was the best around, and of course, being from the Beer Capitol of the World, Milwaukee, we couldn’t take that sitting down,” says Shafer. “We decided that a tasting event at WEFTEC would be a fun way to have a friendly competition, and get people talking.”

Milwaukee brought dozens of cases of their canned Activated Sludge Wheat Ale to Chicago, while Clean Water Services brought a variety of 10 different microbrews for attendees to test. The beers are safe to drink, as the effluent is thoroughly treated to higher purity levels than tap water. In Oregon, the water undergoes ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, and advanced oxidation process using UV disinfection. In Milwaukee, operators chlorinate, dechlorinate, filter, distill, test, and add nutrients before brewing.

The beers aren’t just safe, they also taste good — both beers received positive taste test reviews on the WEFTEC floor.

Related: Southern California District Receives $1.7 Million in WaterSMART Grant

After interviewing Mark Jockers, government and public affairs manager for Clean Water Services for my May Hearts & Minds story, and hearing him describe the excitement surrounding his utility’s program, I was very interested in taste-testing both. My Clean Water Services choice was Ted Assur’s Vox Max Belgian, which took Best in Show in the Oregon competition. It’s hoppy flavor and aroma almost reminded me of a high-end IPA. It was definitely one that I wouldn’t mind sitting down and enjoying as a stand-alone. Milwaukee’s Activated Sludge Wheat Ale, on the other hand, was a bit of a darker, smoother brew … something that would pair perfectly with dinner.

The taste test created another media buzz, as both Jockers and Shafer gave several interviews both before and after the event. Jockers also appeared on Wednesday’s Good Day Chicago morning television news program.

“The response we have gotten here at WEFTEC has just been outstanding,” says Jockers. “These are the people that already understand the importance of talking about sustainability, so there was definitely a buzz. These are the people that know what we do to purify water, so there’s no Yuck factor here.”

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As for who won the overall Smack Down, the results were decidedly, and thankfully, mixed. Both Jockers and Shafer sampled their opponent’s brews, and while each appreciated the product, both stuck with their home teams.

“Your’s is really good, but I’ll stick with the Activated Sludge,” says Shafer.

“You Milwaukee guys say you know your beer, but I’m going to have to disagree,” replied Jockers. “I guess we’re going to have to revisit this competition in the future.”

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