Hey, frackers — don’t mess with our beer!

Brewer concerns reflect wider unease with fracking boom

In 1516, Germany passed the first ever Beer Purity Law
Courtesy of Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria

As a red-blooded American beer enthusiast with deep roots in beer culture, I got a little riled up when I read a press release a few months ago from a group of brewers concerned about the potential impacts of fracking to their water supplies.

In all, 36 brewers signed a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper, mildly (and vaguely) expressing concern about energy development impacts to the state’s craft-brewing industry. Specifically, the brewers asked Hickenlooper to strike a better balance between energy development and resource protection by supporting more stringent rules for fracking and other fossil fuel development.

Though there’s no fracking in my immediate area, and no imminent proposals to do any drilling, I decided to call one of the Summit County brewers on the list to see if there’s was a threat to my favorite high country brews.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” said Rick Tork, manager of the Frisco Backcountry Brewery, when asked why he signed the letter. He went on to suggest that his brewery has a “special” pipeline that delivers water straight from a pristine backcountry source — which, of course, is a bit of a stretch. All the municipal water lines are well-mapped and documented in our town.

My chat with Tork reminded of one of my first jobs as a beer-server in a classic Bavarian beer garden, complete with a Sunday afternoon Oompah band.

The shift beers, served in one-liter steins, were a nice fringe benefit, but I also learned a lot from the grizzled old mountain man named Sepp who handled the evening shift. From properly pressurizing massive kegs to ensuring a smooth-flowing tap, I quickly mastered the tech side, and Sepp also schooled me on the history of Bavarian beer. My favorite story is how the monks in the Middle Ages brewed an especially powerful ale, timed to coincide with Lent, so as to provide extra liquid (and alcohol) sustenance during the time of fasting.

The beer lore also included a lesson in purity. The needed ingredients are codified in a German law called the Reinheitsgebot, dating back to the days of the Holy Roman Empire, when brewers tried to preserve their product with dubious ingredients including psychoactive fly agaric mushrooms.

The law restricts ingredients to malt, hops, yeast and water, but came to have a much broader reading, emphasizing the purity of the formula. That is Connect with us still fundamental to modern-day brewing, and forms the basis for the concerns expressed by Colorado brewers, who are acting in solidarity with their German colleagues.

Right around the same time the Colorado brewers wrote to Gov. Hickenlooper, Germany’s powerful brewing trade association warned Chancellor Angela Merkel that many water sources for brewing could be threatened under national fracking legislation proposed by the government.

The German trade association is no bunch of screaming greenies, either, but a mainstream lobbying group representing a multimillion dollar industry that’s part of nearly every German’s daily life.

A spokesman for the group put his finger on the crux of the problem when he told Reuters, “You cannot be sure that the water won’t be polluted by chemicals, so we have urged the government to carry out more research before it goes ahead with a fracking law.”

That goes double for Colorado, where state officials have tracked a long list of troubling spills related to fossil fuel development and use. It may not be fair to claim there’s a direct threat to any particular brewer, but it’s also absurd to say there’s no threat at all.

What we don’t know

For one, we still don’t know exactly what various companies use when they inject fluids deep into the earth to shake loose the shale gas. While Colorado’s disclosure laws have been hailed as groundbreaking, there are still some huge loopholes, allowing companies to keep many proprietary ingredients secret.

This is a huge problem because it means that, when you try to find a toxic spill, you don’t even know what you’re looking for. There may not be much stomach for it in an election year, but a national disclosure standard, certified and monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency, would be the best way to track potential impacts.

We don’t know how many leaks and potential problems are going undetected because the state’s enforcement and monitoring arm is chronically short on resources. On-the-ground inspections don’t happen nearly as often as they should, and a few well-publicized enforcement actions resulting in significant penalties would be a sure deterrent.

Despite all their best efforts geologists and hydrologists still can’t trace every connection between surface and groundwater —think of McElligot’s Pool, a Dr. Seuss classic that vividly shows the connections between a bucolic country pond and the distant oceans.

That means if something does leak from a fracking operation, we can’t be 100 percent sure where it will end up. Without knowing that, we can’t honestly say that there’s no threat to water used by Colorado brewers. The only answer is much more extensive monitoring and testing, an idea that’s anathema to the fossil fuel industry because of costs.

What we do know

We know that further development of fossil fuel resources poses an existential threat to humanity, with the potential for catastrophic climate change. That in itself justifies the concerns expressed by Colorado brewers. Paradoxically, it also suggests that the debate over potential threats to beer are misleading, because it really should be a more fundamental question of whether we should even be considering more drilling.

We also know that extractive industries in Colorado have a long sordid history of boom-bust cycles. The closest parallel is the mining industry, which recklessly exploited the state’s natural resources, leaving behind a toxic legacy of thousands of abandoned mines and streams polluted with heavy metals from acid mine drainage.

Times have changed. 

Environmental oversight is better and even the most hard-hearted energy company executive wouldn’t cut corners on environmental protection in the face of shareholder pressure for profit, right? Not like those BP officials who may have knowingly approved a faulty installation at the company’s failed Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

There’s a growing body of evidence that even limited exposure to the soup of fracking chemicals is bad. It’s kind of a no-brainer, but the documented science always lags behind reality in this area — think Thalidomide or DDT, or, more recently, the persistent organic pollutants that are turning fish into transexuals.

So give the brewers some credit when they ask Gov. Hickenlooper to strike a better balance between energy development and conservation. There may not be a fracked well directly outside the door of your favorite brewpub, but the concerns address a more fundamental question: Do we want to live in an industrialized landscape dominated by fossil fuel impacts, or can we find a more sustainable future, with an economy based on sustainable use of natural resources?

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com