Some companies boast of making beer with spring water from majestic mountains.
They won't be competing in the upcoming Pure Water Brew Challenge, in which an Oregon wastewater treatment operator has asked home brewers to make great-tasting beer from hops, barley, yeast and the key, not-so-secret ingredient: treated sewer water.
The point of the contest is not to find Portland's next trendy craft beer. Rather, it's an effort to get people talking about how a vital resource can be reused thanks to advanced water-filtration systems.
"We need to be judging water by its quality, and not by its history," said Mark Jockers, a spokesman for Clean Water Services, which runs four wastewater treatment plants in the Portland suburbs. "The water we're producing is significantly cleaner than what the safe drinking standards are for water that comes out of taps across the United States."
The utility plans to release 300 gallons of highly purified water in early June to roughly 20 home brewers from the Oregon Brew Crew, the state's oldest home-brewing club. A panel of experts will judge the beers in late July or early August. The victor wins $100, five others will get $50, and their kegs will be taken to an international water conference in Chicago. Though state regulators have approved the safety of the water, the beer won't be sold at stores or bars.
Advocates of water reuse like to say all water is reused. When one town treats its wastewater and discharges it into a river, some of it eventually finds its way into another town's drinking supply.
The rainy Portland area has never had to consider intentionally drinking wastewater. In fact, the city made national headlines last year when it wasted 35 million gallons of drinking water because one man urinated into an open-air reservoir.
Clean Water Services says a growing population and environment factors might eventually pressure the supply in the Pacific Northwest. Its hope is to change Oregon regulations before there's a crisis.
Its process for purifying the water for the beer contest includes ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation — terms that don't exactly fire the public's imagination.
Oregon Brewers Festival founder Art Larrance sits on the utility's advisory board. He figured if you want to get Oregonians talking about recycled water, you have to make beer. The contest was born.
Some water cleaned by the utility goes for irrigation, but most is discharged into the Tualatin River. Last year, Clean Water Services held a contest in which brewers used water drawn from the river. That batch contained 30 percent treated wastewater. This year's competition will be 100 percent "sewage brewage."
Ted Assur won the top prize in the river contest, defeating a dozen competitors with his Vox Max Belgian beer. He said the contest was unique because participants were told to make beer that highlights the water.
"As a brewer, that's not usually the ingredient you're highlighting; it's either the malt or the hops or the yeast," he said. "I took it to mean something light, refreshing."
Assur described the highly purified water as stark, almost like distilled water, allowing him to essentially start with a blank slate before adding mineral salts.
"It is some of the best water I've ever made beer with," he said. "I think the fact that it was really starting with absolutely nothing but water, and then having to add in the exact minerals I needed. I felt like that was a factor in producing a great beer."
He wouldn't divulge what type of beer he intends to make this time around. With the contest getting national publicity, he expects a fiercer competition.