Hakai Magazine

Salmon-Safe is a bid to make the beer-making process—from farm to foam—better for the environment. Photo by 2/Jon Larson/Ocean/Corbis

Portland Brewery Goes “Salmon-Safe”

Hopworks Urban Brewery is the first beer maker to achieve a new environmental certification. 

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by Alex Dropkin

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Brewers and salmon have one major thing in common: they both need a lot of fresh, clean water. In the United States, craft breweries use four liters of water for every liter of beer produced, and salmon need healthy, unpolluted rivers. One brewery in Portland, Oregon, is working to ensure that beer drinkers and salmon can coexist, by cleaning up the water that passes through its factory and its grounds, returning it to the environment in a condition suitable for salmon. 

In early August, Hopworks Urban Brewery, the 10th largest brewery in Oregon, announced that its production site had earned Salmon-Safe certification—the first brewery to do so.

“Brewers are intensive users of resources, especially water … so it’s important for us to understand what it means to use those things and then do something about it,” says Christian Ettinger, Hopworks’s founder and brewmaster. “Whether it’s going through the water meter or falling on the roof,” it’s the brewery’s job to make sure the water leaving the grounds is clean, he says. “[T]he duty is on us as an industry to lead by example.”

The Salmon-Safe designation was awarded by a non-profit organization of the same name, through an independent accreditation program. The program encourages sustainable land-management practices with the goal of protecting the Pacific Northwest’s watersheds. Other Salmon-Safe certified sites include Nike’s world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, and Portland State University. Globally, Salmon-Safe has certified 323 square kilometers of farmland—largely at vineyards and hop farms.

To earn its accreditation, Hopworks had to prove that it’s managing the storm and wastewater that passes through its grounds, with the goal of treating 100 percent of storm water on site within five years. Without treatment, the water could potentially carry pollutants and trash into the local tributaries—things salmon generally don’t find agreeable.

“Our certification standards are biologically based on the needs of wild Pacific salmon,” says Salmon-Safe director Dan Kent. “But it turns out that the needs of salmon are really an indicator of a healthy watershed.” For salmon, says Kent, those needs are “cold streams, clean water, and abundant water.”

The brewery also had to show its commitment to using Salmon-Safe-approved materials and certified practices (such as low-flow faucets, retention ponds, and pervious concrete) in a planned expansion.

Though Hopworks’s brewery is certified Salmon-Safe, the company’s beer is not. Like a small number of other craft breweries in the United States, Hopworks uses Salmon-Safe hops (which have to pass their own certification process). But according to Ettinger, finding Salmon-Safe malted barley is the final hurdle to producing entirely Salmon-Safe-certified beer.

In the United States, wild salmon have disappeared from 40 percent of their historic breeding range. Human-induced habitat loss, overfishing, and pollution are considered major contributing factors to the decline. The Pacific Rivers Council launched Salmon-Safe in 1997 (though it has since become its own organization), but Kent says that it is hard to evaluate the effect the certification program has had on salmon populations so far.

“We’re working up and down the coast and having incremental impacts on countless streams, but in terms of quantifying the impact and knowing that it’s a result from the efforts of Salmon-Safe-certified landowners, that’s much more challenging,” Kent says. “We’re working to quantify it, at least on the water-quality side.”

Despite the difficulties, Kent is keen to see the program spread: “Our goal is to take this brewery site certification up and down the coast in the same way that breweries have signed on to sourcing Salmon-Safe hops,” he says. “We do see an environmental ethic in the craft-brewing industry that we don’t really see anywhere else.”