By John O’Connor
ANNAPOLIS – Baltimore’s drought-driven decision to pump Susquehanna River water into the metro water supply may have one serious unintended consequence — bad beer.
Brewers in Baltimore and in Baltimore and Howard counties — all areas served by the Baltimore water supply — noticed unusual changes during the 1999 drought when Susquehanna water was added to the reservoir supply. Beer has not yet been affected this year, brewers say, but both Baltimore Department of Public Works and brewers are worried about decreasing water quality in the Susquehanna.
“When they change the water, the beer is good for salad dressing but not for drinking,” said Timothy T. Kendzierski, an operating partner with Ellicott Mills Brewing Company in Ellicott City. “It can affect the taste. If you have a very refined palate you can notice the difference.”
DPW has tapped the river since January, but recent complaints about the taste of the water pushed the agency to shut down one of two pumps drawing water from the river. If the drought continues, said DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher, the condition of the Susquehanna water could worsen.
“The quality of the water in ’99 was not very good,” said Kocher. “This year it’s been excellent, but you could have a decline in the water quality.”
DPW now has better methods for treating the water, Kocher said, but Kendzierski worries problems may return.
Ellicott Mills, which brews German-style lagers such as Weizenheimer and Firecracker Bock under the Alpenhof brand, noticed their beer was cloudier and tasted slightly sour during the last drought.
The brewery cleaned their equipment, costing more than $5,000, but the problem persisted.
Ellicott Mills discovered that bacteria levels in the water were triple the levels of the three reservoirs normally tapped by DPW. Because of the bacteria, said Kendzierski, Alpenhof had a slightly sour flavor and was spoiling more quickly.
Kegged beer, he said, usually keeps 60 to 90 days, but their beer turned after only a month.
“We probably threw away 600 gallons of beer (at an estimated retail cost of $19,000),” said Kendzierski.
Clipper City Brewing had a problem with calcium levels in the water.
During brewing, said Clipper City founder Hugh Sisson, calcium is added because Baltimore has low levels of the mineral in its water. But when the brewery began using Susquehanna water, Clipper City did not think to adjust the mix.
The result said Sisson, were clumps of calcium forming once the beer was bottled.
“When you have a subtle change in your raw materials it’s not so subtle in the final results,” he said. “We don’t miss much, but we missed that.”
Frederick Brewing Company, makers of Blue Ridge and Wild Goose brand beers, reported similar problems. But in Frederick – where the drought has hit harder and longer than in other parts of the state – the state’s largest brewer has noticed, said John Niziolek, general manager for Frederick Brewing Company.
“It hasn’t really impacted us significantly,” he said, “but we are seeing some changes in the water table.”
Frederick Brewing keeps a microbiologist on staff to monitor the water, a luxury some smaller brewers can not afford.
The biggest change, Niziolek said, is the cap on growth the City of Frederick has placed on businesses. The city has tried to accommodate their needs, he said, and are building a new pipeline from the Potomac River.
While most customers did not notice a difference in their beer, an inconsistent product can affect business at Ellicott Mills, where half of all beverage sales at the restaurant and brewery are Alpenhof beers.
“We’re on a pretty tight schedule because we have a small capacity,” said Kendzierski. “It messes everything up. Instead of eight beers on tap, we had six.”
Ellicott Mills, Clipper City and Baltimore Brewing Company, which produces DeGroen’s beers, all claim to have had no problems this year, but, they said, they were also more prepared.
“We learned our lesson last time,” said Sisson, whose company added only $1.50 worth of water softeners to prevent problems. “Forewarned was forearmed.”