Land of ten thousand brews: swapping brewery wastewater for traditional fertilizers

May 24, 2019

By Lauren Matushin

With over 150 local breweries stretching from Luverne to Ranier, Minnesota might very well be the land of ten thousand beers, producing over six hundred thousand barrels per year. Combine Minnesota’s rich agricultural industry with dozens of breweries opening in rural and urban farming communities, and a unique collaboration opportunity arises. Department of Horticultural Science graduate student, Naxo Riera Vila, is hoping to combine Minnesota’s love of beer and agriculture in an unlikely way: wastewater.

Working in partnership with Fulton Brewing and the U’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering, Riera Vila is hoping to create an integrated system that treats brewery wastewater more efficiently. The system would use anaerobic digestion to treat the water, simultaneously producing the energy needed to run the system, before using the treated water as a substitute for traditional fertilizer. “Breweries produce a lot of wastewater,” Riera Vila says. “It’s rich in organic matter and it was made in a system for human consumption. It’s ideal - lots of nutrients, no pathogens.”

While it may seem like a perfect fit, little research exists on utilizing treated wastewater as a fertilizer, and the project was slow to start. After perfecting their anaerobic digestion process and switching from a hydroponic system to standard pot watering, the data showed an exciting result. The mustard, basil, and lettuce plants that received treated wastewater grew just as well as those receiving traditional fertilizer.

“Even the plants getting untreated wastewater grew well!” Riera Vila says. “Not as well as treated, but still.” He wants to start testing on a larger scale, using wastewater from multiple breweries. “A larger scale means different problems. Sure, eighty plants worked, but could we do it with thousands and still see the same success?”

Beyond success in the greenhouse, there’s the question of industry acceptance. An integrated system of wastewater treatment and crop fertilizing would require interest and commitment from both brewers and growers. But as a leader in sustainable agriculture, Minnesota seems like the ideal location. “We want to see a brewery partner with an urban grower to have a space where you produce the beer, get the wastewater, go right next door, and grow the plants. All on one site!” We’ll toast to that.