Targeting water savings, beer giant AB InBev rethinks brewing

Beer brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev says it's on track to achieving aggressive water reduction goals through brewing optimization, management optimization and "water sheriffs."

Beer brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev announced on Monday that it was on track to achieving aggressive water reduction goals through brewing optimization, management inspiration and a group of "water sheriffs."

Officially, the company's goal is to achieve 3.5 hectoliters of water for each hectoliter of production by the end of 2012. (A hectoliter is the equivalent of 100 liters.)

In 2010, the company's average water use was 4.04 hectoliters per hectoliter of production, a six percent savings from the year prior. To put AB InBev's scale into perspective, the company's water savings since 2007 could not be held by 16,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The manufacturer of Budweiser, Stella Artois and Michelob first unveiled the goals last March as part of its "Better World" sustainability agenda, and has since tackled them using an array of approaches:

  • Engineering improvements.
  • Operational innovations.
  • Building awareness to create behavior-driven actions.
  • The system-wide "Voyager Plant Optimization," or VPO, process, which "drives efficiency at plants through uniform processes and measurable standards for operations, quality, safety and the environment."

The company highlighted some of its facilities that it says were driving progress company-wide.

Among them:

  • The facility in Cartersville, Ga. became the most water-efficient brewery in the company in 2010, with an annual water use metric of 3.04 hectoliters of water per hectoliter of production.
  • The facility in Ningbo, China is on track to achieve the 2012 water usage target one year ahead of schedule thanks to measures such as narrowing bottle-washing nozzle diameters and reusing reclaimed water for general cleaning.
  • Breweries in Belgium reduced 2010 water usage by 12 percent compared to 2009, thanks to better optimization of brewing, packaging and utilities processes.
  • The Wernigerode brewery in Germany has already achieved the 2012 water use goal, with an annual water use metric of 3.2 hectoliters of water per hectoliter of production in 2010. Why: a strong management focus on conservation.
  • Breweries in Russia and Ukraine collectively reduced water use by 8 percent in 2010, with help from the implementation of "water sheriffs" in all plants, who are tasked with finding and fixing water leakages and deploying best practices learned from other facilities.
  • The Corrientes brewery in Argentina conducted a careful analysis and reformulation of the standard process for shutdown and restart of equipment, bringing its water usage rate to 3.4 hectoliters of water per hectoliter of production in 2010.
  • The Jacarei and Cuiaba plants in Brazil are also near the 2012 global goal of 3.5 hectoliters of water usage per hectoliter of production, thanks to management commitment and targeted investment in upgrading packaging equipment and automation.

Since water and energy often go hand-in-hand, AB InBev also said it managed a 3.7 percent decrease in energy use compared to 2009, on a per hectoliter basis.

One point about that, by the way: it's an interesting way to measure progress, since the per-hectoliter unit of measurement helps the company focus on just how much energy (and water) it takes to produce its products -- not just scurry to find ways to meet a broader goal of efficiency.

Nevertheless, as the world's largest brewer, anything AB InBev does to meet efficiency goals materializes at a scale that makes it an industry leader.

Will you be able to taste the difference? Probably not.

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