Is Idaho Turning Wastewater Into Beer?

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A company lured me into investigating a rumor about the northwestern state.

A couple months ago, a company sent me an email with a subject I couldn't ignore: "Putting recycled water to use – in beer."

The email claimed that the city of Boise, Idaho was taking water seriously, in that it was using it to get drunk.

"Come October, recycled water will start to appear at local hotspots thanks to a new partnership with the City of Boise," continued the email. "The initiative ... pushes the use of pure, 100 percent recycled water for brewing."

Joking aside, this sounded great. Lots of places are facing water shortages. While some countries are confronting the problem head-on (Israel, for instance, recycles 90 percent of its water), the U.S. has lagged behind. Good for Idaho! I agreed to interview a company spokesperson.

After several failed interview attempts (once, a marketing person and I awkwardly waited on the phone for the spokesperson, only to discover he was ditching us for another meeting), we finally talked. That's when I learned this company had nothing to do with turning recycled water into beer. It was just a company that turned recycled water into drinking water, and they'd used the beer angle to lure me in.

But I was now even more curious about Boise. Was the city really turning wastewater into beer, or was that another exaggeration?

According to the Boise government (who would probably know), it's real. The city is using an intense purification process and working with local breweries "to create tasty new beers and cider" says the government website.

"Right now, we take all of that water that comes from Boise's homes and businesses, we treat it to a really high level, and then we put it back into the river, where it just flows away down the river and we lose all that comes with that water," explained Colin Hickman, a Boise government spokesperson. "We know as a high-desert city [that] how we utilize every drop of water is exceedingly important, so this project is really to see, 'Are there different opportunities where we can use the water that we're already treating?'"

Not everyone in Idaho is psyched about drinking what was once wastewater. But the cleaning process is intense and tightly controlled. Plus, that company spokesperson made a good point: we're already doing it. In fact, all our water is recycled. That's how nature works.

"We're just speeding up the process," he pointed out. "Your wastewater will reach your tap one way or another."

So did Idaho actually go through with the plan? And if so, how did it go?

"It went really well!" Jami Goldman, Boise's sustainability coordinator, told me. The Idaho brewers trying out the reused water are still selling the new beer on tap. The city is looking into making a regular delivery process for the water.

"We will begin strategizing what that might look like for us in the future," Goldman added. "We think the best way to start a conversation about reusing used water is over a beer."