A group of 60 craft breweries has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the Clean Water Act in a case filed against Maui County in Hawaii. They argue if the county convinces the court its Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility doesn't need a federal permit to indirectly discharge treated sewage to the ocean via groundwater, the precedent will allow for more pollution at countless facilities nationwide, which will eventually harm the water used for brewing beer.
Louis Jeroslow, head brewer for Angry Troll Brewing in North Carolina, told CNBC, "It's all about the water." Depending how the case goes, he said, polluters could end up unfairly benefiting and putting brewers out of business. "What simplifies things for an industrial producer to put sludge in the ground and our waterways and not get a permit affects everyone else who deals with the water. It’s really just kicking the can down the road," he said.
County of Maui v. Hawai'i Wildlife Fund, et al., is currently scheduled for arguments before the high court Nov. 6. Maui County Council voted Sept. 20 to settle and withdraw the case from the Supreme Court's docket, but it may still go forward because of a dispute about who in the county is authorized to make this decision, according to a letter from the county's corporation counsel.
This case, filed in 2012, pits environmental groups against county government. Craft brewers and business groups — some thousands of miles away from Hawaii — are weighing in on either side of the argument. For the brewers, the quality and consistency of the water on which their products are based is the most important factor. Mess with the water and their beer will be unpalatable in a hurry, they say.
If there are too many sulfates in the water, the beer will be acidic, CNBC said. Too much chlorine, and the beer will taste like aspirin. Bacteria can wreck an entire batch of beer, and other water quality issues will alter the foam pattern and shelf life, the business network reported.
Craft brewers could have a lot on the line in this legal dispute. Their segment is a bright spot in today's beer industry, with retail sales up 7% last year to $27.58 billion, according to the Brewers Association, which represents more than 4,800 small and independent brewers in the U.S. That comprised a 24.1% market share of the total $114.2 billion beer industry last year, the group said — while the market as a whole slid 1% by volume. Continuing the trend, craft beer sales were up 2.9% from January through mid-July of this year, according to IRI.
This relative success has drawn some big beer companies to acquire craft brewers. Anheuser-Busch InBev bought Ohio-based Platform Beer for an undisclosed sum this summer, adding one more to its stable of a dozen craft brands. Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams, purchased Dogfish Head Brewery of Delaware for $300 million this past spring.
Although the 60 craft breweries signing on to the amicus brief in the Maui case represent beer makers across the country, nearly all of them serve just their local regions. Only two — employee-owned New Belgium Brewing Co. of Fort Collins, Colorado, and founder-owned Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. of Chico, California — have national profiles.
It's hard to tell how the case will proceed given the confusion about whether Maui County will settle. If arguments go ahead Nov. 6, lawyers for the plaintiffs will need to convince the nine justices groundwater quality will be damaged in tangible ways if county can operate without a federal permit.
Maui County has lost in two lower courts, so that precedent alone could sway the high court. Still, today's court has a more conservative slant than in the past, and this case involves the Clean Water Act — a law the Trump administration fundamentally opposes — so it's anyone's guess which way it will go.