Water, Water, Everywhere, So Make Some Beer To Drink

Amsterdam has two problems: It can’t seem to stop coming up with new types of beers, and it floods easily. Why not kill two birds with one stone?

The article originally appeared on PRI’s The World. 

Beer flight. Photo by Quinn Dombrowski/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

We’ve all heard the expression, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” That’s kind of what Joris Hoebe did. His city, Amsterdam, has two problems. First, the city loves beer and can’t seem to stop coming up with new brews. Second, Amsterdam is two meters below sea level, so it floods easily. That means it has a problem with big rains.

Hoebe’s idea was to tackle the two challenges together. A hobby brewer himself, Hoebe was working up some homebrew one evening when it started pouring outside.

“I was brewing, and it was raining. I was like, ‘Why don’t we combine those two problems?’” says Hoebe. “So, we started experimenting.”

[The science behind crafting the perfect pint.]

First, he found a garden store that collects rainwater from its roof and stores it in big tanks. Then, he found a local brewery to work with: De Prael. Now, each week, he withdraws 1,000 liters of water from the store’s tanks, filters it, hauls it to the brewery and works some magic.

The result is a rich, fruity, blond beer with a slight kick called Hemelswater, meaning, “Heaven’s water.” And like all good beers, Hoebe hopes it will start a conversation.

“We see rainwater as a nuisance, and we’re turning [it] into something fun and profitable,” he says.

“I was brewing, and it was raining. I was like, ‘Why don’t we combine those two problems?’ So, we started experimenting.”

Climate change is turning rainwater into more of a nuisance than ever in the Netherlands, bringing more rain and rising seas. That means even more challenges for a country where more than half the land is already below sea level.

Hoebe isn’t alone in trying to think of rainwater differently.

“One of the things we say is, ‘Do what you have to do, but do it rainproof,’” says Daniel Goedbloed, who runs the city water board’s Amsterdam Rainproof Project.

[When waters rise, who you gonna call? The Netherlands.]

Goedbloed and his team help improve what’s called Amsterdam’s “sponge capacity.” One of its big initiatives is installing special rooftop gardens that can collect and store up to 80 millimeters of water, about 3 inches, per rainfall. The water is slowly released to help keep the city’s storm drains from overflowing.

The rainwater can also be put to use for things like watering gardens, flushing toilets “or, of course, making beer,” Goedbloed says.

There are currently only five such gardens in Amsterdam, but over the next 50 years, Goedbloed wants to put one on every building in the city.

[Check out this eco-friendly floating toilet.]

“Everybody has to take their own responsibility,” he says. To that end, Goedbloed says the Rainproof Project hopes Amsterdam will require every building in the city to hold back around 80 millimeters of rain.

The Netherlands has been fighting water for centuries, and the country is spending billions on big infrastructure projects as climate change brings a whole new scale of threats. But most of those don’t involve ordinary citizens, which is why Mendel Giezen, an urban planner at the University of Amsterdam, likes small-scale projects like Amsterdam Rainproof and Hemelswater.

“It’s good that they focus on getting citizens involved because it incorporates all different kinds of aspects of society needed to address these issues,” Giezen says.

[On rainy days, these microbes may be at play.]

In a place like the Netherlands, the threats of climate change can require an all-hands-on-deck response. Or, perhaps, all-hands-on-your-beer.

Joris Hoebe knows that Hemelswater won’t fix anything by itself. But he says it’s a start.

“A lot of companies and just the general public get inspired by the idea of reusing rainwater,” he says.

Hoebe has big plans for Hemelswater. The company is working on a new brewery that will use 100 percent rainwater, all sourced from its own rooftop.

[Home brewing is a combination of art and science.]

Meet the Writer

About Rebecca Rosman

Rebecca Rosman is a freelance journalist and contributor to PRI’s The World.

Explore More

A Beer Bottle Prank Is a Lesson in Fluid Mechanics

Scientists used a high speed camera to study how tiny carbon dioxide bubbles in beer rapidly expand and rise.

Read More