While the skunked and stale kegs of beer sitting in bars and restaurants shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic certainly wouldn’t taste great to customers once businesses reopen, they also shouldn’t get served to the region’s waste pipes.
That’s the message from officials at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, who sent out a notice this week urging cities and towns to reach out to venues that serve draft beer, and tell them not to dump leftover or untapped libations that can no longer be used down the drain.
According to the MWRA, “given the current volumes of stale beer" that are likely out there following months of closures, doing so could be harmful to both the sewer system and the treatment facility on Deer Island.
“Beer, in particular, has a very high Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), making it what is referred to as ‘high strength wastewater,’ which also has a very low pH,” according to the e-mail advisory sent to dozens of municipalities served by the MWRA.
The authority said the cocktail of “beer’s high BOD and low pH make disposing of stale beer in the sewer system extremely problematic," with the potential to damage not just the sewer system but also "overwhelm the receiving wastewater treatment plant.”
The notice was sent out after the MWRA was hit with several requests from breweries, restaurants, bars, and other venues about discharging alcoholic beverages and other waste items into the gullets of their drains, they said.
The MWRA said it’s been in touch with permitted breweries in its service area about the hazards, but wanted to get the message out further to local establishments.
“Please consider sending the following message to your local Board of Health Agent or restaurants in your community," the notice said. “...It is imperative that it is disposed of properly.”
In a phone interview Wednesday, Fred Laskey, executive director of the MWRA, said with the sudden shutdowns because of the spread of the coronavirus, the authority was made aware of places that serve beer on tap ending up with large quantities of unusable goods.
“They came forward to see if it was feasible if they could put it in our sewer system, down the drain,” he said.
After doing a bit of research — Laskey likes to consider himself “an educated consumer,” but admitted he knew less about the science behind the beer until recently — the MWRA came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be the best move.
Laskey said businesses that do have unused products are being urged to go to facilities that are built to handle this type of waste. They provided a link to such sites in the notice to communities.
The MWRA serves 61 cities and towns in the state. Of those, 43 are part of the wastewater system, including Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, according to the authority’s website.
A spokesman for the City of Cambridge said Wednesday that officials had received the notice from the MWRA and would be sending it out to make sure the businesses in the area that it applies to get the message.
“The City’s Inspectional Services Department will soon begin sharing the message with local establishments,” Jeremy Warnick said in a statement.
Similarly, in Boston, the Licensing Board was aware of the request from the MWRA, and was in the process this week of sending an advisory to bars and restaurants about guidance on the issue.
Bob Luz, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said establishments haven’t had this issue before, because the beer is typically consumed.
When asked how much stale beer may be out there, he replied: “We closed with two days notice going into St. Patrick’s Day... we were going into one of the busiest times of year.”
Luz said the issue hasn’t been “a big topic of conversation” because businesses “are just worried about being reopened.”
However, he said, businesses with stale beer have been either returning it to distributors, who are then handling the proper disposal, or giving it to distilleries that can use it to make hand sanitizer.
“Given the philanthropic nature of restaurants, they’ve found that beer in kegs that’s gone bad can actually be turned into something good,” he said.
While the advisory sent out was mostly aimed at bars sitting on multiple kegs of beer that can’t be consumed as the state moves closer to reopening more of the economy, the MWRA has also fielded questions about what can be done with an abundance of stale beer made at local breweries.
Sam Hendler, co-owner of Framingham-based Jack’s Abby Brewing, said the company has been trying to figure out what to do with 15,000 gallons of beer that’s gone stale due to the shutdown.
Hendler said the brewery reached out to the MWRA and applied for a special permit that, if approved, would potentially allow them to dispose of it in the wastewater system, provided they follow strict guidelines and pay additional fees.
Among other factors, the brewery would need to establish a pretreatment program to prevent damage to the sewer system and plant, and monitor the rate of how much was being introduced to the system.
“We have the facilities to responsibly do [that],” he said.
The MWRA is considering these requests on a case-by-case basis. But Hendler said the company is first seeking alternative measures that wouldn’t rely on the authority.
Until Jack’s Abby figures out a plan, “certainly I’m not dumping anything,” he said. And he hopes others will heed the advice of the MWRA.
“We really do care about the system; it’s critical infrastructure for our business and the worst case scenario is for that to be degraded,” he said. "So please, don’t dump beer down the drain if you can at all possibly avoid it.”