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Damaged Dunedin water plant down at least two months. So, what about the beer?

The city is home to one of the highest concentrations of breweries per capita in the region. A big reason? The quality of the water.
Exterior of Dunedin Brewery, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in Dunedin.
Exterior of Dunedin Brewery, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in Dunedin. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 13
Updated Oct. 13

DUNEDIN — When Michael Bryant’s father opened Dunedin Brewery 25 years ago, he chose the northwest Pinellas city for a very specific reason: its water.

“He did his research on water chemistry to find out what was best for brewing,” said Bryant, who co-owns the family business. “The water quality in Dunedin has always been consistent. That’s important when you’re making beer.”

Beer is served from the tap at Dunedin Brewery, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in Dunedin.
Beer is served from the tap at Dunedin Brewery, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in Dunedin. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Brewing is a science; changes in water can drastically impact taste, Bryant said. The consistency in Dunedin’s water quality — thanks in large part to special processing at the city’s water treatment plant — is one of the primary reasons that eight breweries now call downtown Dunedin home.

So when the water plant unexpectedly caught fire last month, damaging equipment and disrupting the treatment process, it was to the brewers that Dunedin public works director Paul Stanek made some of the earliest calls.

Related: Dunedin customers asked to conserve water after fire damages plant

“We knew this would affect our breweries,” Stanek said. “We wanted to make them aware of the situation as soon as we could.”

The cause of the fire is currently under investigation, Stanek said. In the meantime, residents are being asked to conserve water, and breweries around Dunedin are dealing with the changes the best they can.

“It’s definitely going to affect our costs a little,” Bryant said. “But it won’t be the end of the world.”

The water remains ‘perfectly’ safe to drink

Before Dunedin residents turn on their faucet and fill a drinking glass, their water goes through a series of chemical treatment and filtration processes.

One process, called reverse osmosis filtration, removes hardness from the water. It was the reverse osmosis processing equipment that was damaged in the fire at the plant.

Without going through the reverse osmosis filter, Stanek said the city’s water is still perfectly safe to drink, but residents might notice a difference in taste and find a slight buildup of minerals around their faucets.

“[The water] meets EPA requirements and we still maintain that it is safer than bottled water,” Stanek told city commissioners during a meeting last week.

In a standard treatment process, according to Stanek, Dunedin’s water is drawn from 29 groundwater wells located throughout the city, as well as the Floridan Aquifer. All of that water then comes back to the plant, where it’s treated with chlorine before being run through a series of filters.

In most filtration processes, a single stream of water is run through a filter, which catches sediments and hard minerals, before kicking a single stream of slightly cleaner water out the other end.

But reverse osmosis uses pressure to push the water through a series of membranes.

“A single stream of water goes in, but two streams come out,” Stanek said.

One stream is drinking water. The other goes to the waste treatment plant for processing, and is recycled as reclaimed water.

Because the reverse osmosis process is currently down — and will likely be for the next two months, according to Stanek — the city is asking residents to conserve water by avoiding high-use activities like watering lawns and washing cars.

“The water is safe to drink, but our systems are strained because we’re operating with less equipment,” Stanek said. “We’re asking our residents to conserve water to alleviate the strain while we work on getting things up and running again.”

But what about the beer?

It’s the reverse osmosis process that makes the water so great for brewers, according to Bren Cueni, co-owner of Cueni Brewing Company in Dunedin. That’s because of the water’s consistency after it’s been filtered.

Each brewery makes its own adjustments to the water at the beginning of the process, depending on the type of beer they’re brewing.

A brewer might add baking soda or calcium chloride or epsom salt, Cueni said. It’s mostly about adjusting the water’s acidity, which impacts the reaction with the hops, yeast and grain. It’s the subtle changes in those reactions that yield flavor variations in different brews.

People have beers at Dunedin Brewery, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in Dunedin.
People have beers at Dunedin Brewery, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in Dunedin. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“We have an Excel spreadsheet of recipes, and for each of the beers we make a different adjustment to the water to get it to where it needs to be,” Cueni said. “Without knowing the base quality of the water coming in, you can’t make the adjustments necessary to keep a beer true to taste.”

That’s a problem, said Rick Clemo, of HOB Brewing Company, especially for breweries with signature beers.

“It’s not as big a deal for seasonal beers or specials, where flavor is going to change,” Clemo said. “But if you have a signature brew that people know and seek out, that’s where it gets tricky.”

Clemo said the breweries had a water sample sent out to a lab to be tested last week. With the results, they’ll try to adjust recipes accordingly. But the water quality could change from week to week; then it’d be back to the drawing board.

“We put a halt on brewing initially, and now we’re a little behind [on stock],” Clemo said. “But the city has been great at letting us know what’s going on and we’re just hoping for the best.”

It’s the same sentiment expressed from brewery to brewery. The sooner the reverse osmosis process is back, the better. But in the meantime, brewers are doing what they can to adjust.

“We’re actually using this time to replace some of our equipment, so it really hasn’t affected us yet,” said Dave Dally, head brewer at Caledonia Brewing. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet when things are up and running, but we’ll figure something out. There will be no shortage in beer.”

Uncertainties ahead

While brewers work to make adjustments to recipes, Stanek said that the city is awaiting answers about what caused the fire, the extent of damage and the timeline for repairs.

The city initially reported the fire was accidental. Now, an investigation is underway to determine what went wrong.

But Stanek said the real gut-punch is that the equipment damaged was all new. Over the last two years, according to Stanek, the city had spent about $32 million replacing decades-old equipment at the water treatment facility.

“We had been under construction for two years and here we were at the end of the tunnel,” Stanek said. “Now we have to start over. It’s sickening.”

Stanek said the cost of the damage is still being determined, but the water plant is a covered asset under the city’s property insurance through the Florida Municipal Insurance Trust.

Although he hopes the reverse osmosis process will be up and running within the next two months, Stanek said full repairs to the building — which experienced smoke damage — could take up to a year.