When life gives you too much rain, make beer with it

The World
From the rooftop to the bottle: Joris Hoebe's Hemelswater beer (“Heaven’s water”) is part of a citywide effort to control flooding in Amsterdam.

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 2 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.”

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.

Daniel Goedblood of the Amsterdam Rainproof Project stands on a
Daniel Goedbloed of the Amsterdam Rainproof Project stands on a "polder roof," named for the swaths of Dutch countryside that are set aside to hold floodwaters in times of heavy rains. The roof can hold up to 80 millimeters, or roughly 3 inches, of rain at a time.Rebecca Rosman

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.

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.

“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.

Related: As sea levels rise, Rotterdam floats to the top as an example of how to live with water

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.

Joris Hoebe with his company's electric van. Hoebe turns 1,000 liters of rain water a week into beer, with big plans to expand.
Joris Hoebe is shown with his company's electric van. Hoebe turns 1,000 liters of rain water a week into beer and has big plans to expand.Rebecca Rosman

“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.

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. 

Related: See our Living with Rising Seas series

See all The World's Climate Change coverage

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