Water Usage in the Café, at the Farm, and in the Future: Episode 3 – The Future

future waterBy David Fasman, BGA Membership Committee Water – it is essential in the creation of good coffee from seed to cup. And it is essential in so many other processes that exist around coffee. From washing dishes and making ice in the café to water decaffeination processes and shipping coffee across the oceans. Water is the primary driver in so many of these systems – seedling nurseries, any irrigation needs at the farm, processing methods, extensive cupping and of course brewing. Each system has its own rigorous specifications for water – with the final stage, extraction, being the most demanding. In fact, as mentioned in episode one, it takes 53 gallons of water to produce one latte in a paper cup and a single cup of coffee requires 34 gallons of coffee from seed to cup.[1][2]

So with coffee requiring so much fresh water, demand for coffee growing, and fresh water sources dwindling, the question arises – how can we sustain our industry? This is a legitimate question, and I promise one that has an answer. The answer requires us to be mindful of the way we use water in the café, raise awareness in the coffee industry in regards to water usage at the farm level, and most importantly advocate and assist in the creation and implementation of systems which conserve water at all points of the seed to cup chain.

The Future of Water in the Café

 Water for brewing coffee has extremely rigid specifications – and as Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood pointed out in his talk at symposium last year (and in his excellent book Water for Coffee) – even the specifications do not necessarily guarantee the same extraction. TDS (total dissolved solids) and PPM (parts per million) measurements are far too general. The flavor of coffee has much more to do with the terroir of the water in different areas. This is to say that mineral content varies by area; so 150 PPM water in San Francisco will taste different than 150 PPM water in New York or Chicago or even between cafes in the same city.[3]

As more cafes invest in their water quality, we have to remember that the creation of good quality water also requires the creation of waste water. I’m speaking of the process of reverse osmosis, which in truth is the only way to achieve and maintain water with such specificity. Old reverse osmosis systems generated water at a 1:1 ratio of “good” to bad water. Advances have been made with this filtration technology, with leading systems creating water at a 4:1 ratio of good to “waste.” In a moment I’ll discuss this “waste water,” but first let’s examine the cost of water.

The Cost of Water

Across the United States, water and sewage rates are rising at a rate of 5-15% yearly and are projected to continue at that rate into the foreseeable future.[4] The average café can use between 600 to 1000 gallons of water per day.[5] According to the American Water Works Association the average cost of a gallon of tap water is $0.004. At 600 gallons per day, cafés are only shelling out $2.40 per day currently. But let’s consider an increase of 10% per year and look 20 years into the future. That $2.40 a day has turned into $17.76 per day – almost seven and a half times the current price – and a bill of $532.80 per month (based on a 30-day month). That’s no small drop in the bucket.

Considering the current low cost of water, it isn’t generally included when costing out beverages or goods. But as the price of water increases, so will its inclusion in the cost of beverages. And let’s remember that traditional drip coffee is 98-99% water and even espresso is 88-92% water. Counteracting rising water rates may not necessarily be possible, but balancing out the rising cost is feasible through several techniques outlined below.

Maintiaining Quality While Maximizing Water Efficiency at the Café

 Here is a list of ways you can save water at the café level:

  1. Utilize pitcher rinsers. These handy tools can reduce water usage substantially. And by percent, the more drinks made, the more water saved.
  2. Stop using dipper wells. Dipper wells are like a leaky broken faucet. There are far more efficient ways to clean necessary utensils.
  3. Install aerators on all faucets. You know those screens at the end of faucets? They are there to deliver a non-splashing stream of water – but they also substantially reduce the amount of water in the stream. Sometimes up to 6 times less than a faucet with no aerator.
  4. Use water efficient pre-rinse spray valves. These are the nozzles at the end of the tubes used for rinsing off dishes before putting them in a dish washer. Dishes are a large part of water consumption at the café and utilizing the most water efficient pre-rinse spray valves you can find will help to substantially reduce water usage.
  5. Install water efficient dishwashers. As said before, dishes are a huge part of water consumption. Utilizing the most water efficient dishwashers will help to reduce water usage.
  6. Use air cooled ice machines. Air cooled ice machines use substantially less water than older water cooled machines. They may be slightly more expensive right now, but the machine will pay for the difference, and more, in savings over the course of its life.
  7. Install water efficient toilets. Yep, toilets. Restrooms are used extensively throughout the day and the more efficient the toilets, the less water that is flushed away.
  8. Utilize the most efficient water filtration. I know we need the best water to make coffee, but let’s try and use the most efficient water filtration systems possible.
  9. Be mindful. We need to start actively thinking about the water we use in the café. Such as how we use sinks, wash dishes, rinse filters, pre-heat vessels, and brew coffee.
  10. Repurpose waste water if possible.

As mentioned before, “waste water” is created by using reverse osmosis to filter water. The water shouldn’t be consumed, but because it is classified as waste, according to some states, it must be discarded and cannot be repurposed. It is our job as an industry to advocate for the usage of this “waste water” for restrooms, dish washing, mop water, and any other use for which it would not be consumed by people.

The Future of Water at the Farm

 Coffee production requires a huge amount of water. From watering seedlings, to any necessary field irrigation, and of course processing – coffee production is water intensive. In fact, a single container of traditionally processed washed coffee (about 18 tons) requires more than a quarter of a million gallons of water from seed to container.[6] Some coffee growing areas may have access to lots of water, but usage is not the only concerning factor. The most concerning aspects of water usage at the farm lie in the wastewater from mills and fields as well as watershed runoff. Problems that arise from wastewater and watershed runoff include nutrient and pesticide contaminated water – which affects nearby ecosystems as well as drinking water – and soil degradation due to deforestation, which can lead to a host of other problems.

Maximizing Water Efficiency and Minimizing Ecological Impact in Processing Methods

So let’s discuss coffee processing for a moment. There is a clear affinity for washed processed coffees in the specialty coffee industry. That being said, it seems like there are more high quality coffees coming out every year using other processing methods, like pulp-natural or full natural. Washed coffees, by far, require the most water usage and create the most waste water of any processing method. The pollution load from waste water produced by washed processing can be 30 to 40 times greater than that found in urban sewage.[7] What can be done about this? A lot.

There have been substantial developments in creating machinery that is much less water intensive and much more ecologically friendly. Some of these machines include eco-pulpers and mechanical demucilagers. This type of machinery has been found to reduce the amount of water used from 60 liters per pound of parchment to as low as 11 liters per pound.[8] On top of that, the creation of biodigesters – machines that take waste water and turn it into bio-fuel – are becoming more common. The barrier that still exists for farmers and processors is acquiring this machinery – referring to the monetary investment.

As an industry, if we are going to continue our demand for high quality washed process coffees, we must advocate for, and assist with, the instillation of this machinery for the regions we purchase coffee from. Even though it may be financially advantageous to have this machinery in the long run, the initial investment is substantial, and one that many small farmers can not afford.

With all this discussion about washed coffee, the question arises – so what about natural processed coffee? “The processing of natural Arabicas require little or no water at all, and where water is used – in Brazil, for example, for flotation – it can be recycled for several days and the degree of contamination is very low, if any.”[9] First of all, natural processing has historically produced lower quality coffee than washed coffees. But, as Tim Hill from Counter Culture said in an interview with Sprudge, “The way we think about natural processing now is very rudimentary; natural processing really hasn’t changed. Washed processing has changed a lot—there’s new equipment, new machines, new technologies that have really changed over the last 60–70 years. Natural processing is still very low technology; a much more kind of a rustic process.”[10] Natural processing can be tricky due to the heightened possibility of over fermentation. But as Hill notes, “You’d be lying to yourself if you don’t think that there’s some fermentation happening and being incorporated into the coffee itself. The question is, how much of that is a problem? What are the things we associate with bad fermented natural coffees, and what do we associate with good fermented coffees?”[11]

The answer to these questions are somewhat subjective, depending on the flavor profile desired. But one thing I believe is we need to be more open minded about how we grade coffees. The “right” degree of fermentation in natural coffees can produce exceptional quality. Every year, I taste more high quality natural processed coffees than the year prior. This is partially due to a small increase in demand, but also due to education at the farm level. We need to help farmers who are committed to naturally processing coffees. We need to help advance the technologies (which are few) for naturally processing coffee. An example of this is the drying of natural coffees on raised beds to increase airflow and decrease the chances of over fermentation and mold.

In the end, the question is not washed or natural, as both processing methods can produce specialty grade coffee. The question is, as an industry, how can we assist in advancing quality while minimizing ecological impact for both processing methods. There are answers for both methods.

Washed Process

  1. As an industry we must advocate and assist in the creation and implementation more water efficient technologies including eco-pulpers, mechanical demucilagers, and bio digesters.
  2. We need to educate farmers on the impact waste water has on the environment and urge them to reconsider how they dispose of waste water.
  3. We need to educate farmers on the impact of coffee growth on soil conditions as well as drinking water downstream.
  4. We should encourage the growth of coffee without total deforestation in order to help retain good soil conditions.

Natural Process

  1. We need to advocate and assist in the advancement of technologies required to produce high quality natural processed coffees.
  2. We need to educate farmers on techniques that can help with issues of over fermentation, molding, and sorting.
  3. We need to be open minded about natural process coffees. No, they don’t have the same flavor profile as washed coffees, but is that truly a bad thing?


 In my opinion, water is the biggest component of coffee from seed to cup. It is integral at all points of the supply chain. With roasters and cafes being the final link of the chain, it is our job to educate the public on water usage throughout the chain. It is also our responsibility to advocate, educate, and assist coffee growing regions with new technologies, techniques, and ideas for how to reduce water usage, minimize waste, and promote healthy soil conditions. By doing these things, we can ensure the future of specialty coffee as an industry dedicated to sustainability, ecological responsibility, and of course great coffee.

David Fasman is the Regional Training Manager at Kaldi’s Coffee. He is a SCAA certified instructor and level 2 barista. He is a 3 time USBC competitor and active member of the barista guild. He serves on the membership committee and is the author of seedtocupcoffee.wordpress.com.


[1] SCAA Fact Sheet: Specialty Coffee and Water Conservation [2] SCAA Green Guide Module 2: Water [3] Colonna-Dashwood, M. (2015, July 6). The Simplest Ingredient. Lecture presented at 2015 SCAA Symposium, Seattle. [4] SCAA Fact Sheet: Specialty Coffee and Water Conservation [5] SCAA Green Guide Module 2: Water [6] Sheridan, M. (2012, August 13). Coffee and Water Resources at Origin. Retrieved December 9, 2015. [7] Brando, C. (2013, July 8). The Use of Water in Processing Retrieved December 30, 2015. [8] Kubota, L. (2013, July 8). Beyond the Quality of the Water in Your Cup. Retrieved December 9, 2015. [9] Brando, C. (2013, July 8). The Use of Water in Processing. Retrieved December 30, 201. [10] Wolcheck, R.(2015, October 8). What Is Natural Coffee?. Retrieved December 30, 2015. [11] Wolcheck, R.(2015, October 8). What Is Natural Coffee?. Retrieved December 30, 2015.