There are disturbing aspects to Theera Ratarasarn’s home brew.
The name: Activated Sludge. The label: That is a radiation symbol. The ingredients: It’s brewed with purified Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District wastewater plant effluent.
But it tastes great.
To Ratarasarn, making beer with water that hasn’t gone through the final cleaning process was a mission.
“I wanted to get people talking,” he said “There’s a potential use for what we discharge into lakes and streams.”
A wastewater engineer with the state Department of Natural Resources by day, Ratarasarn, 39, has been home-brewing beer for nearly two years, usually at night after his two young sons are in bed.
It’s a simple enough process — mash, boil, add hops, cool, add yeast and ferment. Unless the water is suspect. Then add a half-dozen more steps.
Ratarasarn chlorinated, dechlorinated, filtered, distilled, tested and added nutrients to the water before beginning to make 5 gallons of Activated Sludge, a wheat ale with 5.15% alcohol by volume.
After all those steps, Ratarasarn wasn’t worried about the beer’s safety. Neither was a taste panel at Lakefront Brewery, where Activated Sludge went head-to-head with Lakefront Wheat Monkey.
Panel members smelled their sip of beer. They cracked wise.
“It looks like a good urine sample,” said John Rinson.
Then they tasted.
“No pathogen known to man that can grow in beer,” said brewery president Russ Klisch, who praised Ratarasarn’s Activated Sludge for its golden color. His down note was the beer’s carbonation and lack of body.
Another taster, Mitchel De Santis, graded the beer a 7 on a 10-point scale, giving Ratarasarn two points for creativity. “It’s one of the better home brews I’ve ever had.”
Ratarasarn wanted to prove a point by using the water.
“I wanted to raise awareness of the quality of plant effluent,” he said.
Think Bill Gates and the steam-powered sewage processor he’s touting. Gates’ processor burns solid waste for water and electricity. The water Ratarasarn worked with was clean water, just not clean enough for drinking, said Bill Graffin, MMSD public information officer.
Activated Sludge wheat ale is a similar concept but on a smaller scale.
Arid communities struggle for clean drinking water. Ratarasarn wanted to see what he could do based on the “knowledge that I have.”
He also has a sense of humor about it. A PowerPoint presentation Ratarasarn made illustrating the steps he took is themed “A little bit of me, a little bit of you.”
Ratarasarn chose to brew a wheat beer because he likes them and he’s made them before. He said he steered clear of darker beers such as porters or stouts “so people wouldn’t associate the beer with wastewater.”
The hard part, he said, is getting the water profile correct for each beer he brews. This one, with the substandard water, proved to be the most difficult. Ratarasarn wanted to send the treated MMSD water out for testing and requested the $200 test as a Christmas present.
“My wife asked me what I wanted, and I said a water test,” Ratarasarn said. “She just rolled her eyes and said ‘yes.’”
The tests came back nearly perfect, with less than a trace of silica, likely from the final filter in the distillation unit.
Don’t run to the liquor store just yet. Ratarasarn made Activated Sludge wheat beer for his own consumption. Based on the curiosity factor, Ratarasarn won’t be able to keep his home inventory for long.
“Everybody I talk to wants one,” he said.