Hometown aquifer, hometown beer!

Some things just go naturally together. Peanut butter and jelly. Christmas and presents. Geologists and beer. Which is why I got so excited when I went shopping for Christmas dinner fixings at the supermarket near my parents’ house and found that a local brewery had released an aquifer-themed beer!

The Memphis Sands aquifer is part of a larger aquifer system that stretches from the Tennessee/Kentucky border all the way to Gulf of Mexico. It contains layers of sand that transmit water and finer-grained sediments that slow its flow, all laid down by versions of the Mississippi River as the ice ages came and went. I was raised on this aquifer’s abundant and tasty contents. So let’s get down to some serious science. How accurate is the can art? And most importantly, how delicious is the beer?

Descriptive text: 7/10

“From deep within the Earth’s crust, the finest drinking water on the planet springs forth to Memphis. This unique aquifer supplies WISEACRE with the most necessary of ingredients for the production of crisp, light-colored lager. The rains that fell to earth 3000 years ago are filtered very slowly through hundreds of feet of fine grain sand, culminating in a huge underground lake filled with 57 trillion gallons of virtually mineral-free water. From this prestigious water reserve, we supply Memphis with Sands, our one-of-a-kind Lager. Beauteous in its simplicity, it is very low in bitterness and full of delicious flavors of bread and crackery malt.”

First and foremost, the description of an aquifer as ” a huge underground lake” is enough to drive hydrologists to grab another beer to drown their sorrows. It messes up people’s mental image of aquifers and leads them to ask me how the fish survive down there. In contrast the “57 trillion gallons” figure for aquifer volume beneath Shelby County is widely accepted, and the 3,000 year age of the water is reasonable. It’s calculated using the slope of units in the aquifer, information we know about the size of grains of sand in the aquifer, and the distance between recharge areas and Memphis wells. (source) This text got 2/3 scientific concepts correct, so I’ll round up and give it a 7/10. Generosity is part of the holiday spirit.

Can Art: 6/10

The artist had fun with this one – the gold “fossil” background and the blue contrast nicely. However, they made the baffling design choice to assign the blue color with watery bubbles to the aquitards (geologic layers that don’t transmit water) instead of the aquifers! This makes no sense! Why not assign the watery blue color to the units that actually transmit water? I could be a Scrooge and critique the fossil background because we don’t really find dinosaur skulls around here, but find the print too cute to complain about it. It gives the can a kind of easily recognized “hey, science!” vibe which appeals to me.

The artist also shrunk down the scale to fit with their placement of the info blurb, rendering it inaccurate. 3,000 feet below the ground surface should really correspond to the bottom of the units layered “Other Cretaceous Units”. An easy fix to make the scale bar fit above the blurb and stay accurate would be to just have it cover less ground – stop at 1,500 feet or so. At least the artist got the names of the units correct. I think the artist based the design on a widely republished diagram from the local chamber of commerce, exhibited below. It also assigns a blue color to the aquitards and a sandy tan color to the sands that make up the aquifers, which may have been what threw the artist for a loop with the color scheme.

I think it would be really cool if Wiseacre could tweak this can design to be a little more scientifically accurate. After all the beer-drinking public is much larger than the portion of the public that reads aquifer articles in the local paper. Why not spread some sneaky science exposure on Memphis’ great underground asset to those who crack open an ice-cold can at the end of the day?

Taste: 8/10

This is a great basic lager. I would guess that Wiseacre is aiming this at beer drinkers who would otherwise drink Budweiser and Miller High Life? My dad, my sister, and I split a can as part of an impromptu beer flight. I noticed that the fizziness is a bit unique – it looks flat when I pour it, but the fizz comes to life in my mouth. My sister says it has a bit of a floral and toasty note in the aftertaste. It’s a little bitter, mostly malty, and quite smooth. We didn’t taste a strong hop flavor. We all agree that it’s very drinkable: the kind of six-pack that would be popular at a cookout or camping trip.

In an ideal, non-pandemic world Wiseacre’s tap room on Broad Avenue would be on my must-visit list for my trip back home. I suppose there’s always next year!

P.S.

The aquifer was recently in the news because of a groundbreaking legal case where Mississippi sued Tennessee for “stealing” groundwater. Mississippi argued that the cone of depression caused by Tennessee’s groundwater pumping caused Mississippi’s water to slip away into Tennessee, and wanted $615 million in damages and a halt to pumping. The Supreme Court appointed a Special Master to determine the case, Judge Eugene Siler. Last month he decided that groundwater is a flowing resource, not a static one. Therefore, the water should be distributed as surface water is distributed in the eastern states, by equitable apportionment. Judge Siler’s conclusion is the legal equivalent of locking two misbehaving kids in a room until they sort themselves out. He rejected Mississippi’s appeal for damages and ruled that if the two states find themselves so affected by groundwater pumping, they can apportion the aquifer to determine fair allotments. It only took 14 years – the case was first filed in 2006!

Useful article from the Memphis Flyer: https://www.memphisflyer.com/NewsBlog/archives/2020/11/06/federal-judge-sides-with-tennessee-in-water-rights-case

Shout-out to my thesis advisor’s blog, where he posts an interesting opinion from his colleague on the case: https://www.waterwired.org/2020/11/jjr-ms-v-tn.html

Further Resources:

The defining 2016 article in the local paper that brought awareness of the aquifer to the general public: https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/environment/2016/12/16/memphis-sand-aquifer-buried-treasure/93814278/

Dense 1983 US Geological Survey paper on the aquifer: https://pubs.usgs.gov/wri/wrir88-4182/pdf/wrir_88-4182_a.pdf

Wiseacre Brewery! https://wiseacrebrew.com/

2 thoughts on “Hometown aquifer, hometown beer!

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