By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
One word can sometimes sum up the character of a city. While Flint, Mich. has a long and complex history, the story of that particular place can begin and end with “tenacity.” Turns out, it’s not just a fitting term for a city that’s struggled with unemployment, violence and now tainted water. The only craft brewery in town has adopted the name to not only describe Flint’s determination; but also the resolve it took to open the business. More than 2,000 miles away in Portland, tenacity is what it will take for one homebrewer to rally the city, the state and perhaps even the rest of the nation to do more than feel sorry for Flint’s latest crisis. He’s created a call to action for anyone who’s connected to the craft beer community: use your passion for this beverage to raise money for Flint.
Tenacity Brewing sits just several hundred feet from the source of the city’s contaminated drinking water. In a cost-saving move in 2014, Flint stopped buying water from Detroit’s system and tapped its eponymous river, which bends and curves through the heart of downtown right past Tenacity. Although the source was meant to be temporary, complaints about the taste and appearance of the water begin rolling in almost immediately. Then-Mayor Dayne Walling repeatedly brushed off safety concerns despite mounting evidence that the chemistry of the Flint River was causing pipe contaminants, including lead, to leach into the water supply. Children developed rashes from bathing in the water and test results showed higher levels of lead in their blood, which can lead to significant developmental delays.
Additionally, two outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease sickened at least 88 people, nine of whom died. There’s no proven link between the spate of illnesses and the river water because not a single government agency has tested Flint’s water for legionella. However, these bacteria thrive in water with iron that flakes off of old pipes. Conditions worsen when water temperatures increase during summer months. A Free Press analysis of data collected by the state also discovered that 62 of the 88 people with confirmed cases were exposed to Flint’s water. For two years, residents of the city grew sicker simply by completing life’s daily tasks: showering, brushing teeth and lifting a plain old glass of water to their lips. But a Flint General Motors plant managed to switch to a different water supply a mere six months after river water came online because it was corroding car parts.
As Flint suffered, Dylan VanDetta got mad. He learned about what had essentially become a public betrayal by tuning into MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” as he often does.
“And when I heard what was actually happening and the lack of motivation from the local politicians, I was outraged. Absolutely outraged. And I thought that this is something that we really need to do something about. And we can,” he explained. “And we have a large number of brewers and homebrewers and people that care that would be willing to help out.”
That’s the thing, though, about these large-scale crises — we want to help, but don’t know how. But instead of throwing his hands up and saying ‘Oh well,’ VanDetta, who is treasurer of the Oregon Brew Crew, resolved to reach out in the best way he knew how — by turning to the oldest and largest homebrew club in the state.
“It was unanimous. Nobody even questioned it. They’re like, ‘For sure. Let’s send some money. Let’s do something and help these people.’ I think that helped spur me along and everyone I’ve talked to has similar feelings about it, is they’re outraged,” VanDetta said.
And of all the emotions, anger is one of the most powerful motivators. The Oregon Brew Crew voted to approve a $500 donation, which is being used to recruit additional contributors and volunteers. The effort is still in its infancy, but during the next several months VanDetta is looking for individuals to give their time and ask breweries, as well as beer- and water-related businesses, to get involved. Any and all forms of support are welcome — cash, free kegs and donated space where VanDetta wants to help organize events that would be used as fundraisers. Art Larrance has already promised the use of the Raccoon Lodge & Brew Pub patio in Southwest Portland. The Peninsula Odd Fellows has also pledged its location to the cause. Additionally, a GoFundMe page is now accepting gifts.
VanDetta and those assisting him at this point have already made connections with entities in Michigan, such as the Genesee Brewers Club (named after the county where Flint is located), to ensure the funds raised will eventually be directed by the people who need it. And he has a specific goal: $20,000.
“The reason I came up with that number is it costs — I read an article where it costs about $10,000 to replace the pipes in a single home. That would be about two homes,” he said, “or one home and $10,000 worth of fresh water that we can distribute to the neighborhood.”
He’s also exploring the possibility of distributing water in 5-gallon jugs or borrowed beer kegs, which would be a more sustainable option than the 12-ounce plastic bottles currently employed. The average family in Flint uses about 151 of those containers a day.
The number of requests for assistance these days can already feel overwhelming, particularly with the rise of crowdfunding sites that allow pretty much anyone to ask for help. What would prompt Oregonians, then, to pay special attention to a city more than halfway across the country? Well, if you’re talking to beer lovers, it all begins with the precious nature of water.
“The fact that we have such access, readily access to clean water, and beer is such — it’s such a big component of beer I thought that this would be a great opportunity for us to give back to the community as Oregon Brew Crew, as well as the brewing community across the country — not just Oregon,” VanDetta described. “The fact that we couldn’t make beer without water is disheartening — let alone, you know, drink or bathe in it or wash your clothes or anything like that in that stuff. So whatever we can do to help them is really what we’re trying to do.”
For VanDetta, the cause is also personal. Most people, particularly those fortunate enough to access water from the Bull Run Watershed, don’t think twice when they turn on the faucet. But VanDetta grew up in a poor town in northern New York where they tapped into city water of neighboring Poultney, Vt. The liquid used to be treated in a chlorinating plant until the source changed and the processing ended. Ultimately, VanDetta said officials had to drill a well for the family. While he was only about 6 or 7 years old when his water became unreliable, he never forgot it. The experience allows him to empathize with Flint’s population, but even he can’t imagine going without easy access to water at home for as long as they have.
“It’s something that you just don’t normally think about. And the hassle! Oh, I’ve got to brush my teeth, so I’m going to do down to the store and get water with money that I really have already spent on water. These folks are still paying their water bills for water they can’t drink, so it’s crazy,” VanDetta said. “Most of these folks are poor and they don’t have vehicles. They can’t drive, so they’re carrying the water or they’re not getting the water — they’re using water out of their taps and that’s even worse.”
Family brought VanDetta to the West Coast and the beer is what rooted him in community. He considers joining the Oregon Brew Crew the best $35 he’s ever spent. Membership provided artistic and creative balance to his life that’s occupied, in part, by a 20-year career in IT. While his first meeting in 2012 was intimidating since he says he “knew nothing” about beer other than the fact he loved it, he’s learned a lot from watching others and taking in their feedback on his own brews. He was also drawn to the open, supportive nature of brewers, which he believes will translate into backing for the Flint project.
“I consider it a blue-collar kind of business. They’re really in tune with the work that they do and their hands,” explained VanDetta. “And they make a product that people put in their bodies, and you really kind of have to be careful with that.”
If you’d like to volunteer or donate, email VanDetta at email@example.com. The fundraiser is starting on a modest scale, but plans are big.
“My dream is that it would be nationwide. We would have the brewing community — homebrewers, commercial brewers and water companies across the country helping with this effort. Because, you know, it takes a village to raise a child, right?”
And it’s now becoming abundantly clear that the children of Flint who’ve been affected by tainted water will need an army of support for decades to come.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.