Sustainability & the Beer Revolution

Published on: 13:27PM Mar 25, 2015


What industry do you think of when you ponder Sustainability?  How about connecting with their communities and customers?  I challenge you to name an industry that fits these characteristics more snuggly than the one I am about to describe.

Adaptive reuse, waste reduction and resource recovery, clean energy generation, efforts and resources invested in bettering the local environment and the lives of workers and even often their local competitors?   Profitability?  It is very often there, with margins better than most in the food industry.  It is hard to not fall in love with Craft Brewing.

We have entered a Golden Age of “Craft Brewing” a term that refers both to the attitude about beer making as much as the materials that go into the tanks – and that attitude has sustainability written all over it.  Market share of the malted beverage market, volume, revenues, have all been soaring recently: “
In 2014, craft brewers produced 22.2 million barrels, accounting for 11% market share and saw an 18% rise in volume and a 22% increase in retail dollar value.

My question is “Why?”   The Craft Beer Revolution occurred in the 1990s, and began in the 1970s when Jimmy Carter de-regulated the brewing industry (which made even home-brewing legal) but has only recently started really eating into the market-share of beer beverage sales -- and what were once nice alternative niche businesses are becoming major market players.  What is different now?  Could it be that the values of this industry are now more widely shared with the public – particularly with the Millennial generation who are moving into the major consumer category?

Many of the pioneers of the microbrewery/brewpub business space, such as the current
Governor of Colorado’s Wynkoop Brewery and Sierra Nevada, had many of the same mix of community and environmental concern, moderate pro-business politics and entrepreneurial spirit that defines true sustainability and is common among the Millennial generation.

Many sustainable practices are built-in to the foundations of these businesses:  The founders have a strong desire to make a quality product, or none at all, but, unlike many artists, they have a strong profit focus as well – but profit is defined more fully akin to the triple bottom line model of profits, planet, people that has now become such a buzz word.  They also often have a strong community focus, often running toward a “community revitalization” theme, where craft brewers have a strong desire to help “bring everybody up” in a rising community tide of increased prosperity.

For whatever reason, I’ve also noticed a very common site selection theme of adaptive reuse of older buildings, often in even blighted neighborhoods, that is uncommon smart practice for, say, restaurants.  This may be because microbreweries have a great need for 3-dimentional space and not just sit-down and kitchen areas.

It is hard to make a sweeping generalization about this last one, but it is also very common for successful microbreweries to, as they grow, maintain a kind of “you stick with us, we’ll stick with you; you invest in us, we’ll invest in you” culture that even transcends the company loyalty of the golden age of Labor; it sometimes even includes profit-sharing with employees.  More striking, this all-in-the-same-boat ethos very often extends outside the company into the local community and environment as the health of the companies’ neighborhoods and supply chains are seen as crucial to the sustainability of the business and it’s future growth.

The craft brewing industry has embraced transparency, cooperation, community and quality.  If you are looking for a recipe for bridging the trust gap with consumers, I think this might be it.

Next week: a case study in how craft brew pioneer
Sierra Nevada has completely re-written what corporate sustainability looks like – and is winning in the marketplace.