The Great Lakes Brewing Company: A Cleveland Ecosystem

The familiar smell of pizza greets you as you walk through the double doors, and the bartender smiles while pulling down on the tap handle in front of a full bar audience.  The brick walls look as though they’ve been holding up this building for quite a while.  The host seats you in the renovated Beer Garden, where a canvas roof and straw bale walls keep in the heat emanating from the floor and fireplace.

[The Brew Pub – photo by “The Breeze”]

The Great Lakes Brewing Company (GLBC) pub is located on Market Avenue, across from the West Side Market in Ohio City, within two historic buildings—one of which was a tavern said to be popular during the prohibition.  Legend claims that a few bullet holes were left there by Eliot Ness.  

Since that time, the brewery has grown to be one of the most popular beer manufacturers in the United States.  For sales alone, the GLBC was ranked 36th in the nation of all the commercial beer manufacturers in 2007.  Their production has grown 20 to 30% per year for the last 4 years, and they expect that trend to continue through 2009.  The GLBC’s Christmas Ale, brewed with honey and spiced with fresh ginger and cinnamon, has won three Gold Medals from the World Beer Championships (2005, 2006, and 2007).  

Beyond their high sales and award-winning lagers, however, something else makes the GLBC stand out from its peers.

The Forest Brewery
Patrick Conway, co-owner of the GLBC with his brother Dan Conway, has been interested in making their operations completely sustainable since the brewery’s inception about 20 years ago.  In fact, the staff at the GLBC takes sustainability so seriously that the entire business has begun to function like a natural ecosystem.  The company website states that, “The ultimate goal is to mimic nature, where 100% of resources are used in closed-loop ecosystems.”  A closed-loop ecosystem is one in which all by-products, or “waste,” are re-used.  

The philosophy of Zero Waste—otherwise known as the concept “Take, Make, Remake” as opposed to “Take, Make, Waste”—inspired the Conway brothers to use nature’s design principles as a model for viewing waste as a resource and an opportunity.  According to Pat, asking, “What can we do with this waste?” has spurred innovative ideas for increasing sustainability at the brewery.  Beyond waste, the diversity and the interconnecting webs of natural ecosystems also encourage Pat and his brother to adopt company principles that pay respect to nature’s processes and ethos.

The Conway brothers began tackling their zero waste goals with simple recycling efforts.  Pat recalled that when the company first began recycling, “it meant a cultural shift because we as a company, along with our city and our culture on a larger level, didn’t think in terms of recycling.”  He continued that, “Simply segregating the waste was cumbersome at first, but now it’s part of the DNA of the company.”  All the glass, cardboard, plastic, steel, aluminum, office paper, barley, hops, and kitchen scraps of the Great Lakes Brewing Company are segregated and assigned a home instead of being shipped off to a landfill, reducing trash removal fees by over fifty percent.  When asked why he first began these recycling efforts and the pursuit of zero waste, Pat responded: “It makes too much sense not to do it.”

In order to continually improve in their efforts to become more sustainable, the GLBC invites other organizations, academic institutions, and firms to consult with them to help create new initiatives.  Pat said, “We’re still not close to being at the level we want to be, but we’re weekly collaborating with different organizations.”  Despite their desire for continual improvement, the GLBC already runs an exemplary number of sustainability projects.

While the GLBC functions like a natural ecosystem in terms of material reuse within a closed-loop system, the Conway brothers also strive to emulate nature by pursuing the triple bottom line: the environmental, the social, and the financial bottom lines.  In nature, all processes contribute to a grander design and each natural process is conducive to all life.  Just as each organism in nature benefits from and contributes to the larger web of life, the GLBC also aspires to give to its surrounding environment and community in order to reap the benefits of reciprocity within the natural and social system.

Biomimicry, or the process of replicating nature, said Pat, “Is something that we feel strongly about and feel that if more individuals or companies or nations adopted similar philosophies that our planet would probably be much better off.”

The Environmental Bottom Line
After gaining years of experience growing organic vegetables with soil from composted barley in the urban community garden Kentucky Gardens, GLBC created its Pint Size Farm at Hale Farm in Bath, Ohio.  In the spring of 2008, the brewery began farming one third of an acre of vegetables and herbs at its Pint Size Farm for use in its restaurant dishes.  The brewery uses vermicomposting to produce organic fertilizer for the farm; a portion of paper, kitchen scraps, grain and cardboard is fed to worms, which then produce a nutrient-rich fertilizer for the herbs and vegetables found on the menu.  Using brewery and restaurant waste to grow produce for the restaurant is a perfect example of how the GLBC uses a closed-loop system much like that of a natural ecosystem.

[Pint Size Farm – photo courtesy of GLBC website]

Also like an ecosystem, the brewery encourages all staff members to participate in the process at the Pint Size Farm.  The servers and staff at the brewery and the restaurant are paid to harvest the produce at the farm.  By getting the staff involved in the production, maintenance, harvest, and then the ultimate consumption of the farm’s produce, the GLBC has turned its Pint Size Farm into an edible schoolyard.   By doing this, the Conway brothers hoped that staff members would be smitten by the spirit of organic and local farming and then become champions for it while introducing menu items at the restaurant.  According to Pat, the farm has been a huge success bringing a cornucopia of fresh herbs and vegetables to the restaurant and, “Now we find a much greater buy-in from the staff, because now they really see the benefit of great-tasting, fresh produce that comes straight from the farm to the plate.”  Pat added that, despite this success, “Local, organic, and seasonal is something that we keep monitoring and trying to improve on.”

In addition to growing their own herbs and vegetables, the GLBC contributes to its closed-loop, “Take, Make, Remake” system by sending some of its by-products to other producers.  Zoss the Swiss Baker produces the cracked barley beer bread and pretzels found on the menu using grains from the brewing process.  Killbuck Farms uses brewery grains as a substrate for growing organic shitake and oyster mushrooms.  Also, a number of local farmers feed the used brewery grains to their livestock, and in turn the brewery regularly features all-natural meats, seafood, and dairy products from these local, organic farmers.  

To minimize the waste of throwing away bottles of beer that are not filled to the maximum level and thus cannot be sold, GLBC uses the beer in a number of menu items, including salad dressings, sauces, and the Stilton Cheddar Cheese Soup. Mitchell`s Ice Cream also uses the brewery porter in the exclusive Edmund Fitzgerald Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream.

Another example of their closed-loop system and alternative energy use is the GLBC’s beer delivery truck and the shuttle bus, called “The Fatty Wagon,” that run on straight pre-used restaurant vegetable oil.  Results show that engines running on straight vegetable oil produce 40% less soot than diesel.  The vegetable oil helps the lubricity of the engine, in addition to being far less expensive than petroleum.

The GLBC prints its newsletters, menus, beverage napkins and promotional items on 100% recycled paper.  All its packaging (i.e. 4-packs, 6-packs, 12-packs, and the unbleached “eco-carton” that holds a case of beer) consists of recycled content.  GLBC leadership and staff are constantly working to find homes for all of the brewery’s byproducts, which is not always an easy task.  

The brewery has come up with some uncommon techniques to become more energy efficient.  A fan system in the brewery cooler brings in cold air during winter months to cool the beer.  Pat reflected, “We’re not having a tug-of-war with nature there; we’re simply saving energy—thousand of dollars in electric bills—and it’s very affordable to build a gate and blow in cold air.”  Skylights and light sensors have been installed in the brewery to allow in natural light and to minimize the use of electricity.  In addition, an “air curtain” in the Brewpub keeps warm air from escaping when patrons enter and exit.  The Conway brothers are also working with an engineer to create a system that will capture heat energy from the boilers in the brewery to use for electricity (a process called cogeneration).  

The brewery decreases its water consumption by recycling water.  Besides the fact that fresh, quality water from the Great Lakes region is used to make the beer itself, water is also used in other operations at the brewery.  Before filled with beer, all of the bottles are rinsed with water.  At the GLBC, that water is captured and reused to rinse the bottles from beer overflow after they are filled and capped.  Water is also used to cool the vacuum pump for the bottling machine.  That water, too, will be captured, filtered, cooled, and used repeatedly to further decrease water consumption.  According to Pat, these techniques will save thousands of gallons of water.
All of these initiatives to improve sustainability have created a culture of environmental responsibility within the company.  Pat commented, “We’re not perfect, but each year I think we learn more and more.  We’re continually trying to think of other things to do as well.”  Although Pat admits that they may never actually reach zero waste, he says that for the GBLC, “The bigger, more important thing here is that we’re making every attempt we can to reduce waste, encourage profitability, and give back to society.”

The Social Bottom Line
The Great Lakes Brewing Company has committed to investing in the community through non-profit organizations and events in order to satisfy its social bottom line.  A group at the GLBC sits down weekly to review requests from various non-profits looking for support from the company.  The brewery donates t-shirts, hats, gift certificates, and beer to help organizations in the city with their fundraising activities.  Pat commented, “We try to help out as many people as we can.”

The brewery has also been highly involved in the Burning River Fest since it began in 2002.  The festival, which showcases environmental issues while creating an enjoyable day of food, music, and outdoor fun, raises money to help support local non-profits in the area of water-quality and environmental education. 

The Great Lakes Brewing Company also opens its doors to various non-profits, allowing them to use the restaurant or brewery as a meeting place, or as Pat called it, “A Clubhouse.”  Entrepreneurs for Sustainability (E4S) holds its monthly network events in the brewery’s Tasting Room.  City Fresh and Science Café also meet at GLBC free of charge. 

Pat concluded, “In a lot of ways, we consider ourselves as educators and we clearly are trying to use the brewery as a forum and as a catalyst for moving a variety of environmental activities forward.”

The Financial Bottom Line
Becoming more environmentally and socially friendly also makes a lot of financial sense for the brewery, contributing to its third bottom line.  While the fact that the brewery and restaurant have been operating for 20 years is in itself impressive, the success of the GLBC goes beyond that.  Pat said, “The word is slowly getting out that the Great Lakes Brewery believes strongly in sustainability and I think others are beginning to understand the great benefits of acting this way too.”

Pat continued, “I think the success of the restaurant is partly to do with the award-winning lagers and ales, the beautiful buildings, the professionalism of the staff, and also the food.  Using as much local and organic produce as we can makes for more delectable food and helps with the profitability of the company.”  Because the menu is integrated with the “Take, Make, Remake” concept, the resulting product is delicious, making it more profitable for the company to pursue various sustainable practices.

Since the brewery has grown to a significant size (26th largest craft brewery in the U.S.), they recently completed a survey of their utilities with which they can start to see significant savings from environmental initiatives. 

Reducing the amount of waste coming out of the GLBC has helped with the company’s profitability.  They were receiving about $3,000 annually for their recyclables until the market for recyclable materials crashed in 2008.  Although the brewery currently pays a nominal fee to have the materials recycled, they avoid the significant cost (about $5,000 annually) of paying waste management companies to haul the waste to a landfill.

In terms of energy efficiency, the brewery saves approximately $2,000 a year from using daylight in portions of the brewery, and from using cold winter air to refrigerate their main brewery cooler.  In addition, water conservation efforts will help with the brewery’s sewer bill, which is based on the amount of water used.

Saul Kliorys, Environmental Programs Coordinator for the brewery, commented that there are other factors that help with the GLBC’s profitability beyond just environmental initiatives: “How much more productive is our work force because they receive a fair wage, benefits, perks, annual reviews, etc.?  How much larger is our growth because of good corporate governance?”  All of these contributing factors make the case for a sustainable triple bottom line.

Reaching the Triple Bottom Line
Striving towards the trifecta of the triple bottom line, according to Pat, has made him and his brother “happy because not only are we profitable, but we feel we are doing something that helps our community and the planet.”  While it may seem impossible to become perfectly sustainable in all three arenas—environmentally, socially, and financially—simply working towards those goals has created a culture of pride within the GLBC.  Pat commented, “We do it, and we do it successfully, and then you hope—like throwing a pebble in a pond—that the rings continue to grow out further and further, that many more restaurants will adopt these menu ideas, and that people on an individual level will do this in their own lives.”  While working towards these Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) is not a simple task, Pat concluded, “It’s a game of inches, one step at a time.”

For Pat, dispersing the seeds of sustainable business practice ideas is about much more than just the beer and the food; it’s about storytelling, and all the initiatives that the brewery is involved in.  The GLBC continually spreads its message through speaking engagements, its website, its literature, its beer tasting schools, as well as its beer banquets.  “The ultimate goal,” said Pat, “is to brand ourselves in the consumer’s mind as representing environmental responsibility, to adopt sustainable practices that help change our culture in a positive way, and to be part of the paradigm shift from ‘Take, Make, Waste,’ to ‘Take, Make, Remake.’”  All simply because, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Consumers are looking for innovative, inspirational companies that take responsibility for the environment, society, and economy.  Pat remarked, “If you can show your consumer base that you are trying to grow as a business, providing jobs and support for the community—while protecting the environment in which you do business—you provide your consumers with another reason to support your company, and why would you not want to do that?” 

Pat said that the GLBC has a loving relationship with its consumer base and that, “we have strong advocates for not just our beer, but people who are celebrating what we stand for as a company.”

Note: This article is possibly the longest article ever written about the Great Lakes Brewing Company, and I wrote it while on assignment for E4S.


4 thoughts on “The Great Lakes Brewing Company: A Cleveland Ecosystem

  1. Reading this article makes me thirsty. And makes me feel less bad about spending $9 or $10 for a 6 pack of delicious beer. Keep up the good work with the Christmas Ale and the Commodore Perry IPA.

    I think the author of this article should take me to GLBC and I’ll buy her a beer.

    • I will take you up on that offer, and I will raise you to a locally grown dinner at their restaurant, Cory.

      See you soon,

  2. Great Read. Thank you.
    By chance did you learn anything about their marketing practices?
    What are their challenges, competitors, motives?

    • Hi Brandon,
      Thanks for reading! I was primarily focused on their sustainability strategies while I was interviewing one of the owners, so I didn’t ask about their marketing practices.

      If I were to take a stab at it, I would guess that their key challenge would be the recession, their competitors would be other micro-breweries and breweries in general, and their main motive would be to run a successful business.

      As I wrote in the article, they (and I) believe that their focus on environmental, social and economic sustainability enhances the success of their business.

      I hope that helps and please continue to let me know what you think!

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