It makes sense that an alliance of craft breweries continues to speak out for the Clean Water Act — you can’t make great beer without great water. But what is it about the culture of craft breweries that makes them see sustainability as an innovation imperative? We asked one of the pioneers in the field, Jenn Vervier, New Belgium Brewing’s Director of Strategic Planning and Sustainability.
Do you think there is a cultural factor at craft breweries that energizes New Belgium’s advocacy work for the Clean Water Act?
Definitely. The 2,400 craft breweries in this country are intimately connected to their water sources. The quality of our beer depends on those sources, and without the Clean Water Act, craft breweries might not be able to exist in all the places they do. We’re also a progressive set of people who are naturally entrepreneurial and risk-takers. Natural resource stewardship has always been central to who we are as people and who we are as businesses. After Karen Hobbs at the NRDC read my op-ed in the Huffington Post about the Clean Water Act’s effect on New Belgium, she thought she could get more craft brewers involved, so she did!
Have New Belgium’s consumers interacted with the company surrounding its Clean Water Act activism?
Individuals do, yes. Our Facebook posts about the campaign get a lot of engagement because it shows we stand for something, and consumers gravitate to that. They’re glad we’re standing up for an issue that so directly impacts our business. Also, New Belgium has always involved our customers in whatever advocacy work we do. A recent campaign to save the Colorado River was especially inclusive.
How does environmental stewardship factor into your business model?
Environmental stewardship has always been a priority for us, which is an advantage when it comes to business innovations to cut down water usage, for example. Our brewery is designed to maximize energy and water efficiency. Over time, we’ve also invested a lot in improving our processes, in upgrading equipment and other innovations because they will be more efficient over time.
New Belgium is beginning work on a new brewery in Asheville, North Carolina. What is it like to expand while keeping environmentalism central to your brand identity?
We’re really excited to build a brewery from the ground up because there are so many opportunities to innovate around efficiency. In Fort Collins, where we’re headquartered, we’ve expanded and tried to make things more efficient every year since 1995, but we weren’t able to see this far into the future and plan for this much production on our site. Designing the new brewery for build-out capacity at the start means that we will hit the ground running with more advanced design. The building itself is going to be LEED-certified on a brownfield site that we’re rehabilitating to improve storm water quality and improve the habitat for local pollinators. It’s also going to be a community destination: It’s accessible by bike, foot and river!
Why is Asheville a desirable place for New Belgium to expand?
For a lot of reasons, some having to do with logistics: Being in the mid-Atlantic is very convenient because we have a big consumer base there. Beyond that, the culture in Fort Collins is actually very similar to the one we found in Asheville. It’s bike-oriented, the people are outgoing, social and enjoy being outdoors and the beautiful surroundings nurture a culture of environmental stewardship. When we got the opportunity to get involved and work with the community on projects that they’re already passionate about, like helping local agriculture flourish or making the city more bike-friendly, it was a no-brainer.
What is most rewarding about being an environmentally, socially and prosperity-minded business?
The process of finding elegant solutions that meet the needs of all three is very rewarding. From that, creating a place for people to work where they can bring their whole selves, with their values and families and visions for a better future … that is immensely rewarding. Aligning our own success with the prosperity of the communities we work with is also very exciting.
What kind of relationship does this promote with your consumers?
It lets consumers in. Consumers have a very personal relationship with the brand. We really strive to bring consumers a craft beer that they can feel proud of because it aligns with their values, that’s trustworthy and that’s transparent. We answer dozens of emails a week asking about our sustainability choices, which shows how engaged our consumers are. We’re also working on a stakeholder engagement process to get feedback from customers, communities and employees to see what they would like New Belgium to be involved in.
New Belgium became 100 percent employee-owned in January. How does that affect your day-to-day operations?
Well, we started sharing ownership in 1995 and have been increasing it since then, so it’s been a long road. Getting to 100 percent was a legacy play: From this point forward, New Belgium will be employee-owned, which speaks volumes to the company’s sustainability in the future. It’s really been a dream come true. Being 100 percent employee-owned boosts our culture of involvement and participative decision-making, which adds to our quality of living.
The Tour de Fat is one of New Belgium’s hallmark events. Can you describe what it means for the brand?
It’s really a first-hand, three-dimensional brand experience. It’s about the joy of bike riding and making biking more accessible by bringing the culture to communities where people of all ages can experience it. The whole day is about entertainers who are the best at what they do, like us. A lot of our customers tell us that it’s their favorite day of the year! It really gets better and better every year, and adding the fundraising elements — all the proceeds from beer sales go to bike non-profits — is an incredible way to involve our community. We’ve donated more than $2.5 million, far exceeding our expectations.
What’s next for New Belgium?
We’ll open the new brewery while continuing to evolve the portfolio of new beers for consumers. Also, more solar panels!