No Green 'til Brooklyn
How the Brooklyn Brewery incorporates sustainable practices into every pint
In the fall of 2007 I was twenty-five years old and had just recently been transferred from New York City to the small canton of Zug, Switzerland. One evening, only a few months into my stay, I sidled up to the bar of a local watering hole when something surprisingly familiar caught my eye: The unmistakable cursive letter 'B' of Brooklyn Brewery's flagship beer, Brooklyn Lager. "Ein Brooklyn, bitte," I stammered out awkwardly with an accent that instantly pegged me as American. What the apathetic bartender could not have known as he handed me a bottle was just how remarkable it was that this small upstart brewery from Williamsburg, Brooklyn had found a way to extend its reach well beyond New York City and strike a chord with appreciative customers all the way across the Atlantic.
Established in the latter half of the 1980's nearly two decades before the rise in popularity of small-batch microbrews would lead to the explosion of the craft brewing movement in America, the Brooklyn Brewery was in many ways a leap of faith. When founders Steve Hindy and Tom Potter decided to drop their successful careers and launch a tiny brewery named after the borough they called home, they had next to no marketing budget and no real plan on how to compete with the domestic brewing giants who dominated the industry. What they did have was the understanding that there was a better, more flavorful beer to be made than what was currently lining shelves and coolers in bars across America. Drawing upon the time-honored, largely abandoned tradition of craft brewing in America (100 years ago there were 48 breweries in Brooklyn alone), the Brooklyn Brewery mission was simple: Modernize the lessons learned from the past with skill, attention to detail, and pride, for the singular purpose of "bringing good beer back to New York City."
At Purible, the Brooklyn Brewery story has always resonated with us. Once an anomaly back in the 80s, at last count there were nearly 3,000 microbreweries in the U.S. alone. Yet even as the Brewery's reach and influence has expanded, it has maintained its founding promise to bring good, craft-quality beer to NYC while continuing to find new, innovative ways to make that happen. The success and accolades (and international distribution) the Brewery has garnered in more recent years is a testament to the fact that true quality and craftsmanship will not only be appreciated, but can achieve both commercial and critical acclaim without sacrificing the integrity of the production process itself.
In the midst of putting the finishing touches on an expansion to its Williamsburg facility that will nearly double production capacity, the Brewery has announced the formation of an internal "green team.” Tasked with ensuring that the Brewery remains one of the most sustainable, eco-friendly breweries in the world, the team is lead by sustainability expert, Matt Gordon. We were able to catch up with Matt, who was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on beer, Brooklyn, and the responsibility the Brewery has undertaken in order to be a global example of sustainable production practices.
AN INTERVIEW WITH BROOKLYN GREEN TEAM'S MATT GORDON
Brooklyn Brewery was founded in Williamsburg over 25 years ago. What have been the biggest changes to the neighborhood over the years and how has the brewery reacted to these changes in order to remain successful and continue to grow?
The biggest change is that Williamsburg, along with many neighborhoods in Brooklyn, is now a destination. When the brewery opened in this neighborhood, we couldn’t pay people to come visit. Now we have a line out the door every weekend and work hard to provide a great experience for our consumers to see where our beer is brewed.
The brewery is in the process of completing an expansion right here in Brooklyn that will nearly double its production capacity. How important was it for you to have this production facility located in Brooklyn, when surely there were cheaper options outside of the city, such as Utica?
Since the day the brewery was founded, we have always had the goal of producing as much beer as possible in the borough of Brooklyn. What some people don’t understand is that Brooklyn is a densely populated city, which, if separated from the rest of New York City, would be the fourth largest city in the country. Many other breweries are able to expand their footprint as they grow, by adding tanks or warehousing, for example. We are sandwiched between 11th and 12th Streets and find it a unique and rewarding challenge to make a significant amount of beer in this environment.
What's your personal favorite Brooklyn beer?
I always say picking a favorite beer is like picking a favorite movie; it depends on whether it is a comedy, action, drama, or something else. For beer I have favorites depending on the season, occasion, meal, and so on.
What's your favorite food to eat while enjoying an ice-cold, original Brooklyn lager?
Pizza; no question.
Brooklyn was a microbrewery before anyone even knew what a microbrewery was. Can you talk about what it means to you to be a true craftsman; how you had the confidence to build a small-batch artisan brewery at a time when the beer scene in the U.S. was completely dominated by giants like Anheuser-Busch and Miller; and how have you managed to remain true to your roots as the brewery has expanded and become so popular?
Our founder Steve Hindy had a vision that Brooklyn could once again become the brewing center of America. At one point before Prohibition there were over 40 active breweries in the borough. Steve believed that consumers would love a flavorful, locally made beer and has stayed focused on making that happen. Even though we have grown as a craft brewery, we are still a tiny fraction of the size of the big brewers. We are much more similar to a small business than to a big brewery.
Where do you obtain your ingredients?
Our ingredients come from all over the world, but mainly from Europe and the Pacific Northwest because those regions have ideal climates and have become focused on growing beer ingredients. However, we try to use as many local ingredients as possible. More than 70 percent of the ingredients in our Greenmarket Wheat Beer come from within 250 miles of Brooklyn.
What does being "sustainable" mean to you?
Being sustainable means making decisions based on the total impact of our actions.
Regarding the brewery’s sustainability initiative, what is your vision for the future, and how do you plan to measure your success?
A fun challenge with sustainability is that there is no end goal, but rather a process of continual improvement. We maintain a “benchmarking dashboard” that tracks our key metrics on a monthly basis. We strive to reach new targets. Once we succeed, we adjust our targets to get the next level.
What is the general role of the Green Team within the brewery? How many people are on the team? What are their backgrounds?
We have eight people on our Green Team, each serving as a representative of their respective department, such as marketing, accounting, or production.
We understand that 100 percent of the brewery’s power is wind generated. What are some of the other eco-conscious practices that you employ?
We purchase 100-percent wind energy through Community Energy. Other notable practices include maintaining a “sustainability dashboard” that is updated monthly and tracks our energy, water, and waste relative to our targets. We are members of the Brewers Association Sustainability Committee, which focuses on providing data, resources, and support for craft brewers across the country to take part in sustainability initiatives.
Many of our sustainability efforts emphasize energy reduction. We employ a system of four energy-efficient boilers that cycle on only as needed, while the use of heat exchangers to simultaneously cool and heat up liquid streams results in an overall conservation of energy. Other practices include the recycling of steam vapor from the brewing process back into hot water, the installation of high-tech glass foam insulation and LED lighting throughout the brewery, and the use of electric forklifts.
Maximum recycling is a major goal of our practices. The brewery purchases recycled and green products whenever possible. We donate all spent brewing grains, which are Grade A animal feed, to local farmers. On-site separation of cardboard, glass, and plastic waste minimizes trips to the landfill. Broken pallets are repaired or pulverized for other uses. We utilize steam for sanitation throughout the brewing process, thus minimizing the use of chemicals and maximizing waste reduction
When did the importance of eco-friendly practices first become apparent to you?
We have always valued operating in a sustainable manner. One benefit about being sustainable is that it is often highly correlated to saving money. For example, the less energy and water we use, the less money we have to spend on those utilities. In recent years we have formalized our sustainable practices because there aren’t as many “low hanging fruit” as in the past and it now takes a bit more upfront work to continue to improve. It is a challenge we all really enjoy.
It seems likely that the brewery’s commitment to sustainability will serve as an inspiration for other companies. Were any of the Brooklyn Brewery’s practices inspired by examples set by other businesses? As far as you know, are you the first brewery to place such an emphasis on an awareness of the environmental impact of your production process?
One benefit of the craft beer industry is that breweries frequently share best practices with each other. As a member of the Brewers Association Sustainability Committee, we participate in a monthly conference call in which brewers around the country discuss their ongoing practices and share lessons that they have learned. It is this process of give-and-take that has helped us improve over time.
Nick’s favorite Brooklyn beer is the Sorachi Ace Big Bottle, while Sam’s is the more understated East India Pale Ale. Who's right?
You are both right: first the EIPA, then Sorachi.
How many potential additions to the Brooklyn lineup is your brewmaster experimenting with at a given time? Will you have any new beers on tap in the near future?
We are always experimenting with new beers on our pilot system. Most of the time, these beers are sold only in our tasting room, which is a great way to introduce visiting consumers to something new and to get feedback on our tests. Our newest launch will take place this fall. We are launching a beer called ½ Ale. It’s a session saison that is similar to Sorachi Ace, but at 3.4 percent alcohol by volume. It basically means that you can drink many more Sorachis in a single session.
Yankees or Mets?
Both; fans of both teams drink good beer!
Any advice for us first-time entrepreneurs that you have gleaned from your own experience?
Stay focused on your long-term vision to get through the ups and downs of each day.