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Great Lakes Brewing: Saving the planet one beer at a time
At a recent farm dinner I attended, a multi-course meal of farm-fresh, organic ingredients was paired with beers from Great Lakes Brewing. As we dined and drank, we were treated to an informal lesson on brewing from owner Pat Conway, who also gave us the lowdown on the many greet initiatives that Great Lakes has undertaken in an effort to be environmentally responsible while producing top-notch beer. It's a philosophy that the company calls a "triple bottom line" - a mission to run an environmentally and socially responsible business while still turning a profit - and it seems to be paying off.
The Cleveland, Ohio, brewery opened in 1988 as the state's first micro-brewery and has been growing, and racking up awards, ever since. The Dortmunder Gold, one of the brewery's first beers, was originally called the Heisman. After it won a gold medal in the Dortmunder category at the Great American Beer Festival in 1990, the New York Athletic Club noticed that the Heisman name was be used and requested it be changed. Other beers are more fancifully named and reflect the brewery's location in the Great Lakes Region. There's Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, honoring the boat that famously sank in Lake Superior; Eliot Ness, named for the man rumored to be responsible for the bullet holes in the brewery's bar; and Burning River, a nod to the infamous burning of the Cuyahoga River in 1969.
But what makes these beers so special, aside from the quirky names and indisputable quality (each has won numerous Gold Medals at competitions around the world), is that they are produced using so many green and sustainable methods. The owners, brothers Pat and Daniel Conway, say they take a full-circle approach to reduce waste and make the company more efficient. This approach has filtered down to all levels of staff, and dictates the methods used in all aspects of the business.
The brewery's delivery truck and shuttle bus run on recycled restaurant vegetable oil, and they require that the trucks used by their distributors do the same. All cardboard, glass, aluminum, paper and brewer's barley is recycled. Newsletters, napkins, and menus are printed on recycled paper, all beer packaging is done with unbleached "eco-carton" and Pat says they even go so far as to re-use the blank sides of printer paper for internal documents. The brewery cooler features skylights and sensors to reduce electricity used for lighting, and the cooling system brings in cold air from outside in the winter to reduce the amount of energy required to keep the temperature constant.
Great Lakes works with local organic farmers to serve only the freshest food in their restaurant. Currently, 60% of their food supply comes from local and organic sources, though Pat says they are striving for 100%. They recently contracted with an Amish farmer who will provide the kitchen with meat from animals that graze on the brewery's own barley waste. Spent grain goes to a baker who makes pretzels and beer-bread served at the restaurant, and another local farm uses brewery grains to fertilize the organic mushrooms they grow and then sell back to Great Lakes for use in entrees. Other organic waste is fed to worms. In a process called vermicomposting, the worms turn the waste into fertilizer, which is used to grow herbs in the brewery's garden. Even the low-fill beers (beers that aren't quite filled to the top by the bottling machinery) are saved and used for sauces, salad dressings, and soups. The low-filled Edmund Fitzgerald Porter bottles are used by a local ice cream shop to make chocolate chunk ice cream.
The brewery's outdoor beer garden is also eco-friendly. Rather than let the space go to waste during Cleveland's bitterly-cold winters, the Conway brothers decided to cover it with a retractable canvas roofing, packed straw bales into the walls for insulation, and added a fireplace to warm the space. They were using wood logs for the fire, until one employee had a bright idea. Instead of composting the spent cinnamon sticks used to make the Christmas Ale, why not compress them into logs to fuel the beer garden fireplace? The result of all these features is that, even on the coldest days of winter, it costs just $8 per day to heat the beer garden.
The result of all these sustainable efforts is staggering. Great Lakes Brewing, a $25 million business, has zero waste bills. Pat says he looks at waste removal as "waste opportunity" and is always searching for new ways to make the business green, and keep it growing. But the brothers aren't just pocketing all that profit. The company also contributes to the community. Every year they participate in the Great Lakes Burning River Festival, which raises awareness and funds for environmental cleanup in the Great Lakes Region. An environmentally responsible company that gives back to the community and makes delicious craft beer - I think we can all cheers to that.
If you can make it out the Cleveland brewery, in addition to dining in the brewpub or enjoying drinks in the beer garden, you can take a guided tour of the brewery facilities, attend "beer school" to learn all about the brewing process, or enjoy a multi-course Brewmaster's dinner paired with beer. You can also find Great Lakes beers in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.