At New Belgium Brewing Company's Ft. Collins, Colorado plant, you walk past colorful perennial flower beds and well-used bike racks and enter the building through the bustling employee break room, where recycling bins neatly line one wall and employee computers another. On the bulletin board, an announcement explains how to become an "employee owner." One of the employee owners explains that after a year of working at New Belgium, you get a new cruiser bike as a reward. On a typical sunny day, as many as a third of the company's employees ride those bikes to work, often including at least one of the company's foundersJeff Lebesch or his wife Kim Jordan, who live about a 15-20 minute ride away. "It's a little hard to drop your child off at school on a bicycle," says Kim, "or else we'd probably drive even less than we currently do."
The bike is a symbol for much more than the company's popular Fat Tire beer. It also symbolizes the bike trip Jeff took through Belgium that launched the business. And the commitment he and his wife made to run that business sustainably. Their mission statement is "to operate a profitable company which is socially, ethically and environmentally responsible, that produces high quality beer true to Belgian brewing styles." This company is doing more than riding a yuppie wave of microbrewed beer. It's also helping establish the operating principles of sustainable manufacturing.
Americans love to hear "rags-to-riches" stories, and in terms of launching a new business, New Belgium is a classic. Jeff and his wife, Kim Jordan, began commercially brewing beer in their kitchen and basement in 1991, but decided to keep their day jobs, at least for awhile. Says Kim, "Jeff would brew, we would bottle together with some help from our son Zack, then I would call accounts and deliver their beer. Fourteen hour days were not uncommon back then," she adds. "I still remember pulling up next to the 16 bay Budweiser delivery truck in my Toyota station wagon. The contrast was amusing to say the least."
From those humble, 8 ½ barrels-a-week, basement beginnings, the pair has expanded to a new, energy-efficient facility that ships 140,000 barrels of quality beer to 11 states. But their success has not taken them off the track of their commitments. Since 1993, New Belgium has donated $1 for every barrel brewed the prior year to charities within its territories. "In 1999," says Jeff, "we had $104,000 to contribute to organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Emily Griffith Center, The Hope Center, and other non-profit organizations."
Choosing Efficiency and Renewable Energy
At a recent staff meeting of owners and owner-employees, Jeff made a proposal to the group. What did they think of the idea of meeting the facility's entire electrical needs with wind power? He explained that the company would have to pay a premium for the power, and that the expense would come out of the company's profits, possibly affecting employee owner-wages.
"There was stone silence in the group as they thought about it," says Jeff. "But the silence didn't last long. Within a minute or so we had decided as a group to become the world's largest single user of wind power."
Lebesch is a long-time advocate for alternative sources of energy, and is well aware that energy efficiency is the first step to take, because the less energy our country requires overall, the more likely emerging energy sources like wind and solar can supply it. In the 1995 design of the current New Belgium Brewery facility, Jeff, Kim and colleagues insisted on a higher level of design expectations than is typical. "Design by default was not what we wanted," says Jeff. "If ideas such as natural daylighting with 'lightpipes' are included in the design phase, they are much less expensive than if they're later added on. And they can begin to save money right away."
Other efficiency measures that cut costs and save energy are compact fluorescent fixtures and bulbs, motion detectors that turn off lights when no one is in a room, much higher levels of insulation than conventional, and passive solar design. "Really, the solar design was overkill, because we discovered that the body heat from 80 employees contributes significantly to heating a well-insulated building."
New Belgium looks to the highly-efficient German brewing industry for state-of-the-art ideas. Lebesch travels at least once a year to Germany and Belgium, where the costs of variables such as energy and wastewater discharge are much higher. From these and other sources, New Belgium learned about innovations in refrigeration and heat exchange.
The company made a special effort to research and implement more efficient refrigeration. "We switched to ammonia rather than conventional, freon-cooled units, because we could cut the cooling system's energy consumption by half, with a system that pays itself back in 5 years," Jeff says. "But we had to apply for a special permit to make the switch."
"In the brewhouse, a lot of heat is needed to remove organic compounds from the product, and typically, the so-called waste heatfull of valuable Btusis vented. Instead, we recover heat from the boiling kettle and from wort [unfermented beer] as it's cooled down from boiling temperatures to fermentation temperatures. Heat recovered from these two processes generates enough hot water for brewing, and for cleaning our tanks."
Lebesch estimates his brewery consumes 3-4 times as much water as it ships in beer, largely because of repeated washing and rinsing of the many tanks in the process. To make sure they're not over-rinsing, the company is tapping the unique talents of an intern.
"Working with the research department, he's using a customized mathematical model to look at the data and make sense of interrelationships between variables," explains Jeff.
New Belgium staff looked carefully at a concept called Zero Emissions, that envisions the total elimination of waste products. Gunter Pauli, founder of the Zero Emissions Research Initiative, said, "Zero Emissions represents a shift in our concept of industry, to integrated systems in which everything has its use. Sustainable industry of the future will mimic nature's cycles and industryrather than expecting the earth to produce more, we'll learn to do more with what the earth produces." Speaking specifically of the brewing industry, one of ZERI's projects, Pauli explained that "An integrated biosystems approach to the brewing of beer demonstrates that competitiveness, jobs and sustainability can go hand in hand."
Applying Zero Emissions thinking at New Belgium would require an expansion of the firm's expertise, into farming and the generation of energy. The major output factors of the brewery (high protein and fibrous cake from the grains; spent yeast; massive amounts of water; excess energy and carbon dioxide generated by natural fermentation) could be used for mushroom farming, chicken farming, biogas generation, algae production, and fish farming. As a result of all this activity, no wastes would be generatedonly marketable products. The question is, do Jeff, Kim and their colleagues, fascinated as they are with the process of brewing, really want to become farmers? Or would the farmers be hired from funds saved by reclaiming the "wastes?"
Jeff and Kim do still seem interested in resource integration at the brewery. "We have 50 acres on the site," says Kim, "and we think about how great it would be to have a demonstration farm or greenhouse with the brewery as a cornerstone." But Jeff adds, "When we researched the growing of mushrooms, it seemed like our re-used resources could supply enough shitake mushrooms for the whole country. I don't know if we want to take on a venture of that scale." The company currently sells spent brewery wastes to local farmers. The most likely element to emerge, at least in the short term, is a greenhouse that would be "heated with process waste heat, irrigated with recovered wastewater, and supplied with CO2 for consumption by the growing plants." New Belgium's website explanation continues, "Utilization of our spent grain is also being researched. Possibilities include growing mushrooms, raising earthworms, and composting. We are also working on a system to recover spent yeast that would be sold and used as a nutritional supplement in animal feed."
The zero emission concept is really not a new oneit simply builds on the "value-added" principle used by some companies to sweeten their profit margin. Rather than merely selling lumber, a company can sell chairs and capture greater profits. Rather than just selling corn, an enterprising farmer can sell corn tortillas. However, it remains to be seen if New Belgium appetizers (beer nuts and stuffed mushrooms?) will ever come onto the market.
One thing is certain, however: investigations into more sustainable methods and technologies will continue. Another example of research-in-progress is the beer bottle. Jeff has concerns about the energy costs of manufacturing and shipping glass, and has looked into European attempts to sell beer in PET bottles. "This would help solve some of the weight problems of glass, but the shelf life of the product would be cut in half, because air gets into the bottle through the plastic."
The company's emphasis on "open-book" management is another good example of its flexibility and continuous evolution. "We're very eclectic in the approaches we try at New Belgium," Kim explains. "Open book management is one. We didn't invent the idea, we just adapted it from a book called The Great Game of Business. "The way it works here is that each employee knows precisely what it costs to make a barrel of beer, and how much their department contributes to that cost. Since they have a vested interest in the profits, they often meet to set performance targets to bring those costs down. They determine which costs trouble themkeep them up at nightand then they recommend how they can do better. We're proud of the corporate culture we've established here. Our employees careabout the product, about costs, and about each other. It's not unusual for an employee to stay late to help a co-worker get a certain job done."
In addition to having a retreat every year, the whole staff recently went to Mexico, just for fun. "But there was a lot of work that needed to be done while we were gone. Three employees volunteered to stay behind, and they worked long hours. That's an example of a staff that cares about the work."
She relates another story about the passion of her co-workers. "This spring, while looking for ideas for our Special Release program, Peter (our brewmaster) and Phil (our R & D wiz) visited a brewery library here in Colorado. They found references indicating that about 445 years ago, a non-stout, non-porter black ale was brewed in Belgium. When they were in Belgium for a trade show, they made a point of finding out more. Blowing the dust off volumes that contained the history of Belgian brewing, they conclusively traced the roots of the black ale, and their research can now be tasted, in our Brussels style ale that we call '1554.'"
Kim Jordan watches as one of about 1,400 annual truckloads of beer pulls away from the brewery. Half of that output stays in Colorado, and with a sales increase in 1999 of 40 percent, the company is now doing well throughout the West. "We ship as far east as Missouri, south to Texas, and up to the state of Washington," says Kim, "but we're not looking at aggressive marketing strategies right now, because quality of lifefor ourselves and our employeesis important, too. If sales becomes the only focus of a business, and you're constantly hiring new staff, you may lose track of the original goals: to have some fun, maintain a great working environment, and produce an excellent product that doesn't have impacts on the environment. There's more to it than just the numbers."
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