Sustainable Alcohol: Londoners Getting Tipsy For a Cause

Elmira Tanatarova · September 30, 2020
London Beer Factory
Courtesy of London Beer Factory

The pub is a profoundly serious institution in the United Kingdom. It’s almost as serious as sitting at the bar and complaining about the prices of your beverage of choice - be it a pint of lager or a G&T - going up.

However, more and more consumers are starting to question the true cost of their drink on the environment. The amount of energy consumed by the production process (which can include malting, fermenting, boiling, and distilling) can be just as damaging to our planet as the lack of effective waste management of cans and bottles.

The food and beverage (F&B) industry sustainability boom has been prevalent all around the UK. According to the Leisure F&B expo in the UK, British people spent £8.2 billion on food and drink from ethical sources last year alone. Efforts to make food and beverages ethical can be observed in any part of the supply chain - from negotiating fairer wages for farmers to using eco-friendly packaging.

A number of global organisations have been at the forefront of helping consumers identify whether their drinks and meals have been sourced sustainably, but this movement has spread locally as well. The Org spoke to two sustainable alcohol companies in London working hard to usher in a more eco-conscious era of drinking to find out more about why, and how, that shift is taking place.

Toast Ale

“I don’t think alcohol should be cheap” — Toast Ale COO Louisa Ziane

The COO of Toast Ale, Louisa Ziane, is relying on the fact that none of us like the end pieces when it comes to bread. That’s largely what this brewery uses to create its drinks, hoping to help eliminate food waste and the endless cycle of food poverty.

Toast Ale was founded in London in 2016 and has since expanded to the U.S., South Africa, Brazil, Iceland, and Sweden. The company, which made £880k in revenue last year, gives 100% of its profits to charities which aim to fight food waste. It was the first brewery in the UK to be a “Certified B Corporation,” which aims to make businesses more beneficial for the environment and the societies they operate in.

Ziane and co-founder Tristram Stuart had the idea to make beer from bread after meeting with a Belgian brewer who was doing just that. Making alcohol from fermented bread is a custom across many cultures, and goes back to the Babylonian times; Ziane and Stuart thought it was a fun engaging way to bring the tradition into the mainstream in the UK, which tackled the important issues around food waste head on.

For Ziane, that’s the key to approaching a big and complex problem – you start by talking about it. And what better way to start a chat than with a pint?

She says that most people are drawn in because they’re curious to taste the beer – but the momentum of the sustainability push in the F&B sector has been the wave on which Toast’s expansion has coasted on.

“An increasing number of people seek us out because we're sustainable,” she said. “At events and restaurants, people constantly want to buy and sell products that are more environmentally responsible. Sustainability is massive. Even just this year I've seen a lot of it with fashion, but it's been happening in the food and drink industry for a while.”

Toast Ale COO Louisa Ziane

Toast Ale COO Louisa Ziane

This is especially true in London, where there are now 129 breweries in the capital. This means the city has gained 115 breweries in the last decade. Most of these are craft breweries, meaning that while a commitment to sustainability may not always be the company’s focus, the more selective and luxurious nature of the offering tends towards processes which are more eco-conscious and less tilted towards economies of scale. Across other parts of the UK, this has sometimes been the darker side of the industry, with many being bought out by larger alcohol companies as they couldn’t maintain growth.

Ziane explains that London’s diverse community and surprising amount of space for breweries are behind this emerging sustainable alcohol hub.

“The craft beer boom started in the U.S. really,” she explains, “and I guess London is a big international city which is part of the reason it was here first. There was space for breweries in east London particularly, which is unusual considering most of London is pretty unaffordable.”

According to Ziane however, the boom towards sustainably created craft beer can only be considered hand in hand with larger systemic reform. The UK has one of the largest levels of food insecurity in Europe, and yet households in the country waste some 4.5 tonnes of food a year. Food waste and food poverty are often thought of as binary entities - one being environmental and the other social - but a culmination of efforts on both issues is possible, and needed.

“There are bigger political issues around this,” she said. "The way the government has approached food poverty is by trying to make food cheaper, which is terrible for the environment and terrible for people. What should really happen is people should earn enough to buy responsibly.

“I don’t think alcohol should be cheap. I don’t think any food and drink should be cheap anyways but alcohol, which we’re supposed to drink responsibly, shouldn’t be. With most craft beer, the price accurately reflects the cost of the ingredients, and people should be able to afford good and sustainably made products.”

Toast Ale

Courtesy of Toast Ale

London Beer Factory

“People, especially in the UK, want to support the little guy” — James Leaver, London Beer Factory’s Marketing & Events Manager.

Meanwhile in South East London, the London Beer Factory is working hard to be a key player in the sustainable alcohol business. The company, which uses 100% sustainable energies in its brewing, is determined to be a good local producer.

James Leaver, London Beer Factory’s Marketing & Events Manager, explains: “All our energy is now from sustainable sources. We give our spent grain to local farmers to feed livestock. We source local ingredients where possible to minimise our CO2 footprint. We even have an algae farm which absorbs carbon dioxide from the production process and turns it to oxygen.”

The local brewery has been aiming to make a name for itself with a number of unique initiatives. Earlier this year it launched two beers (called Lifesavers and National Heroes), the incomes of which would all be donated towards charities helping with the pandemic response. The London Beer Factory is also the first (and it seems for now - only) brewery with a mobile vehicular coolship. This is a type of brewing container that allows for a quicker and more dynamic way of experimenting with local ingredients.

Leaver thinks that it’s by thinking about what change you can implement locally, and becoming a powerhouse where you can, is how a difference can be made. And the capital, he believes, is the best place for that.

“The people of London love choice so there will always be a great market,” he said. “Moreover, London attracts such a wealth of knowledgeable and experienced people that naturally craft industries will thrive.”

Leaver also says that while bigger policy questions may be in place when it comes to the livelihood of sustainable alcohol, reaching the local consumer must remain a priority.

“Brexit will undoubtedly take a toll on our ability to export,” he said. “However, I believe the demand for locality will only grow. And if allowed, craft breweries will continue to take market share from global conglomerate 'beer manufacturers.' People, especially in the UK, want to support the little guy. We're all moving to a more ethically minded consumerism that lends itself to the craft industries who have a daily impact on their communities.”

Beyond individuals, Leaver also believes that pub-culture is evolving and progressing in the UK all the time, in the direction to root for “small, independent craft breweries” like the London Beer Company. It’s not just about grabbing the cheapest pint at the Wetherspoons anymore.

People’s tastes are changing, and pubs must change with them. One only has to go walk down a London street to notice the change – bars are advertising their more ethical spirits, such as the recent “carbon negative” commitment from Brewdog. A Shoreditch startup has even gained recognition in its aim to raise money to run “the world’s most ethical pub.” This, Leaver believes, is how the change can spread to the mainstream.

He says that the biggest challenge will be “getting large chain pubs to support local producers instead of going straight to mass produced imports.”

But for now, they’re raising a glass to progress.

London Beer Factory

Courtesy of London Beer Factory

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