When I interviewed Artisanal Brewers Collective CEO Tony Yanow for a Forbes.com story, my focus was on sustainability. That word has absorbed many meanings that can touch on economic, environmental and other factors.
Yanow anticipated what we might discuss in our interview and wrote, “The most sustainable thing about our beer is that it is almost entirely consumed locally. The fact that we don’t package, store, or move beer is great for the beer but also conserves a lot of resources. Most breweries package most of their beer. The cans/bottles are put in 6- and 12-packs, and then into cases and then shrink-wrapped on pallets, forklifted into cold storage warehouses, forklifted out to a truck, trucked to a distributor, where it is forklifted again, warehoused again, forklifted out again, trucked again, brought into a grocery store, unpackaged and put in display cabinets (often ones that are open and expel cold), driven home, put in a fridge, and then consumed and hopefully the can, bottle and paper get recycled. Sometimes beer moves over oceans or across countries. Local is sustainable and there is nothing as local as drinking beer 20 feet from where it’s made.”
Yanow co-founded Golden Road Brewing, a California brand that’s gone national after selling to AB InBev in 2015, and has run beer-focused restaurants like Tony’s Darts Away and Mohawk Bend for years. Along the way, Yanow’s developed a top-to-bottom understanding of the beer business. During our in-person interview at 6th & La Brea, he continued to open my eyes to on an industry that generates a staggering amount of packaging and waste. [For the record, Golden Road Brewing continues to package their beer in cans and kegs.]
He started by recounting the original vision for Golden Road, which he launched with remaining CEO Meg Gill in 2011. Before ramping up, they hashed out the brewery’s scope in his Los Feliz house, overlooking the city.
Yanow paraphrased his conversation with Gill: “I said, ‘Okay, if we’re going to build this brewery, we don’t have to build a little brewery. I feel like there’s an opportunity to build a good sized brewery for all of Los Angeles and all of California.’ She said, ‘If you want to build a big brewery, we’re going to have to go beyond California.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so. California has enough people that you can do that. There are big breweries in Canada that only sells to Canada. Canada’s smaller than California.’ She said, ‘You know, it’s trickier here.’ I said, ‘How many barrels does Dan Carey from [New Glarus] sell?” I forget what she said, but let’s say she said, ‘I think he sold 110,000 last year.’ I said, ‘Yeah, and how many people are in the state of Wisconsin?’ We looked it up, and it was 3 1/2 or 4 million. We went out on the balcony and I said, ‘See that. That’s 4 million people. I can see them from here in L.A. We don’t need to be moving beer all over the place. We need to connect with these people.’ In the entire world, there was this teeny little sliver we could see from there. A couple days later she had brought me a map of every single county in California and she had picked a distributor she wanted to have in each one. On the top it said, ‘100,000 barrels. In California. Road map.’ It was on my wall in my office at Golden Road until we sold it.”
Conversely, Artisanal Brewers Collective’s business model has a hyper-local focus. From a flavor perspective, the benefits of drinking at the source should be obvious, but Yanow explains. “I love beer and like to drink beer that isn’t necessarily from around the corner. I get beer from all over, but the best beer is fresh beer,” he says. “I’ve had people who like beer and they come to the brewery and drink fresh and are like, ‘Holy fuck! That is so good. What is that?’ ‘It’s a pale ale.'”
Even more importantly from an environmental perspective, most beer is sold in packages. “Last I heard, over 80% of beer sold in America is sold in a grocery store,” Yanow says. “Which leads me to believe that at least 90%, and upwards of 95% is sold in packages. When I say packages, I don’t mean kegs. I mean cans and bottles…As an entrepreneur, it’s the expense of doing all of it, it’s the number of points of failure; it’s the complete wastefulness of moving this around.” Packaging that isn’t biodegradable is the worst offender, given the pollutant’s lasting impact on the environment and threat to ocean life, but even six-pack rings that double as fish food – beer packaging’s best case scenario – were created to mitigate damage from an unnatural problem.
“If beer were invented today, how would it be packaged?” Far differently. Yanow explains, “The thought of putting six bottles with six labels – or 12 labels – sometimes they have top and bottom – and six caps, and putting that into a six-pack carrier, and putting a six-pack carrier into a case tray, and a case tray into a master case, and putting a master case on to a pallet, and stacking pallets. Then you have a bottle, which sure is recyclable, but how many of them actually do get recycled? Do they break on the way? You can imagine a lot. If you’re going to drink a local beer, as much as we would like to sell beer to you, if it has to go through me and a distributor and a retailer and to you, a lot of things are going to happen along there that are going to effect both the quality of the beer and there are environmental consequences along the way. And it’s a lot more expensive.”
Cost certainly compounds matters, and Yanow breaks those down as well, saying, “If you were to go to a brewery and order a pale ale, a bartender pours it, gives it to you in a glass. You drink it, put it back down, give them 8 bucks. You pay $8 for that, and the brewery pays for the cost of that beer. Whatever that is, is almost insignificant in this conversation. Then they usually have a minimum wage bartender who’s making most of their money from the consumer in tips. Then you have a busser and dishwasher who collects the glass and washes it.”
“You buy the same pale ale, made in the same batch, that came out of the same brite tank. That beer now goes to a bottle line. There’s an expense to warehousing and keeping all those bottles. There is the environmental issue of moving those bottles there and making sure they’re not broken. You’ve got to get the caps there and get the labels there. The labels need to go through TTB. You need labels for every one of your brands, so you have to have a lot of them, and you never get it perfect. And there are design costs. Then you have straps over the boxes and boxes on top of pallets. Pallets get moved, so you have guys on top of forklifts. They’re spewing out whatever, or at least using energy. Those go into a six-pack. Guess what? The six-packs need the same approvals. You need art checks, and you need a different one for every one of your brands. Then that goes into a master case. The master case needs all the same approvals. That’s even more stuff, and glue. That goes on a pallet. Well, the pallet is wood, and they don’t last that long. They break all the time. Then you have to shrink-wrap all that. They’re pretty efficient with the shrink-wrap now, but we were talking earlier about straws; that’s a lot of fucking straws to wrap up those pallets. Forklift picks it up and puts it into a cold box. Cold box costs money and uses resources because it’s got to stay cold. Breweries, unless you are a gigantic brewery like Anheuser-Busch or a tiny, super well sought after brewery like Russian River, you need to have about two weeks of inventory on hand just to be able to keep your stuff in the grocery stores. If they sell out, you need to fill it. If you don’t fill it, they put someone else in there and you lose your spot. Like I said, 80% sells in grocery stores. Those spots are gold. You don’t give up those spots, so you’ve got to keep it in the warehouse. You’re hiring packaging staff, warehousing staff, art staff, all that. Then it sits there.”
“At this point, we go through the expense of having somebody pull it out of the warehouse, put it down, get it on to a truck,” Yanow says. “Then it’s on the truck. Hopefully it’s a refrigerated truck and gets there quick enough, but your beer could be spoiled, and somebody is paying for that guy or gal to move the beer. It goes to the store to their warehouse, sits in their warehouse for awhile. Remember, the beer’s just dying. Then the whole process happens again.”
“The reason we need two weeks is because they need two weeks,” Yanow says. “There’s a glut of beer, so you’re hoping it’s a good distributor and you get first in, first out. I’ve been to some of the best distributors in the country and seen – eh – usually. Sometimes you get a fresh pallet on the truck and rather than going to get the new one, go right from the truck. It’s efficiency. The guy who’s driving the fork truck, does he really give a shit if your beer is two weeks fresh?”
What happens to the beer that doesn’t sell at the supermarket? “They can get returned to the distributor,” Yanow says. “It can get returned to the brewer. A lot of places will just keep it and it will go out of code.” Meaning they’ll just throw it away. “Then it’s the ultimate waste,” he says. “Not only did we do all that, but nobody got to enjoy anything.”
This doesn’t include the high costs of bottling lines and/or canning lines. Or quality control and salespeople once beer’s out in the field. “You need a quality assurance rep out there making sure beer isn’t going out of code, taking beer from places and make sure it held up on the shelves,” Yanow says. “You’ve got to have salespeople and go out there and actually make the sales. You have to have managers and accountants and all that stuff that sits on top of that. All that and you get the same type of beer.”
Beer can also go through all these steps and hands and still get damaged or simply degrade over time. Yanow says, “You could also be harming your actual brand if someone drinks it and says, ‘That’s not right.’” Breweries get in front of far more potential customers by packaging and shipping bottles and cans, but earn a small fraction of revenue of what they would make selling beer over the counter.
Would any of Yanow’s businesses ever bottle or can again? Starting January 1, California law started allowing brewpubs to sell house-made beer to go. Given that revelation, four Artisanal Brewers Collective outposts now sell recyclable crowlers (32-ounce aluminum cans) at Bluebird Brasserie, The Stalking Horse Brewery & Freehouse, 6th & La Brea, and Broxton Brewery & Public House.
“If people want to bring beer home, they’ve got to get it from somewhere,” Yanow says. “I’d rather drink it right at the bar where it’s super fresh, but I’ve got stuff to do at home. I’d love to brew beer at home, but I also have a job and three kids.”
Ultimately, despite thoughtful efforts from eco-friendly businesspeople like Yanow, it may be impossible to dial back the world’s thirst for cheap, convenient, store-bought beer, which currently requires multi-layered packaging, infinitely more care, and in most cases, considerable waste.
Beer is big business, but still just a small fraction of the overall food and beverage world. Just walk the aisles of any grocery, convenience, or big-box store to start considering the full scope of all of this fallout. I will certainly never look at aisles the same way again.