Wednesday, September 19, 2007

New Belgium Brewing Company Aims for Zero Emissions

This article is not exactly about Belgium but about a type of Belgian beer being produced in the US, inspired by a bike trip in Belgium.

At New Belgium Brewing Company's Ft. Collins, Colorado plant, you walk past colourful 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 founders—Jeff 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.

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."

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'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 them—keep them up at night—and then they recommend how they can do better. We're proud of the corporate culture we've established here. Our employees care—about 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."

"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.'"

David Wann works to present images of a more sustainable American lifestyle in articles, books, and films.
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