Brewing’s new guard is all about community and sustainability. No, really. By Lance Richardson
Then Oscar McMahon and Richard Adamson began to talk beer, something struck them about the state of the Australian brewing industry. Many brewers were identified with a specific place — it was part of their brand identity — but very few seemed to stand for anything meaningful. McMahon and Adamson and Dan Hampton, who soon joined the discussion, cared about late night culture and music, for example, as well as environmental sustainability.
“Why don’t beer companies care about all of these things?” McMahon wondered. These musings led them to found Young Henrys in 2012, a small brewery in the backstreets of Newtown, Sydney. The idea behind it was simple yet profound: “to create a company that played in the spaces that were important to us as people”.
For thousands of years, beer has been made from four basic things: malt, hops, yeast and water. Recently, however, some independent breweries in Australia have started adding a new ingredient to the fermentation process: a strong sense of values. For these homegrown companies, it is no longer enough to make a beer that tastes good on a steamy Saturday afternoon. Now it should be good, ethically and culturally speaking. Brewing beer, for these companies, has become a way to make the world a better place. Beer is no longer just a beverage — it can be an attitude, a political statement, a distillation of the brewers’ philosophy, served up in an infinitely recyclable aluminium can.
“Once you write down those values,” says McMahon, “and you actually create a company around those values, and then every time you hire someone their first day, they get read those values by the co-founders of the company, you get this really amazing, powerful continuum of those values becoming what governs your business decisions.”
At Young Henrys, the team started with music, a logical jumping-off point given that McMahon and Adamson are ex-musicians. They collaborated with bands, making custom products to go on tour with them. They partnered with artists as well, supplying beer at exhibitions. The ideal customers for Young Henrys, the founders figured, would be people just like themselves. “Where are we going to find them? We’re going to find them at places where culture is happening,” explains McMahon. This became something of a company mantra: “trying to take beer to culture”.
Doubling down on the innovative approach, Young Henrys even created its own street festival in Marrickville, named Small World. The small world in question was Sydney’s Inner West, and the festival was intended to celebrate “all the brilliant things” that came out of it.
From the early days, sustainability was an essential component of the business. The first beers were packaged in reusable glass jugs. Then they switched to aluminium, at a time when craft beer in cans was still viewed sceptically by many consumers, just as screw caps on wine had once been. In the brewery itself, the founders installed a high-efficiency brewing system to reduce water and energy usage. They invited Pingala Co-op to create a solar garden on the brewery roof. And, like many breweries, they started to donate their spent grain to farmers for livestock feed, minimising wastage.
To keep itself accountable and ensure those values remain front and centre as the business develops, Young Henrys signed up to the UN Global Compact. It also received B Corp certification, which measures a company’s social and environmental impact. “You basically need to make a commitment that you will run your business for people over profit,” says McMahon, “which is pretty much in line with how we’ve always run our business.”
But perhaps the most striking evidence of how Young Henrys is taking a different approach to brewing can be seen in the glowing green tanks on the production floor — 400-litre cylinders that look almost radioactive. McMahon calls them “bioreactors”, and inside are 20 trillion cells of microscopic algae.
A few years ago, the Young Henrys crew met some scientists from the University of Technology Sydney’s Climate Change Cluster (C3). As McMahon puts it, “They’re basically a bunch of climate scientists who are researching the carbon-sequestration and oxygen-creating potential of microalgae across a whole bunch of different applications.” The UTS scientists mentioned that microalgae and brewer’s yeast were, in fact, very similar, but achieve opposite things. Yeast eats sugar, emits CO2 and creates alcohol. Microalgae eats CO2, uses it to photosynthesise and emits oxygen. In effect, they are yin and yang organisms, perfectly in sync.
Realising there was an opportunity here, the UTS scientists partnered with Young Henrys for years of experimentation. Excess carbon dioxide created during the fermentation process was passed through those custom-built bioreactors. Each tank, it was discovered, ingests the equivalent amount of carbon as a hectare of Australian bushland, and creates the equivalent amount of oxygen.
Experimentation has now reached the third phase. “We basically know that we are going to be able to stop a brewery creating CO2,” says McMahon. “You could make a brewery start creating oxygen instead. And then the microalgae that you use to do that job, when you need to get rid of some of it, you can feed it to cattle. And the algae is going to reduce the amount of methane the cow creates in its gut.” At least, that is the hope: lab tests are promising, and live feeding trials are due to begin in August.
The effects could be revolutionary, and McMahon likes to imagine a future in which other breweries have similarly adopted the microalgae system. “If one industry adopts this and uses it to decarbonise, then they’ll make enough microalgae as a waste product to help decarbonise a different industry.” In other words, beer could become an unlikely foot soldier in the battle against climate change.
Young Henrys is not, of course, the only Australian brewery to make social and environmental values a core focus of business. Stomping Ground in Melbourne was founded by three friends — Steve Jeffares, Justin Joiner and Guy Greenstone — who valued the community they’d built through years of running a popular taphouse in St Kilda. In 2016, when they opened their brewery in Collingwood, this community inspired their entire approach to Stomping Ground. “That’s why we’ve supported things like Movember,” says Greenstone of the men’s health awareness drive. “We support Scarf, which is an asylum seeker traineeship program. We’ve been their beer partner for the last five years. We also support Midsumma, which is a festival that celebrates LGBTQIA+ culture.” Stomping Ground has instituted a range of sustainability measures to reduce wastage and pollution created during the brewing process, and it also aspires to B Corp certification in the future. “B Corp is a great organisation,” Greenstone adds, “because it’s not just about sustainability. It’s about everything else to do with community and workforce standards.”
Meanwhile, Hawke’s Brewing Co. in Sydney started with a longing for more community. In 2015, Nathan Lennon and David Gibson were creatives at Droga5, an advertising agency in New York. Both of them were struck by a common malady: homesickness. “We just started reminiscing about how good it would be to be back home,” recalls Lennon. It was a bleakly cold day typical of northern hemisphere winter. “We were working in our office, and it just sort of felt that if we’d been back home at that moment, we’d likely be on the beach having a beer with our friends.”
Lennon asked his partner, “If you could be back home right now, who would you most want to have a beer with?” And Gibson replied, “I’ve always wanted to have a beer with Bob Hawke.”
This casual thought exercise got them thinking about their childhoods, when Hawke was prime minister, which led, in turn, to a wild idea. “Wouldn’t it be great if Bob had his own beer company, something built around his values, and around our love for Australia at its best?”
Lennon and Gibson floated the idea in an email to Blanche d’Alpuget, Hawke’s wife. When Hawke then responded with cautious interest, they jumped in at the deep end. Before the ex-PM had even agreed to actually work with them, they told their boss they were “setting up a B Corp company with Bob Hawke” and quit their day jobs. Then they flew back to Sydney to convince Hawke during a pitch session in his kitchen. They wore buttoned-up blazers, looking sharp and formal; Hawke wore some sort of tracksuit-pyjamas combination, looking to his visitors as though he had just rolled out of bed.
At the end of the pitch, Hawke had one question for them: Why was it going to work? Lennon decided to give it to him straight. He admitted they had already fibbed to their boss, quit their jobs and bet everything on the quixotic venture. “It’s not a smart answer,” Hawke reportedly replied. “But it’s an honest answer. I’d be a bum if I said no, wouldn’t I?”
Hawke’s Brewing Co. was launched in 2017 with the ethos of giving something back. Recognising that environmental degradation is the most pressing issue facing Australians today, Hawke requested that his share of the royalties go straight to Landcare Australia, the not-for-profit volunteer organisation dedicated to grassroots efforts to repair the damage. To date, Hawke’s Brewing Co. has donated approximately $450,000 to Landcare, and this is only the beginning. Before Hawke died in 2019, Lennon says, “he helped us put together an agreement that would essentially ensure that the bigger we grew, the larger our contributions would be”.
In effect, buying a Hawke’s beer is helping to fund mangrove protection in Queensland, pygmy possum habitat restoration in South Australia and regeneration projects through Bushfire Recovery Grants. Advertising men at heart, Lennon and Gibson devised the perfect tagline for this philanthropy, one that could also stand for what all these breweries are doing with their values-first approaches to the beer business: “One for the Country”.
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 28 of Winning Magazine. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.