Expert Topic Anderson Valley Builds on Decades of Sustainability

Photo by Katee McGee

Sustainability is more than a buzz word when it comes to the brewing industry. Beer takes a lot of resources to make and can create a lot of waste. Best practices are top of mind for many brewers and there is always room for improvement.

California’s Anderson Valley Brewing Co. has been at the forefront of sustainability efforts for nearly 30 years and has learned a lot – and done a lot of good – along the way. ProBrewer contributor John Holl spoke with Kevin McGee the President and CEO of Anderson Valley about the past, present, and future.

John Holl: It’s been a while since I last caught up with Anderson Valley. So, can you tell me a bit about what’s been happening in Booneville these last few years?

Kevin McGee: To put it all in context, my family bought Anderson Valley in December of 2019, right before COVID. So, when we came in it was a legacy brewery that I think, like a bunch of other legacy breweries, had to do some consumer marketing and some other things to in order to make sure that they maintained a presence in the consumer’s mind.

When COVID happened a lot of the things that we had planned on doing required in person meetings with accounts, or distributors, or just consumers in general, and we couldn’t do any of that.

So, we focused on controlling the things that we could control out of Boonville. Business practices and those types of things. We had a few ideas for some new beers and some new stuff to renovate. But really a lot of what we’ve been doing has been rebranding, putting a little bit more focus into the portfolio of beers.

Then there’s the unsexy things of trying to renovate our distributor network and relationships, and then regain some of the chain business that the brewery had lost in the years coming into 2019.

In terms of the things that we’ve been working on, tangibly, we have a number of new beers that are out, we have a bunch of different relationships now in some pretty key markets with some new distributor partners. In general, we have tightened up the way that we run as a business.

I think Anderson is an example of where it always has been really good beer. But it lost a step because it just wasn’t continuing to have that conversation with consumers, that basic consumer marketing stuff.

John Holl: For some legacy brands it’s hard to keep that conversation fresh, even with new beers. But sometimes company culture can be a selling point. The brewery has long been at the forefront of sustainability efforts. Can you key in on what the brewery has done and is doing?

Kevin McGee: Sustainability is something that is important to us on a lot of different levels.

One of the reasons my family got involved in Anderson was to be involved in a business that could be multigenerational, and long term. With that comes the idea of how we are managing what we’re doing for future generations.

Anderson to me has always been a very sustainability focused brewery.

A couple of the things that stand out; the first one is the solar program. Solar power has been part of some of the packaging and marketing messaging for Anderson forever. But we didn’t realize until probably about like a year and a half ago that Anderson is the world’s first solar powered brewery. We’ve got a plan to try and expand our solar array to cover 110% of our estimated usage so that we can give some back to some of the sustainable power grid, sharing services around here. But also, so we can operate as a micro grid and basically be energy independent.

John Holl: There’s a lot of solar out there now, to look back at its impact back then is impressive There’s water initiatives out of the brewery as well, right?

Kevin McGee: Anderson, very quietly, had been running a very forward-looking water system ever since they moved to this property in the mid-1990s. We’ve got 10 wells on the property that we source all our water from. We have our own treatment system on the property that we manage and maintain. We’re really our own water district. We discharged all of the water within the fence line as well. So, unless it leaves the property as an ingredient in our beer, we’re returning all of our water back to where we take it from. And that’s like having like a closed loop.

We are also a zero effluent manufacturing facility, which is pretty crazy to think about, that they’ve been doing it since like 1995 or 1996.

John Holl: That’s really impressive. You’ve also tackled Co2 usage as well, right?

Kevin McGee: We did some did some work to reduce our Co2 usage by installing a nitrogen generator. That was Fal Allen’s idea and was a great idea. That’s in a place, which allows us to use nitrogen instead of co2 for all of our process stuff that’s got a lot of good impacts.

Then we changed over to all cans and cardboard, which helps everything from shipping things both in and out, and also increases the recyclability of your products pretty meaningfully, we’ve been able to reduce our shipping by almost 60 percent.

John Holl: You mentioned getting the word out on these initiatives. Because the brewery, way back when, was so forward thinking it just sort of became commonplace. When you find that you’re having these conversations with consumers, is there a deeper connection that’s forged?

Kevin McGee: One of the things about the sustainability stuff, is that it will not sell beer for you. I just had a conversation about this. The sustainability initiatives just mean that the data is really clear. It’s just not an effective way of getting consumer trials.

It’s the right thing to do so it helps you focus your business priorities. But in terms of the consumer, it’s like, once the consumer has sort of tried the beer, tried the product, and they like it, it helps forge a deeper connection. It gives people context, and helps, you communicate who you are, and what’s important to you.

It helps you find a common ground and show off business values and the values of the people that are working here. And it’s also another way of kind of pointing out that there’s real humans behind the products, which is always one of those challenges in consumer products.

The sustainability programs that we have generally don’t sell beer to consumers. They do, however, resonate with retailers, particularly chain retailers.

When you’re trying to make a pitch for those chain placements particularly places like Whole Foods and some of the Northern California chains up here really get behind the idea. That helps some of the retailers when it comes to making decisions about what to put on the shelves.

There’s a lot of good business reasons for doing it. Sustainable practices are good business practices in general. We’re a multigenerational business, I’m trying to do everything I can today so that my daughter or other members of my family that take the company after I’m done with my role here will have an easier time event than I did. And that’s the goal. And sustainability is a part of that.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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