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Colorado Brewery Emphasizes Eco-Friendly Operation - 2003-01-29

Beer is a popular drink in the United States, but for decades only a few varieties were produced domestically. Traditional European craft-style ales and lagers had to be imported. Recently, though, some American beer lovers have developed their own lines of craft-style ales, which contain no artificial flavorings or colors, and don't have high levels of sugar. Some of these small breweries strive to protect the environment as well as produce good beer, and for its efforts, one of those companies has received this year's Environmental Excellence Award from Business Ethics Magazine.

It all began in a basement, where an idealistic couple dreamed of an environmentally-friendly business that would be loads of fun to operate. So they used their camping equipment to make homemade stouts and ales, while a friend painted watercolor labels for the very first bottles of their New Belgium Brewery beer. Only a dozen years later, New Belgium is the 13th largest brewery in the United States and the third largest in Colorado.

While it has grown quickly, Hillary Mizia, a graduate student who has joined the company, says New Belgium maintains its grassroots values. "That's where it started, and that still is very much how it feels in a lot of ways," she said.

Ms. Mizia says those values are even apparent in her job title. "I'm the Sustainability Outreach Coordinator, but I go by Sustainability Goddess."

As Sustainability Goddess, Ms. Mizia is proud of New Belgium Brewery's core values of making good beer and being stewards of the environment. The company gets all its electricity from wind-generated power, uses state of the art, energy efficient brewing equipment, and tries to create an employee-friendly work environment.

For instance, in the huge room where shiny brown bottles get topped off with brews such as Two Cherry Ale and Blue Paddle Pilsner, Ms. Mizia points to large windows and special, non-glare skylights that lessen the need for artificial light and make the workspace more pleasant. "Even though people are working really hard and doing their jobs really well, they're happy to be here," she said.

That attitude bubbles forth at the brewery's pub, where employees stack sparkling glasses used to sample fresh beer on tap. "Oh, it's like the most incredible job in the world," he said. "It's literally the best job I've ever had."

James Pippin says he likes the friendly community here. "You know, one of the things they told me when I started was that when you're sick, and you come back, you have 120 people ask you if you're feeling better. And it's kind of like that. You know? Another person said there's no one here you wouldn't want to invite to a party. So yeah, it's great for that. And lots of benefits, too," he said.

Those benefits include a free case of beer to take home every week and after one year's employment, a bicycle, to honor the company's Fat Tire Ale and to encourage employees to bike to work. After 5 years, employees can enjoy a free trip to Belgium, to learn more about the craft brew tradition. There are health and dental plans, plus opportunities to become company owners and participate in management decisions. "There's a lot of pride in what we do, and people care about not only about what we do, but what we're doing for the environment and everything," he said.

As Kyle Jensen stacks cardboard boxes that may soon hold Porch Swing Ale, he says that keeping the environment in mind is sometimes a challenge. After all, a brewery uses a lot of water, and Colorado's in the middle of a drought. What's more, a brewery can create a lot of waste. "But we do as much as we possibly can, as far as recycling everything that you see here, from the products that we use in packaging the beer up into the products we use to actually build the building," said Mr. Jensen.

This environmental ethic permeates everything New Belgium does, according to Hillary Mizia. "It's not a marketing effort, it's not an engineering effort, it's not a brewer effort," she said.

Ms. Mizia says there are so many environmentally friendly aspects to this brewery, it's easy to walk right past without ever noticing them. And once we reach the blue-carpeted Marketing Department, it turns out that we're walking on an environmentally friendly idea. When rugs begin to show wear, they often end up at the dump. But these are carpet tiles, leased from a company that replaces and recycles each tile as it wears out, saving the cost of a new carpet and saving space in landfills. "We don't even think about it, it's just a part of what we do, looking for organic options or the most environmentally-friendly or sound alternative to whatever it is that we're doing," said Hillary Mizia.

That attitude attracts customers who like New Belgium Brewery's environmental record. And Ms. Mizia says the company's value system attracts employees who yearn to be passionate about their work. "As humans, we're always searching for a sense of community," she said. "And so, when you find that, and you get paid for it, it's pretty exciting. And I've definitely had life-changing experiences since I've been here. I met my husband here. We got married on the Autumnal Equinox this past September. I've been able to create my job here. Which is exciting. It's amazing to work in an environment which supports that and is willing to take a chance and create a new position like Sustainability Goddess."

Through the efforts of its Sustainability Goddess and other employees, New Belgium Brewery has earned this year's Environmental Excellence Award from Business Ethics magazine.

Photos courtesy of New Belgium Brewing Company