Raise a toast to social enterprise beer

Brewers that are social enterprises? We say cheers to that...

Britain has more breweries per capita than any country in the world, recently rising 8% to around 1,700. With a growing desire for people starting businesses to do social good – one in four new startups according to a recent poll – it’s natural that some of those brewers have a social purpose at their heart.

Nick O’Shea is one of these brewers. The former economist set up Ignition Brewery in 2015. It’s a microbrewery that creates great tasting beer and employs people with learning disabilities. Nick decided to set up Ignition after 15 years volunteering for Lewisham mencap. He wanted to do something to help their members get back into work.

"Members there generally want either a relationship or a job," says O'Shea, "I can’t help people on the relationship front, but I can do something to help them find a job."

UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs, supported O'Shea with a Do It Award, worth £5,000. This award gives cash and support to early stage social entrepreneurs and enabled Nick to get started on his first brews of beer.

They’re currently brewing three types of ale – an IPA, a pale ale and a porter – selling in restaurants in South East London. Business is growing, allowing them to employ six people part-time. It’s giving jobs to people who otherwise would struggle to find one.

"I come to work and love it," says their ever enthusiastic employee Chris, "This is the best team of brewers in the world and we make great bottled beer. I'm gonna work, work, work and sell our beer to everyone. That's what I'm gonna do."

"I’m not a brewer, I’m an economist. I was driven to this by the margin, the ability to make money." O'Shea explains, "I thought about what will make the most money, what’s cool for the people doing the job, what’s quite labour intensive. The obvious product was beer – it has good margins and as work it’s quite repetitive with boiling things up and sticking labels on bottles."

A lot of Nick’s success so far has been thanks to the enthusiasm and skills of the rest of the industry. He was able to brew his first handful of batches thanks to the availability micro-brew facilities and the skills of brewers in the industry.

A toast to social change

The openness of the beer industry to try new things is also something that Julie Prebble of Toast Ale celebrates.

"We brewed our first beer working with brewers based in Hackney. They were helped by Belgian brewers who we’d been inspired by and who shared their recipe. The guys in Hackney then helped the guys in Yorkshire who we’re now working with. The brewing world is great."

Like Ignition, Toast Ales are using beer to make a difference in the world. They’re brewing ales to tackle the problem of food waste. A third of the food made is not eaten for a whole range of reasons – from waste in the home to issues within the supply chains.

"In a nutshell, we’re a company that brews great beer from surplus fresh bread," explains Julie, "There’s a slice of bread in every bottle, so when we brew we’re using up some of this surplus. We’re part of a solution to a big problem."

The idea for the beer came from founder Tristram Stuart's trip to Belgium, where he came across the Brussels Beer Project. They were brewing Babylone, a beer inspired by ancient traditions of making beer from bread. Stuart, who had been campaigning against food waste through his charity Feedback, saw an opportunity to use the method to cut out waste in the UK.

To date Toast have turned 2.6 tonnes of bread (nearly 90,000 slices) into almost 80,000 beers. Over time they’ve been working with bigger and bigger suppliers – they started out using the excess from local bakers, now they’re working with sandwich makers that supply supermarkets.

"When did you last see a shop bought sandwich that was made from the end of a loaf?" asks Julie, "Sandwich makers buy in sliced bread and immediately remove both of the ends."

Toast is giving those sandwich makers a way to cut out that surplus – but for Prebble it’s not just about using up people’s waste but campaigning to make sure that waste doesn’t happen in the first place.

"We want the beer we make to be an inspiration to all. The sandwich maker we work with is starting projects to creatively use the surplus they create every day in their business. We don’t want to be around forever, we want surplus bread to be eliminated."

Tastes good, does good

Whether it’s making sure that people can have good jobs or cutting food waste, social entrepreneurs are using beer to make a real difference.

While both O'Shea and Prebble talk up the beer world’s willingness to help and work with them, they both also stress the need to create a great product.

"Our challenge is taking people with no brewing experience and trying to make beer that is consistently nice," says O'Shea. "There’s no point us selling something that doesn’t, people would rather give to charity."

Prebble agrees: "We will fail in our mission if our beer isn’t good. If people aren’t prepared to pay for it, if they’re not prepared to buy a second one," she explains, "We launched on Jamie Oliver’s Friday Night Feast; he told us he loved what we were doing, but it had to taste great. And then he tasted it and said, it's bloomin' lovely."

Both Ignition and Toast are working towards growing both their business and impact.

Ignition have recently moved into their new home, a brewery in Sydenham. They’re in the process of upgrading their machinery, which will allow them to produce and sell their beer on a larger scale.

Toast Ale are currently running a crowdfunder campaign to expand their range of beer. They have plans to add two new beers – a craft lager and a session IPA. At the time of writing they’ve met their initial target of £20,000 and are looking for more money to double their initial production run.

To see a film about Ignition, click here.