It’s an experience that beer lovers and drinkers everywhere will find familiar after a night out of a few too many: You wake up the next morning, head thumping and all you can taste is the inside of your own mouth. Hungover and parched, you stumble to the kitchen to fill the glass. The water is cold, clean and available — something we take for granted.
But being able to rehydrate after going overboard at the pub is a luxury that should give pause when there are hundreds of millions of people across the world who can’t even access safe water. It’s a complicated problem — and it’s the impetus behind Edinburgh-based craft brewery/social enterprise Brewgooder.
“What makes us unusual is that we are on a bit of a mission — there’s a purpose behind us selling beer, other than to just bring people really good beer, and that’s to unlock clean water for a million people,” says the company’s founder Alan Mahon. On World Water Day, March 22, 2016, Brewgooder went from being an idea to being a real business — one that invests all of its profits into meeting an inarguably ambitious target.
“So that might be, in terms of funding, clean water projects out in the field or, back at home, growing the team, to grow sales, in order to make sure the return is sustainable going forward,” said Mahon.
After an initial crowdfund of £60,000 ($77,349) kick-started production of what would become known as Brewgooder’s flagship drink, Clean Water Lager, the company grew. Brewgooder now employs six U.K.-based staff, as well as supporting jobs at their brewing partners, who produce the beer at zero margin.
“This allowed us to scale up quite considerably. In theory, we can continue to grow our sales, which will then lead to more profits without having to invest in our own brewing capacity,” he says. “If we were constantly promising to deliver greater social impact, but were continuously having to buy bigger and better kit as we grew, I think that would actually slow down and erode a bit of confidence in our drinkers. So, we made sure when we were designing the company that we had that in mind.”
By 2018, Brewgooder had funded or co-funded 65 different projects in Malawi, a country that has always had inextricable links to Scotland.
“We originally thought we’d base projects all over — Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Costa Rica — but when we centered on Malawi, we thought, why don’t we just focus our efforts here, rather than spread our resources thin just for the PR benefit of doing work in all these various places? It’s a great country and, for a multitude of reasons, people there are really poor. But those people are no less worthy of our time than people here at home. The Scottish link is just serendipitous, but that has made our ability to transform communities there that much more powerful.”
As a result of these projects, Brewgooder has helped an estimated 40,000 people access clean drinking water.
Mahon, 28, is originally from Ballycastle, Northern Ireland. He speaks to me at Brewgooder’s headquarters in Leith, ahead of the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF), which is coming to the Scottish capital in September. At that time, he plans to share his know-how on innovative social enterprise approaches to reducing poverty and inequality. When we speak, he’s candid — answering my initial question of “why beer?” with another: “Why water?”
“When I was 21, I was working in Nepal for three months and, towards the end of that trip, I got sick by being exposed to water that wasn’t safe for drinking,” he answers. “I picked up a parasite. I didn’t realize that was why I was getting sick on the project. I just put that down to being in Kathmandu drinking cheap whiskey. But when I got back it started to get progressively worse, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience at all. I went to the doctor, got given metronidazole [a common antibiotic] and the parasite was killed. I was absolutely fine.
“I started thinking about water, thinking about it as a resource that we have to preserve in Scotland, and became very conscious of making sure I never ran the tap and that kind of stuff. But I quickly realized that wasn’t really the issue. One of my friends was studying and was talking to me about water scarcity in various different places, and I came to realize what a massive problem it is.”
Mahon threw himself into learning more, quickly becoming passionate about clear injustices. More than 800 million people across the world lack clean water access, while around 2 billion have no access to proper sanitation.
“I thought, I happen to be lucky enough just to be born in a society where you have access to the NHS. I was a student and I’d never paid a single dime to it but I could benefit from that. But then there are people who are my age or younger who didn’t ask to be born where they were born, are making the best of the lives they’ve been handed and are at risk of having their dreams, ambitions, education and achievements held back in the best circumstances and, in the worst, dying from something that they can’t go without.”
After graduating from university and being rejected at the final hurdle for the U.K.’s Department of International Development graduate scheme, Mahon admits that he was feeling disappointed and desperate for a job until he started working in a sandwich shop. That’s not everyone’s idea of the dream career, but when said sandwich shop is Social Bite, a social enterprise café that employs and feeds people experiencing homelessness on a daily basis, Mahon began to feel the spark that, with Social Bite founder Josh Littlejohn’s help, developed into Brewgooder. “When I started working there, I realized that you could do the whole helping people thing, which was something I’d always been brought up to do, at the same time as building a business, and having a brand, and managing how things look and feel. It was a project with which you were getting the best of both worlds. It gave me the opportunity to get in that space.”
After meeting with Mahon, my opening gambit seens moot. He shares the same characteristics of countless young people who are the same age as he was when the concept for Brewgooder took root: An enjoyment of going out, drinking with friends and treating yourself to nice things within a budget. It just so happened that Mahon realised that he could combine those millennial traits with another — the desire to do good in the world.
“At the same time as I was thinking about and acting on all of this, I was a young guy, with a bit of disposable income, which I was spending on stuff that I liked, and that was usually good coffee and good beer,” he says. “My friends, and other people like us, were super engaged in that world — ‘oh, have you tasted this? Have you heard about this brewery?’ — but there was nothing that was social, from my point of view, and I just saw this massive gap in the market.
“If you could drink a beer and help other people, it could potentially be the most powerful social force in the world. Because people drink it all the time. And something else that excited me about beer was that it was democratic — it wasn’t like wine or champagne, something high end. You could go for a pint of lager and it was accessible. For me, whether it’s beer or something easily sourced on the high street or whatever, it was like you were making philanthropy accessible for people — they could just be a part of something big without having to be another Bill Gates.”
But the reality is, to perk the interest of those people, to have them want to buy a beer that makes a social impact, rather than just one that quenches your thirst and gets you drunk, the product itself has to be good. The resulting beer, Clean Water Lager, is a 4.5 percent session lager, with magnum and sorachi ace. It has a bitter, lemony foretaste, with a very clean yeast profile (Mahon’s words, not mine). It really is quite delicious — the kind of beer that tastes different, without feeling that it’s a struggle to get down. In fact, it goes down pretty easily (my words, not his).
“People ask if we get the name because we use cleaner water in the brewing process. They think they can taste it. Well, it has nothing to do with that. But it has a very clean taste profile and then it has a dill, coconut, popcorny taste at the end from the malts that really tie it together,” Mahon describes, my mouth watering. And I have to remind myself that it’s not long after 9 a.m.
Courtesy of INSP.
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