A central Wisconsin brewery is getting attention for its commitment to the environment. It's not just idealism, though; the brewers say their reliance on green energy and sustainable agriculture is helping them make money.
Paul Graham and Anello Mollica, president and vice president of Central Waters Brewery, walk the floor of their big building in the small village of Amherst, Wisconsin. Graham is dwarfed by stainless steel holding tanks, “This is where basically the magic begins to happen... temperature controls for different vessels, on and off switches, and variable frequency drives.”
Mollica says it's not magic-but science that is producing the bubbles of carbon dioxide in the buckets under the tanks. “You are listening to bourbon barrel stout in its primary fermentation stage.”
That award-winning bourbon barrel stout is one of the reasons the company is growing. Central Waters is now selling in “the whole state of Wisconsin, parts of Minnesota, and we just opened up the entire state of Illinois.”
It's a big turnaround for Central Waters, which started 15 years ago on a shoestring budget in a dilapidated building, by hobby brewers with a few homemade recipes. Graham remembers those days. “Those were hard times. We not only brewed the beer, but we bottled the beer, and then we put it in the beds of our pickups and drove it around the state to sell it as well.”
Now the company's production line can fill 96 bottles a minute, turning out 10,000 barrels of craft beer a year. But here’s what surprises some people: Graham and Mollica say their financial success is due to their commitment to green energy and sustainable agriculture.
“As stewards of the environment, it's a brewer’s duty, it's our responsibility to minimize the impact as much as possible,” said Mollica, “because the whole idea here is this business outlives Paul and I.”
Graham agrees. “It's a long term vision. For us, it's not tomorrow, it's not next year, it's not 20 years. It's my children's lifetime.”
Central Waters is the first and only brewery to earn Wisconsin's “Green Master” designation. Solar thermal panels warm the building and help heat the water for brewing and cleaning. Graham says he's doing it to save money, "We can basically heat a 20,000-square-foot building for zero cost now.”
They're replacing caustic cleaning chemicals with water-based ozone to save money and the environment. “The standard is some pretty nasty chemicals to send down your drains and into the sewer treatment facility.”
The brewery is also committed to sustainable agriculture because it's good for business. In 2008, a fire in the Yakima Valley and bad weather in Poland and Germany devastated the international hops market. So Graham and Mollica convinced four other Wisconsin brewers and seven farms to form the Midwest Hops and Barley Cooperative. “We actually funded some of these farms to get them going on their hops production,” Graham recalled.
Mollica agreed, “Without farmers growing hops and farmers growing barley, we're all out of business.”
Then the brewery had to find reliable local sources of barley because farmers in the Dakotas stopped growing it, replacing it in their fields with new, hardy, genetically modified strains of corn and soybeans.
“You look into what used to be the bread belt of North and South Dakota, Idaho, Montana- these once arid regions that once grew nothing but barley,” Graham said. “Now they're growing corn and soy and they're getting ridiculously high prices for it.”
One of Graham's sources for barley is as local as you can get. “[Within a] two-mile radius,” Graham said with a chuckle. “We work with a local farmer. He tills about 300 organic acres just down the road from us. He's my neighbor.”
Two miles down the road, that neighbor of Paul Graham's, Bob Stuczynski, climbs out of his tractor, and points to his acres of organic barley.
Bob Stuczynski on his organic farm in Amherst, Wisconsin. Photo credit: Glen Moberg, Wisconsin Public Radio
“To actually take your product from planting the seed to growing it to harvesting it, through the whole process and then to enjoy the final product at the end, drinking the beer,” said Stuczynski, “that's pretty hard to beat.”
Central Waters provides a stable source of income for Stucynski. His barley protects the brewery from the ups and downs of the international grain market. “It's taken the highs and lows off for both of us,” Stuczynski said. “We're local. We're not organic from Canada. We're two miles down the road.”
Bob Stuczynski gets a good price. Anello Mollica says it's worth it. “We pay more for that barley than we do for the other barley that we buy, but the money is staying in the community. He, his friends, his family, his family's friends... they're going to buy my beer. You know, back to the way it used to be before Prohibition, before industrialization of brewing."
And the way it's done now, for a profit, in Amherst, Wisconsin.