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Do beer drinkers care about the environment?

It may seem like an absurd question. Everywhere you turn these days, consumers are choosing to patronize some companies over others – in industries as varied as financial services, dry cleaning and furniture manufacturing – because of their environmental bona fides. Among beverage makers, archrivals Coke and Pepsi seem to spend as much time bragging about their newfangled earth-friendly bottles than the stuff they put in them.

So why has the environment been a big green blind spot in brewery marketing?

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Sure, people already know the Canadian beer industry is a model of recycling efficiency. But it's also a thirsty water guzzler in the manufacturing process, and notorious for gobbling fuel by trucking large shipments of heavy liquids across vast distances.

This year, a handful of Canadian beer brands seem to have finally clued in to the rest of society's great environmental awakening. In April, Labatt's Alexander Keith's beer unveiled its Keith's Green Initiative, whereby drinkers who purchased a specially marked case of the brew and then logged on to the brand's Facebook page could help drive a total of $75,000 in donations to one of four environmental charities.

And next week Molson Canadian will wrap up its , a summer-long volunteerism initiative involving shoreline cleanups, tree planting, and the restoration of urban parks across the country.

The Keith's project was sparked by consumer research, which found drinkers of that brand care more than others about environmental causes. "Cause marketing ranks very high for them," said Dave Nicholls, the beer's brand manager. (He declined to share the specific research or the level of passion that drinkers of Labatt's other beer brands have about the environment. Still, it seems clear from his comments that consumers of, say, the party-oriented Budweiser, whose marketing often involves sending contest winners to hot spots on carbon-spewing airplanes or cruise ships, have other priorities.)

Keith's drinkers, Mr. Nicholls said, "want to believe in the products they're choosing, so by being able to tell them in a meaningful way that the beer they choose is reducing their impact on the environment by conserving water year after year, reducing energy usage year after year, by recycling to the level we do year after year – I think that gives them a sense of pride in the product."

Mr. Nicholls noted that Labatt research had never before turned up a special interest in environmental causes among its customers.

But had the company ever asked them about the issue? "No, we had not," he acknowledged.

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Molson, too, only recently began asking its drinkers about their interest in the environment and other progressive issues that fall broadly under the rubric of "corporate social responsibility." That may be one reason they were shocked to discover that roughly 50 per cent of respondents said they actively sought out green companies to patronize.

"That's what gave us the courage to go ahead and create the Molson Canadian Red Leaf Project," said Jamie Sprules, that beer's senior brand manager.

In partnership with Tree Canada, the World Wildlife Fund and Evergreen, the brand sponsored the professional planting of 100,000 trees this summer and organized 10 urban park cleanup events across the country. If volunteers' commitment to the environment wasn't enough to draw them in for the cleanup days, Molson sweetened the pot with free tickets to local concerts it sponsored, given away to the first 100 people to sign up.

The project helps reinforce the brand's positioning, unveiled during the Vancouver Olympics last year, as a beverage "Made From Canada" whose fans celebrate this "awesome land."

Still, it would be a mistake to assume Molson Canadian intends to become an advocate for environmental causes. "Our objective is really to get Canadians thinking about the land in which they live, and what we can do as a group to help make it better," Mr. Sprules said. "There are lots of brands around the world with different perspectives on the environment. I don't think we're trying to be the greenest product out there."

Labatt, too, is taking a cautious approach before deciding how deeply to embrace the cause. "There's a lot of weight on the shoulders of the Keith's team to understand the importance of this," Mr. Nicholls said, "and getting an understanding of how relevant it is to consumers that their beer is actually involved in green initiatives."

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But while the large breweries want to wait for the market research to come in, a number of small craft brands have already made deep commitments, driven as much by their handmade aesthetic as by admiration for green heroes.

In downtown Toronto, the of Steam Whistle Brewing use a host of environmentally friendly services, including the alternative energy provider Bullfrog Power, deep lake water cooling provided by Enwave, steam heating, and a proprietary green bottle of thick glass that can be refilled up to twice as many times as the industry's standard bottle. In 2007, it began telling customers about these green initiatives. And a few months ago, it introduced a new truck to its vintage fleet, a 1958 Chevy Apache dubbed "Retro Electro," that had been retrofitted to run on electric power.

"Beer is a badge product," notes Sybil Taylor, the company's communications director. "If somebody sees you across a room and you're holding a particular kind of beer, it speaks about your character. So people are looking for something to represent themselves, and that's why we think it's important that we share our environmental story. It's just one part of our personality, but it's an important part."

Some U.S. beer companies are going even further in embracing sustainable practices. In the fall of 2009, a pair of entrepreneurs opened Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston, a city of about 23,000 in eastern North Carolina whose downtown needed some tender loving care. They bought a few city blocks and renovated the existing buildings with a sharp focus on the environment, using a combination of blue jean insulation (which is not just recyclable but also an excellent sound barrier) and soy-based spray foam insulation, installing a six-kilowatt solar array on the roof that provides enough energy to power their tap room, and constructing a cistern that captures rainwater for use in irrigation, toilets, and watering plants.

"I feel like a lot of craft beer drinkers have the same philosophy as us: being outdoor enthusiasts, wanting a quality product," said Mother Earth's president Trent Mooring. "These are the type of people that are going to pay more money for a quality product that was made using sustainable practices."

He added: "It's like the food movement, where you're going out to eat at these farm-to-table restaurants versus going to McDonald's."

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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