Could drinking beer save Australia's Great Barrier Reef?
Could drinking beer save the Great Barrier Reef? The unlikely marriage of hedonism and philanthropy seems quintessentially Australian.
But the germ of this fledgling local "good beer movement" began a decade ago in Britain, where James Grugeon had his first inkling of opening a "social enterprise beer company".
Grugeon's first foray into social enterprise – the idea that a business performing a social or environmental good is as important as turning a profit – was working for a big UK government-funded outfit that helped households in energy poverty cut their power bills and household emissions.
Extending the concept to one of the English-speaking world's favourite diversions, drinking beer, seemed an obvious step to Grugeon.
"I've been wanting to put up a social enterprise beer company for a very long time, as my friends and family, my wife will tell you," he says.
"I worked as an environmental activist campaigner, I worked in the private sector in corporate social responsibility roles, I was the manager for an NGO in the UK that did environmental protection stuff.
"And it's been for me a real no-brainer. You take something that everybody enjoys doing, like drinking beer, and you help them to raise money for charity at the same time."
But Grugeon's ambition remained a beer without a cause until he settled last December in Brisbane. This was just as the health of Australia's most famous natural wonder, the reef, was coming under increased scrutiny from Unesco amid controversial and ongoing moves to expand coal shipping through its waters.
Thus, the Great Barrier Beer was born, and with it the local shoots of a concept already proven elsewhere in the world.
Grugeon's Good Beer Company will donate at least half the profits from its first brew to the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS), an organisation that has spent half a century campaigning to protect the reef. While there have been one-off charitable brews and social-enterprise bars, the company says it will be Australia's first beer company with social enterprise at its core.
The brew is to be produced by Bagara Brewing company, a craft exponent based at Bundaberg, the southern gateway to the reef. At a launch in Brisbane last Wednesday, 250 guests were asked to choose the recipe, between an Australian blonde beer and a white IPA. The IPA edged it on the night.
The production will be crowd-funded, with the campaign launched on Tuesday. Grugeon hopes the campaign results in the first batches being in pubs within months.
Crowd funders will be able to vote for new brews and new causes, prompting collaborations with other craft brewers across the country.
With Australians turning in ever-larger numbers away from corporate brewers, Grugeon thinks the Great Barrier Beer is an idea whose time has come.
We meet in a craft brewery in the inner Brisbane suburb of Newstead, one of three within a stone's throw, and with a crowd that trumps most pubs on a Friday night.
"Drinking of the big brands, the XXXXs, the VBs, the Coopers, is going down and people are getting into craft beer," Grugeon says.
"There's no better time to launch this in my opinion because if we can make it really easy for somebody to do something they're already enjoying doing – and we can reinforce that thing that's so important for people about their love of craft beer, which is it's of their community – and we make it something that gives back as well then I'm very confident people will get behind it."
The reef was an obvious choice as a worthy cause, Grugeon says.
He met AMCS campaigners while working to help set up the Brisbane office of activist group GetUp. This led to having a beer with novelist Tim Winton, an AMCS patron, who "loved the idea" of the Great Barrier Beer.
Grugeon hopes the funds that flow from beer sales will help AMCS campaigners from being diverted from their core work on the reef.
"If we can scale this up, make it national and make it a really big success which I'm confident we can do, then there's no reason why we can't generate some really good income for them, which is going to help them to do the work that we want them to do protecting the Great Barrier Reef rather than spending a lot of time on the phone trying to find donors," he says.
AMCS chief executive Darren Kindleysides says any extra funding is a welcome prospect at a time when the reef is "at a crossroads", its chief threat being warmer and more acidic oceans wrought by climate change, he says.
"The government's outlook report says the reef's condition is poor and declining. One of the seven natural wonders of the world is still in the balance," Kindleysides says.
"The Great Barrier Reef is in our DNA. We formed 50 years ago this year and ran the very first campaign to protect the reef, against coral mining back then. Fifty years later we're still campaigning on the reef."
Grugeon says the aim is to "scale up this good beer movement" to the point where it is creating "good sustainable income streams" for other charities.
There is also a desire to influence the rest of the beer industry by promoting sustainable and environmentally responsible practices through "the whole cycle from its brewing to it being in front of you and me".
It is a righteous remit but the typical reaction to date is positive.
"People I talk to are usually like, 'So what you're saying is, have a cold one, relax and I've just done some good work for the Great Barrier Reef?'" Grugeon says.
"It's just, good beer, doing good. Really simple."
• The Good Beer company's crowd-funding campaign runs from 1 December viathegoodbeerco.com.au