Brewing with purpose
Brewer Patrick Conway wants to make great beer, but he's just as concerned with protecting the environment
By Anastasia Busiek
In a way, it’s all in the name.
“One-fifth of the world’s fresh water is contained in our Great Lakes,” says Patrick Conway (JFRC ’73–’74, BA ’74). “We have to be the protectors of it.” As co-owner of the Cleveland-based Great Lakes Brewing Company, along with his brother, Dan, Conway sees the company as providing much more than tasty microbrews. In fact, the successful brewery has adopted what it calls a “triple bottom line”—defined as “economic, social, and environmental practices that achieve a sustainable yet profitable business.” The three waves in the company’s logo represent water—the largest ingredient—but also the three components of the “triple bottom line.” It’s less a list of initiatives, although there are many, than it is a philosophy.
It was while studying at the John Felice Rome Center that Conway encountered great European styles of beer, traveling and sampling in the UK, Germany, and Belgium. Years later, while working in Chicago as a teacher and social worker, Conway couldn’t stop thinking about opening a brewery. His brother Dan, then working as a loan officer at a bank, had attended the Rome Center twelve years after Pat, and the experience had resonated equally. “My wife said, 'Do it or don’t do it, but stop talking about it,’” Conway recalls. The two brothers founded Great Lakes in 1988.
Travel exposed Pat Conway to more than just great beers. It also informed the social and environmental missions of the brewery. Time spent in developing countries—after attending graduate school for social sciences at the University of Chicago—showed Conway how people with few resources make the most of them. “We’d see people using newspaper as insulation or a tin can as a shingle. It was eye-opening to me,” Conway says. “I knew that we had to make better use of our resources at home.” He worked for a time at a recycling operation in Chicago, and resource management and sustainability were core principles of Great Lakes from the outset.
Patrick Conway's ties to Loyola run throughout his family tree. His wife Jeanne (BA '77) and all eight of her siblings are also Loyola alums. Jeanne's father, Dick Matre, was also dean of faculty at Loyola for several years. Pat's some Emmett (JFRC Spring '10, BA '11) and Dan's daughter Clare (BA '13) have continued the family tradition by bringing another generation of Conways to the Loyola campus.
“We were doing environmental work, supporting nonprofits, being very careful about our financial status and trying to have measured growth and common sense business plans, even before we called it the ‘triple bottom line,’” Conway says.
There are a number of sustainable practices and facilities that set Great Lakes apart from the crowd. They include a retractable roof and straw bale walls with a heat-radiant floor and fireplace, as well as 12 solar panels and an energy-efficient boiler, at the company’s brewpub. The deep fryer grease fuels a shuttle bus (the “Fatty Wagon”) which transports customers to sporting events. The brewery operates two farms that use composted kitchen scraps and used grain from the brewery. The spent grain is also fed to worms that produce castings used to fertilize the farms. Great Lakes also sponsors the Burning River Festival, an annual event that has raised close to $400,000 for groups that work in the area of water quality and sustainability. The company recycles glass, paper, hops, and brewer’s barley, and makes many of its paper goods from recycled material.
Although these measures can be expensive to put in place, Conway believes that they are entwined with the company’s success. “Our customers are looking for inspiration,” Conway says. “They don’t want to see ‘greenwashing;’ they’re looking for companies that are real models of responsible sustainable practices.”
He appears to be right. The brewery’s sales are up close to 25 percent this year. “I think these are indicators of a customer base that supports us beyond our award-winning beers,” Conway says.
And he intends to keep trying new things, even if they aren’t all successful all the time. “When you’re innovative and trying different things, you’re not always going to bat 100 percent,” he says. “We built a greenhouse that was flawed and never panned out. The solar panels are doing well, but not as well as we’d thought. Our first attempts at working with local farms were abysmal failures, although we are now on track with two farms and they are instrumental in our restaurant having achieved record sales.” It’s being unafraid to fail, he says, that keeps the success coming. “It’s part and parcel of being innovators—you make mistakes,” Conway says. “But we aren’t daunted. We move ahead.”
At a recent company summit, Great Lakes committed to giving back 1 percent of sales to social causes and the arts, and another 1 percent to the environment. “It’s up to us to protect our resources and our community,” Conway says. “It’s part of how we were raised. We want to be successful, but we also want to have fun, to look out for others, and to be generous in spirit.”
Cheers to that.