Left: Christmas Ale is one of 26 beers GLBC brews.
By John Petkovic, Special to Greater Cleveland Partnership
Sustainability has become a buzzword, one used so broadly and frequently that it is a marketing pitch as much as a call for social responsibility.
What does it mean anymore?
“It’s a term that’s been used and abused by companies that want you to believe that they’re ‘green,’” says Pat Conway, co-founder of Great Lakes Brewing Co. “It’s about more than promoting your business’ bottom line; you have to look at your environmental bottom line and ask yourself, ‘What am I doing to help create a more sustainable world?’”
Conway knows very well. And not just because the business he founded with his brother, Dan Conway, has pioneered and pursued sustainability in every facet of its operations.
Since 1988, when the St. Edward High School grads opened their brewery on Market Avenue, they have taken what has been given, improved on it, given back and, in the process, embodied what sustainability is all about.
Top: GLBC co-founder Pat Conway. Bottom: The Irish Ale artwork pays homage to Pa Conway, GLBC co-founders Pat and Dan Conway’s grandfather and a proud Irish immigrant.
Great Lakes, which boasts 26 beers and is consistently ranked one of the top 25 breweries in the country, spearheaded the comeback of Ohio City and the ushering in of a new wave of preservation. The Conways revived a once-thriving local beer business that had died by the 1980s. They also brought three Victorian-era buildings back to life, helping reverse the tear-it-down mentality that had leveled countless Cleveland buildings.
The preservationist spirit inspired their ongoing passion project: The historic Coast Guard Station. For decades, the 1940 Art Moderne-style architectural gem sat broken down and abandoned at the intersection of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Great Lakes has raised of thousands of dollars with its Burning River Festival to revive the facility and raise awareness about the importance of the Midwest’s greatest, often neglected, natural resource.
“One percent of the world’s drinking water is drinkable and the extent to which we have abused our Great Lakes is insane,” says Conway. On Wednesday, April 5, he will appear at Baldwin Wallace College to lead a discussion, “Sustainability: It All Started With Beer.”
“In America, we went through a period of excess where things got discarded and no one thought about the consequences on the environment or on society,” adds Conway. “In parts of the world where people have fewer resources they must make use of what is given and preserve and sustain just to survive.”
Conway’s path to sustainability was born an ocean away in Ireland.
“My grandmother, Kitty O’Malley, was from a town called Currane in County Mayo,” he says, referring to the west coast county known for its beautiful landscapes and devastating 19th-century famine that sparked waves of Irish immigration to Cleveland. “She would always say ‘You can’t eat beauty’ — because they had to make due with everything just to survive, and that included embracing and cherishing the land around them.”
Pat and Dan Conway were raised to avoid excess and embrace sustainability as a way of life and, ultimately, as a way of doing business.
For decades, Great Lakes has recycled promotional materials for heating and repurposed vegetable oil to create bio-diesel fuel for delivery trucks. It was one of the first area breweries to compost leftovers (from its restaurant) and to support and engage in local farming. Excess barley from brewing operations is sent to local farmers and bakers to use as animal feed and in the making of pretzels and bread.
“Our grandmother was more of an influence than any corporate trend,” says Conway. “When resources become more scarce we must be thoughtful in our business and environmental bottom line and what we’re going to leave behind to the world.”
Great Lakes has witnessed the consequences of not minding the environmental ledger first hand.
Five years ago, the brewery purchased eight acres of land on Scranton Peninsula for the building of a production facility, taproom and restaurant. Great Lakes has yet to move forward on developing the site for a variety of reasons: economic uncertainty, higher borrowing costs associated with the rise in interest rates and a slowdown in the beer business.
“Covid and the rise of seltzer and other drinks have hurt the beer business,” says Conway. “We took a real hit but we’re bouncing back and adjusting. You have to manage your resources, whether they’re financial or environmental.”
There’s another reason — one that underscores the needs for sustainability — why the brewery is delaying plans for Scranton Peninsula: The former industrial area is a contaminated brownfield in need of costly environmental clean-up or remediation before it can proceed.
“Republic Steel never thought about what they were leaving behind — none of the companies did,” says Conway. “It makes me ask myself: ‘What is Great Lakes going to leave behind?’”
The question leads him both to the past and the future.
“I think of my grandmother and family who came out of difficulty and understood the value of conservation and sustainability on a personal level,” says Conway.
“And then I think of people that work at Great Lakes and hope we all want to be part of a movement that is profitable and has empathy and does its part to help save the planet.”
Our Sustainability Story | Great Lakes Brewing Company
Sustainability: It All Started With Beer | BW Event (April 5, register here)
Sold-out Sustainability Summit leaves attendees inspired and informed — Greater Cleveland Partnership
Earth Day: The Official Site | EARTHDAY.ORG
Greater Cleveland Partnership’s All In vision for a Great Region on a Great Lake has five key priorities: Dynamic Business, Abundant Talent, Inclusive Opportunity, Appealing Community and Business Confidence. All of our work ties back to these values. This story relates to Dynamic Business and Appealing Community.