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Cowbell Brewing: Hopping Aboard the Eco Train

A new Ontario craft brewery is redefining what it means to produce beer sustainably.

Craft beer versus mainstream beer isn’t a match between shirts and skins. That is to say, the ingredients are, essentially, the same; the labels can be hard to distinguish; and one side has often bought a stake in the other. Where they differ is that craft beer leans heavily on a “flavour first” mantra to stand apart from the mass-market, commoditized product while also trying to make a case that it’s the more ethical choice.

When the Sparling family opens Cowbell Brewery in late spring of 2017 – if all goes to plan – it will become an ambassador for Blyth, Ont., a small town in Huron County halfway between Stratford and Lake Huron’s popular summer destinations.

Blyth is known for its Canadian theatre festival, but Cowbell hopes to add “Canada’s first sustainable destination brewery” to the list of attractions.

Over the past few years, some of Ontario’s best-known craft breweries have made great strides toward sustainability. Beau’s, for example, uses green energy from Bullfrog Power, and its labels are made from 100 per cent recycled paper. Steam Whistle Brewing reuses its bottles up to 45 times apiece, and all of its packaging is made from recycled materials.

Cowbell is joining a broader community of craft breweries that are setting water reduction as goal.

But Cowbell wants to redefine the meaning of sustainability in beer production. The brewery has serious plans to be conscientious about its water usage, its carbon footprint, its ingredients and the resources that go into distribution.

“We felt we had a privileged opportunity,” says Stephen Sparling, Cowbell’s principal investor, “to get behind something that was in line with some of the other aspirational things that were going on in Huron County.”

Beer production can do a real number on water supply, since everything – from the fermenting tanks to the bottles – needs to be rigorously cleaned. Cowbell is joining a broader community of craft breweries that are setting water reduction as goal.

“Small to mid-sized brewers really aren’t keeping an eye on the water yet, because there are so many other business challenges,” says Michael Fagan, senior vice president of Bloom, a Canadian sustainability group that helps breweries manage their water consumption. “The average is 10 litres of water per litre of beer,” he adds. “Some are more, and some are less.”

Cowbell plans to put that standard to shame with an ambitious 4:1 target.

Brewmaster Stephen Rich has a stronger motivation than most to achieve his efficiency target: all of the water for his beer has to come – via well – from the aquifer more than 100 feet below the brewery.

Cowbell is also aiming to be Canada’s first carbon-neutral brewery with a thorough tree-planting scheme.

Allan Avis Architects (from nearby Goderich) designed an in-house water treatment system to safely return Cowbell’s waste water to the groundwater table, which will make Cowbell Canada’s first closed-loop brewery. This means ‎that they won’t draw any water from a municipal supply and won’t add any load to a sewer system.

“Because of the space restrictions on the site, we’ve limited the amount of water Stephen uses,” says Matt Nigh, the project technologist. “The more efficient he is, the more beer he can brew.”

“At all incoming points (brewhouse, cellar and packaging area) we’ll have metering so that we know how much water is coming in,” says Rich. “One of our ideas,” he adds, “was to put up a display in the front to show people what our water usage is.”

Cowbell’s plot of land (a former cow farm, hence the the name) has been in the Sparling family for decades. It’s across the highway from Sparlings Propane, the successful company that grew out of the hardware store Stephen Sparling’s father established when he came to Blyth after the Second World War. So the family’s long connection with Blyth has a substantial influence on how they are guiding their plans for the brewery.

Cowbell is also aiming to be Canada’s first carbon-neutral brewery with a thorough tree-planting scheme.

There are 12,000 seedlings already in the ground at the Blyth site, and Cowbell’s sales reps across Ontario will be adding to that tree tally. They’ll be responsible for finding a way to balance the carbon expenditure of their sales calls and deliveries with a reforestation plan within their territory.

Cowbell plans to grow some of its own ingredients, too.

“Our intent,” says Rich, “is to plant some hops, some barley and other fruits and vegetables that grow and thrive locally for use in the brewery and the kitchen.”

Outside, on the 100-seat patio, guests will be shaded by a living green roof, covered by different plants on a rotating basis so that something is always in season. And while the brewery’s buildings and parking will take up seven acres, the other 52 will be devoted to farming.

”I fear that, increasingly, people don’t recognize that food comes from farms – not the frozen section in the grocery store,” Stephen Sparling says. “So, if people are coming to visit a farm, we should show them what grows on a farm.”

The hope is that short-distance sourcing will build camaraderie among nearby businesses while also cutting down on carbon impact.

Because of the site’s size and weather conditions, Cowbell won’t be able to cultivate all of the ingredients it will need. So what they can’t grow, they will buy from local suppliers, where practical.

That means Blyth Farm Cheese and other nearby purveyors for the restaurant, but Cowbell will also dedicate one of its taps to a rotating selection of beers made by other professional brewers in Huron County. The hope is that short-distance sourcing will build camaraderie among nearby businesses while also cutting down on carbon impact.

Cowbell’s main attractions on tap will include five year-round beers and 10 rotating releases or nitrogenated versions of other taps (stout drinkers will be familiar with nitrogenated beer: it’s when nitrogen gas is added to the usual carbon dioxide to create a drink with a creamier mouth feel, a smoother flavour and less harshness).

For now, Cowbell has one beer, called Absent Landlord, widely available at the LCBO. The clean lagered ale is meant to appeal to locals who might drink Bud Light or Busch, but also to craft beer aficionados in larger markets who are more spoiled for choice. (The name refers to the wealthy Englishman who owned a large chunk of Blyth – but never set foot in it – when it was being settled.)

A second beer called Doc Purdue’s Bobcat, billed as an Ontario west coast pale ale, will join Absent Landlord in October.

Cutting water usage, balancing carbon output and being an ambassador for the region are all lofty goals. But if Cowbell can hold to the simple mission that Stephen Sparling has set out – “every day we endeavour to do the right thing” – they might be able to get there.

And they’ll be able to boldly stand apart from big beer, too.

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