Using Quality Water to Create Consistent Products with Half Acre Beer Co.’s Matt Gallagher

June 28, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’ve got on the line with us Matt Gallagher, who’s the co-owner and the head brewer at Half Acre Beer Company back in the great Windy City of Chicago. Welcome to Green is Good, Matt Gallagher. MATT GALLAGHER: Hey, thanks for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, listen, Matt. We’re so excited to have you on because we’re talking a little bit about the nexus of beer, but before we get into it, talk a little bit about who is Matt Gallagher and how did you become the co-owner and head brewer at Half Acre over in Chicago? MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah, I grew up in New Jersey, went to engineering school, and lived out in Colorado for a few years, so that was a big shock moving from New Jersey to Colorado. You know, much different culture. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What part of Jersey did you grow up in? MATT GALLAGHER: This place called West Windsor. It’s kind of Central Jersey. So, yeah, I go on out to Colorado, and they have such an established brewing culture out there. I was out there early 2000s, and really got into beer out there. Then I ended up moving to Chicago for a job, and kind of got here into Chicago and was wondering where all the breweries were. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. And so then you started your own? MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah. So, I worked for five years, then I ended up wanting to make a change. Me and my partner Gabriel — he had already gotten things started with Half Acre Beer Company, and I just sent him an e-mail and we ended up getting in touch and hanging out for a while. I ended up quitting my job and coming onboard and help figuring it all out. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. So, talk a little bit – and thanks for joining us today, Matt – We were just talking with Karen Hobbs from the NRDC, the great organization, the NRDC. For our listeners out there, please support them at nrdc.org. They’re doing great work on so many issues, be it water and way beyond. Matt, talk a little bit about what you’re doing over at Half Acre with regards to water, and how did you get involved with Karen and the great folks at the NRDC and this whole great water and beer campaign? MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah, well, we’re lucky enough to be right here in Chicago where Karen is headquartered, so it was pretty easy for us. She asked us, and we said of course. You just talked to Karen, so you saw how great she is. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah. So, wait a second. I grew up listening to all these great commercials about beer and, you know, the quality of hops and the quality of barley. They never talked about water that much. Why is water so important to the beer-making process? MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah, well, water, you know, by volume makes up most of what you’re drinking when you’re drinking a beer, so it’s vitally important to the beer quality. So that’s why historically you see a lot of the breweries that have lasted hundreds and hundreds of years are located on great water sources like in London and the Czech Republic, where they have very different water sources, but both terrific. Water is huge to beer. Its pH, its mineral content, all is going to affect the flavor of the beer. It also helps, you know, each beer coming from different water sources. They’re going to taste different, so it helps differentiate your beer and really give it a sense of place. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, let’s stop there. You’re a brewer, you’re also an entrepreneur, Matt, and you just talked about water sources and stuff like that. I used to be in the brewing industry many lifetimes ago, and it’s funny. My head brewer, when she was setting up our facility, she had the water tested and she met with the city officials back in that city where we were opening up, and she found out that on any given day the water could come from 17 different sources, and so she decided to put a reverse osmosis system. Is the same true in most cities, in Chicago and other great cities, that the water could come from numerous sources and you have to put in some equalizers to protect the baseline and the quality of the water going into your beer products so you’re able to create a consistent and good beer? MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah. There are a fair amount of breweries that do that, you know, based on the quality of their incoming water, and yeah, if it’s going to be changing from season to season. But for us, being here right on the shores of Lake Michigan, the city does have multiple intakes coming from Lake Michigan, but they’re all fairly similar. They’re all coming from the same lake; they’re all coming from the same source. So, we don’t worry about it at all. We do a little bit of mineral adjustment, mostly for pH, but it’s very minute. We pretty much just roll with the Lake Michigan water. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Is the water considered always pretty good in Chicago? I’m in New York City, and New York City water is considered quite good. Is the Chicago water system considered quite good? MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah, it is. When I moved here, everyone was bragging about how good the tap water is, so the Chicago population is very proud of their tap water. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Cool. How many brewers like you have joined onto this great program with the NRDC, and how is this becoming a bigger and bigger campaign? MATT GALLAGHER: It really is. I don’t know the exact number, but I want to say it’s in the 40s now. It’s becoming a lot more important for a lot of these small breweries to be thinking about these things. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What’s your overall mission? You know, every brewery is idiosyncratic and it has their own business mission, just like every business does. What’s your overall mission at Half Acre, and how does clean water come into play with that? MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah. What we do is, you know, we’re a fairly small brewery and we’re right in the city of Chicago, right in a neighborhood, and there’s apartments and houses right across the alley from our brewery, so we’re very integrated into the community that we brew in. The whole community spirit, community atmosphere is very important to us. We mostly sell our beer in the Chicago area, I’d say about 95% of our beer is sold and consumed in the Chicagoland area. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So you make it locally and you sell it locally. MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah, exactly. Of course, protecting our water source is huge, and the city of Chicago, being right on Lake Michigan, the lake really dominates the city, and we just want to make sure that we don’t screw it up. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. For our listeners out there if you just joined the show, we’ve got Matt Gallagher. He’s the co-owner and head brewer at Half Acre Brewery in Chicago, Illinois. You can check him out at halfacrebeer.com. Matt, talk a little bit about sustainability. At Green is Good, we talk a little bit about sustainability with all of our guests and our listeners. They want to hear about sustainability. Talk a little bit about what else makes Half Acre Beer Company sustainable. What else are you doing besides making sure the water is clean and also helping the NRDC enforce the Clean Water Act? What else are you doing in sustainability? MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah, we’re starting to think more about this. When we started about five years ago, we didn’t have a lot of money. We were just trying to get this thing up and running and off the ground. We had these grand ideas of being very eco-friendly and sustainable as kind of an idea and an ideal, but now that we’ve got some traction going, we’re brewing a lot of beer, we have a little more resources to dedicate to improving our processes. I would say the main thing is really improving our efficiency, whether that’s reducing our production loss, reducing our packaging materials loss. If we’re brewing 15,000 barrels of beer a year, if we can package that much, we’re doing really well so that we’re really cutting down on our waste. Other things we’re doing is trying not to overdo rinsing tanks, whether we just rinse a tank for five minutes, or can we figure out maybe three minutes is enough to rinse a tank and it’s nice and clean after three minutes, so we don’t need to waste those extra gallons of water rinsing for an additional two minutes. Those are things now that we have some time to monitor and track and really think about more, whereas before, not having the resources, we did a lot of overkill to make sure everything is clean and sanitized and we’re making quality beer. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m also on your website right now. Again, for our listeners, it’s a great website, very colorful, very descriptive. Check it out at halfacrebeer.com. It also talks a little bit here about what else you’re doing in terms of your environmental conscience. You’re one of the first brewers, if not the first brewer, in Chicago to can your beer. We had the great folks of Alcoa on last week. Kevin Anton, who’s the Chief Sustainability Officer from Alcoa, and aluminum cans are the infinite recyclable, aluminum is, so you’re the first to actually can your beer. MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah, exactly. There were other small breweries before us that were canning, but in the Chicago area we were kind of at the forefront of putting our beer in cans, and they’re great. They weigh a lot less, so shipping costs coming in and going out are a lot more efficient. They are obviously more recyclable. You can take them to the beach. When you’re done with them, you can crush them so they take up less space in your recycling can. You can take them a lot of places. So, yeah, the cans are a lot of fun for sure. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How about energy efficiency? What else are you doing with regards to energy efficiency and the CBI, the Commercial Building Initiative, and things of that such? Chicago is a very progressive city. We’ve had some of your great leadership on our show before. What is Half Acre Beer Company doing with regards to energy efficiency? MATT GALLAGHER: We’re in the midst of a real thorough energy audit at the moment that the Shaw Company is doing for us. They approached us and wanted to use us as a test case, so we said that sounds great. So they had their engineers come into our building, really did a thorough study of where we’re using electricity, where we’re using natural gas, how it’s being used, where are big sources that we could work on reducing. They’re in the process of compiling all the data, and they’re going to be coming back to us with a report that is going to point out if you invest in this, it’s going to pay back in this many months or this many years, you’re going to save this much money. So yeah, we’re super psyched to get that report back. The engineers at Shaw have been great working with us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Matt, we’re down to the last two-and-a-half minutes or so. Talk a little bit about water. Talk a little bit about one or two of your favorite water stories with regards to the importance of beer and what you’re doing over at Half Acre. MATT GALLAGHER: Just a quick childhood memory, growing up in New Jersey, going to the shore. Always going to the shore in the summer, hanging out on the ocean. So you know, the ocean holds a very special place in my heart, so that kind of carries through into what we’re doing here. We use a ton of water. Brewing beer just uses a ton of water, and as we grow, we have to figure out ways to make that more sustainable and we can’t just keep using more and more and more and more because we’re just going to screw it up for the future brewers who are coming up. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re right. Are you going to continue to recruit more brewers and more breweries across America to be part of the NRDC’s great Clean Water Act campaign? MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah, for sure. It’s really becoming kind of a movement in the craft brewing industry, where if you’re not working on sustainability and recycling, reusing, you’re really going to get left behind because there are some great breweries out there that are doing just a lot of fantastic stuff like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium. They’re really leading the charge, and if all the smaller breweries out there don’t really get in line, you’re really going to get left behind. The consumers who are buying our beer, this is very important to them as well. It’s important to our employees, so for us to ignore something like this would be a big mistake. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, 30 seconds left, Matt. Share with our listeners who want to be the next Matt Gallagher a pearl of wisdom or two in terms of being an entrepreneur and working for yourself. MATT GALLAGHER: I think being naïve is the best. We had no idea what we were doing and I’m not so sure we would have been doing it if we knew all the mistakes we were going to make. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, just put one of foot in front of the other and just doing it is sort of your secret recipe to success, huh? MATT GALLAGHER: Yeah, just figure it out, you know. If we can figure it out, almost anybody can figure this out. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. Well, Matt, I just want to say thanks for coming on, and again thanks to the great work you’re doing with Karen Hobbs over at the NRDC. Again for our listeners out there who want to support the NRDC and all the work they’re doing with regards to the Clean Water Act, it’s www.nrdc.org/brewers. Matt Gallagher, I want you to keep doing well and keep leading the charge with regards to clean water and sustainability and we hope that you get other brewers onboard. For our listeners out there, go support Matt and his great partners over at Half Acre Beer in Chicago. You can check them out at halfacrebeer.com. Matt Gallagher, you’re brewing up a lot of success, and we’re proud of you. You’re truly living proof that green is good.