The first time we wrote about the then fledgling WA farm-based brewery Rocky Ridge was alongside Stone & Wood and 4 Pines in a feature on sustainable practices in the local brewing industry back in 2018.
Since then, they've become a carbon neutral business, are on track to become carbon positive, and have other eco-focused projects in the works.
Jono Outred paid a visit to see how they're pushing for the craft beer industry to become a local leader in sustainable practices.
Sustainability means different things to different people. The word itself has broad connotations and, in 2021, for some, it can simply come down to being a good marketing ploy.
In modern brewing, however, whether it is just clever marketing or a genuine consideration by brewers and business owners, environmental consciousness is rapidly growing in importance. Brewers now have a growing set of tools they can implement to help offset their impact on a planet dealing with the increasingly violent effects of climate change.
For breweries like Rocky Ridge, in the southwestern WA town of Jindong, eco-friendly practices aren’t just a consideration when brewing, but are key to a business model built on having minimal impact on the environment.
Pay a visit to their expansive property and it doesn't take long to see this in practice. Idyllic landscapes of green pastures and happy, cud-chewing cows aside, the property is unashamedly riddled with solar panels, young native vegetation, and an array of water tanks and silos.
Look a little closer and you might find yourself peering inside the repurposed shipping container that houses solar systems batteries and controls: a lowly lit space with a spaghetti like tangle of cables, control panels and LED lights, all to the tune of a soft, almost therapeutic hum.
Owner and managing director Hamish Coates explains the decision to go down this path wasn’t just one of choice, but also necessity.
"For us, there were two huge factors at play, firstly a lack of availability of three-phase power on site and secondly, but most importantly, it’s the right thing to do," he says.
"We really think it’s an important step for industry, small or large, to take the necessary steps to lower our production of CO2 and lessen our overall impact on the environment."
The challenge of no power, or at least insufficient power, for a brewery is quite considerable but it wasn’t a challenge the team was willing to back away from. After years of blackouts and playing catchup, the Rocky Ridge site has an electricity supply that is 100 percent off grid. Their mammoth system boasts 250 solar panels and 20 batteries which constantly generate 120kW of power, while storing a further 200kW to cover all of the brewery's electricity needs. According to Hamish, the system is actually more reliable than the grid network.
Although eliminating the need for electricity is no small feat for any business, let alone a production-based one, Rocky Ridge haven’t stopped there. In fact, they achieved carbon neutral status in 2021, another gargantuan undertaking that means intensive tracking of the brewery's supply chain from the raw materials and dry goods – bottles, labels and so on – right through to delivery of product to bottleshops nationwide.
"We’ve achieved a complete offset of all emissions in our supply chain," Hamish says. "We are now a net zero business and soon to be carbon positive, via on site planting and revegetation programs.
"We launched our Greener Pastures program last year to bring this to life; for every ten cartons of beer and every keg produced we plant a tree on site."
Carbon neutrality is a long and complicated process and it’s certainly not a simple or cost-effective marketing strategy to boost sales. It demonstrates genuine intentions from the brewery to be a part of a solution, and Hamish admits that, while the process and systems in place to be a carbon neutral business likely don’t affect the quality of Rocky Ridge products to any great degree, they certainly boost the feel good factor.
Marketing and sales is also part of the conversation around the brewery's eco-friendly image, even if Ricky Watt, Rocky Ridge’s brand ambassador and long-time staffer, admits it comes with its challenges.
"In regard to getting our beers out to consumers ... we try our best to avoid unnecessary usage of freight and we are always looking at ways to streamline processes," he says. "We are continuing to work on tracking the miles put on our beers before they reach bottleshops and bars, and trying to find better ways of getting our beers into the hands of punters."
The Rocky Ridge brewers are also shooting to keep the number of litres of water needed to make a litre of beer below three via smarter practices and by implementing wastewater recycling systems and rainwater catchments. On top of that, plans are in the works to install a hydrogen generator that runs off some of that recycled water, making the brewery's diesel generator redundant.
A reduction in plastics and single use products is also a priority, with the team looking at best recycling practices and utilising biodegradable six-pack holders, tape and pallet wraps.
"Posters, shelf talkers and coasters are great marketing tools but we are acutely aware of the fact that they often end up in the bin very shortly after a promotion finishes," Ricky says. "With this in mind, we approach physical marketing assets on a case-by-case basis and make sure we are not producing more than we need to."
Add in a few other initiatives under consideration – CO2 recapture and a switch to electric vehicles – and it's clear they're one of the country's most sustainable breweries. But it's not accolades the brewery team is chasing – it’s changes within the industry and a shift in how breweries consider the environment.
"I’d love to see more breweries concentrating on being as sustainable as possible," Hamish says. "I’d like to think that most others would see that the business case stacks up [eg no energy bills].
"We love to brew great beer – differently. Our focus is on local and fresh, with a huge bias towards Australian-owned and grown. We believe in making a difference, one beer at a time, and we firmly believe it is the responsibility of all businesses and industries, big or small, to lead when it comes to ensuring there is a better tomorrow – for everyone."
In a changing climate – both the actual climate and that surrounding craft beer – there’s evidence that attitudes are changing, and awareness is growing. After all, Rocky Ridge are far from the only brewery taking responsibility and pushing for change.
Rocky Ridge’s near neighbours at Beerfarm, for example, have been focusing on "grain to glass" initiatives for the last few years, while Sydneysiders Young Henrys have been capturing attention with The Algae Project – a process that uses microscopic algae to consume brewery produced CO2, releasing oxygen as a byproduct. And these are just two examples of thousands – from donating spent grain to farmers and installing solar panels to utilising rainwater and so on – to be found in all corners of the industry.
There’s a lot to be said about going green purely because it’s the right thing to do, and in any industry it never hurts to have leaders eager to push the envelope and initiate change. And, whatever their intentions and motivations, Rocky Ridge find themselves as one of the faces of a new, and exciting, movement in Australian brewing.