As the creator of a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, food production is a large contributor to the climate crisis. Yet nearly a third of that food is wasted. Until governmental policies are changed and a more sustainable food system is built, it has become apparent that we need to find our own ways to reduce the amount of food we waste, whether it’s through how we manage our home meal planning, or — even more importantly — how food companies can find ways to reduce waste within their own business model.
Toast Ale, a UK-based brewing company, is among the businesses aiming to tackle this food waste problem head on. Using surplus bread to brew beer, they hope to create a circular economy that produces tasty, sustainable beverages. Their circular economy model, which is regenerative by design, reduces the need for barley by using bread that otherwise would go to waste. This practice is designed to use less land, water, and energy, and avoid carbon emissions. But the company’s biggest mission is to educate people about wastefulness within the food system and their role in changing that.
I had a chance to sit down and chat with Louisa Ziane, the co-founder and chief operating officer at Toast Ale. She spoke with me about Toast Ale’s unique business model and how the company was born from the desire to do something about our environmental crisis. “Part of our work has been to leverage the power of the industry to create a more circular economy,” Ziane says. “That can really shift the scale in terms of redirecting surplus bread to be captured in the food system and upcyling that into beer.”To spread this circular economy, Toast Ale recently partnered with 24 breweries, including Guinness, and brands owned by Heineken and Asahi, to launch a Companion Series of 26 brand new beers that are all brewed with surplus bread and other sustainably sourced ingredients. More notably, all partners signed an open letter calling on world leaders to make concrete commitments to tackle the climate crisis at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). This partnership shows that even “rival” companies can work together to support the big issues.
Chris Marquis: First and foremost, could you tell me a little bit about Toast Ale?
Louisa Ziane: Of course! Toast Ale is a craft brewery that uses surplus bread from the bakery industry to brew its beer. All our profits go to charities that are working to fix the food system. We’ve set up a model to distribute profits to charity partners rather than to shareholders, and commit at least 1% of revenue to ensure our charity partners have a reliable stream of income. We’ve also devised a funding model called Equity for Good, which requires our investors to commit to reinvest their net capital gains whenever they sell shares into other businesses with an environmental mission.
Marquis: How did you and Toast Ale’s other co-founders, Tristram Stuart and Rob Wilson, come up with the idea to start this company and create such an interesting business structure?
Ziane: Tristram has been a food waste campaigner all of his life. He wrote a book called “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal,” which looks at the entire food system and the reasons why waste occurs at the farm level, the retail level, in hospitality, and in people’s homes. He also founded a charity called Feedback, which is our main charity partner, to look at some of those systemic drivers and work at a government and industry level to try to change them - policies like overproduction, meeting cosmetic standards, etc.
The idea for Toast Ale didn’t come about until Tristram met a brewer in Brussels who had brewed beer using bread from a local bakery. We knew the ancient Mesopotamians used to ferment breads into a ‘divine drink’, but it was only when tasting the Brussels Beer Project beer that we saw an opportunity to use delicious beer to solve a huge waste problem while raising money for charities that are working to change the underlying causes.
Marquis: What do you want Toast Ale to achieve as a company?
Ziane: We have three important goals. One, to maximize the use of surplus bread. Two, to raise funds for charitable work. Three, to raise awareness about food waste. The latter is an opportunity to address climate change, because the food system itself is such a huge contributor. Reducing food waste is one of the most impactful, equitable, and simplest measures we can take to tackle climate change in line with the Paris Agreement. So a big part of what we hope to do is to raise awareness and inspire action. This is why we launched our Companion Series.
Marquis: Can you tell me a little more about Toast Ale’s Companion Series? It’s a really interesting concept.
Ziane: It is basically a series of collaborations with other businesses. We had done collaborations before, but not at this scale. For example our Rise Up campaign, was a series of six limited-edition beers in partnership with fellow B Corp brands, released over nine months. Each was brewed with surplus fresh bread and other ingredients sourced from partners. For example, we went to a chocolate company to make a chocolate stout; we went to a coffee company to make a coffee porter; and we made a mango IPA with surplus mangoes and raspberries. Then we used each beer in the series to highlight a different element of the ecological crisis, including forests, oceans, rivers, soil, biodiversity, and climate. It really resonated with people.
We used the Rise Up Series to help educate people about the food system and how it impacts so many different areas of our planet. But we also wanted to chart a course of action, so we set up a space on our website where people could easily find their MP (Members of Parliament) and write to them — where they could directly ask that our food system be taken into account in environmental policy.
Then, to draw attention to climate issues and to highlight the importance of reducing food waste in advance of COP26, we wanted to leverage the power of an industry coming together — to find solutions cooperatively. We wanted to set an example to show that businesses are capable and willing to do that, and that we expect governments to be doing the same. So the idea was born that we take our collaborative way of working to the next level with 26 simultaneous collaborations. We choose to work with breweries that would normally be considered our competitors and show that we could work together to create change.
Through this campaign we wrote an open letter calling on world leaders to make concrete commitments to tackle the climate emergency. We wanted to demonstrate publicly that small social enterprises like Toast Ale can work cooperatively with competitors big and small on an issue that’s bigger than all of us.
Marquis: How do you get some of these larger companies to sign up? I imagine it’s a different pitch than with some of the smaller craft breweries you are in touch with more regularly.
Ziane: We had already built relationships with many of the people involved, through past collaborations and meeting at events like beer festivals. We also have an amazing board who are well connected and could connect us with with key people. Given the fairly short time we had to turn the project around, it was important to personally connect with someone senior in the large businesses so their teams had approval to continue to build on the relationship.
Another important thing we did was we made sure that we understood the businesses we were asking to get involved in the project as much as possible. We wanted to mitigate the risk of negative press associated with partners that may have deflected from our key message. There were a couple of breweries we decided not to approach on this basis.
Marquis: So how does this work? You have breweries who have presumably never brewed with bread before. Did you help them with the product development?
Ziane: Over the past six years we've refined the process of sourcing our bread — tracing allergens in ingredients, food safety etc – and processing the bread to reduce to the size (similar to a crouton), and moisture content (we dry it in a bakery environment using the residual heat of the ovens). The latter preserves its life but also avoids adding any additional liquid into the brewing process. For our Companion Series, we processed additional surplus bread and supplied it to our partner breweries so they did not have to deal with the sourcing and preparation. Our brewer then worked with them, advising on recipe development, the percentage of bread versus malt, how to incorporate it into the mash and so forth. But really, brewing with bread is not too complex with adjustments to the recipe and process.
Marquis: Were there any surprises or challenges that had to be overcome as a result of this collaboration?
Ziane: A lot of the surprises were actually positive surprises. For example, how willing the other breweries were to sign up with us and how supportive they were throughout the entire process, even in supporting the product sales. With this project, we dedicated a donation to two separate charity partners: Rainforest Trust UK and Soil Heroes Foundation. It was amazing to see our partners – or Companions - use their channels to ask their customers to purchase from this series to support these charities.
I was also really surprised at the ease of getting some of these companies to sign off the wording of the open letter, particularly some of the bigger brands. But I think once you have a project that everyone cares about — with everyone really clear on its purpose from a mission perspective — it’s easier. It was also a special time, in the lead up to the COP26 (UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties) and Toast is a respected, trusted brand on climate issues.
The main challenge has been selling through the cases in difficult market conditions. At launch, we sold a lot very quickly with our core audience, who already understand the concept of using surplus bread and its positive environmental impact and know the beer tastes great. But new audiences presented a new communication challenge. We didn’t push the product because the purpose of our project was the to communicate the message in the COP26 open letter. We probably took it for granted that the cases would sell quickly. If we do this again, we’ll do it on a smaller scale and engage with our customers to understand what people wanted in terms of beer styles, price point etc.
Marquis: Can you tell me a bit about the charities you’ve chosen to work with in the latest series?
Ziane: Toast Ale’s mission is very clear. We want to fix the systemic issues within the food system. For this particular project leading up to COP26, we wanted to focus on the climate crisis. Reducing food waste is a key opportunity to reduce emissions from the production of food, including deforestation and land change, so we wanted to work with organisations that focus on both the food system and tackling deforestation. Rainforest Trust UK works to preserve forests, either by protecting the rights of Indigenous people historically lacking legal claim to their land, through designating national parks, or even by buying land if the other options are not available.
We also wanted to focus on the production of the very food that people eat in the UK and where that comes from — our soil systems. So we partnered with the Soil Heroes Foundation. We had worked with this organisation before when we were looking at our own carbon footprint. I loved the work they were doing to improve soil health, which enhances water retention and sequesters carbon. Our industrial food system degrades soil — from loss of topsoil by tilling to the over application of artificial fertilisers (which also pollute river systems, and ultimately the oceans). But there are opportunities to regenerate soil through regenerative farming methods, and Soil Heroes works to support farmers to transition to these regenerative practices. The Companion Series is helping subsidize some of the work that’s been done by leading farmers in the UK.
With both of these organizations, we liked that they offered measurable ways to talk about the positive impact each of our customers had on the environment - the number of trees protected or the amount of carbon drawn down. I wanted people to be able to buy our beer and know what they were supporting; to make it a little more tangible to the consumer.
Marquis: Do you have any advice for other businesses looking to get involved in activism?
Ziane: It’s all about finding your purpose. What matters to you? What campaigns can you work on that will help to solve a problem within your industry, whether that’s food systems or fashion or energy? Find other organizations that align with that mission with whom you can collaborate. You may already be a part of communities that make this easy, like B Corps who are very open to approaches to partner from other B Corps. It’s a great way to reach a new audience. There is power in working together – it’s hard work to set up, but more fun and rewarding in the long term.