After being laid off as an attorney, a job he never much cared for, Dan Kleban and his brother, two long-time homebrewers, put together a business plan and in 2009, opened Maine Beer Company. More than just make beer, “we wanted to try to prove a point that companies, even as small as we started and as small as we still are, can be a true model for good in the world and really have a positive impact,” Kleban says. The brewery does this by focusing on its carbon footprint and giving back to the environment in meaningful ways, all while making highly rated beers.
CBB // Back when the whole world looked different for craft beer and you couldn’t have imagined necessarily that it would be what we’re seeing right now with almost 7,000 breweries in the United States, why take that kind of risk and jump right into this career of brewing?
DK // I never thought I would become a professional brewer. There were not breweries opening up in the United States at anywhere near the rate that they’ve been opening up over the past six or seven years. But in 2008 and 2009, there were some macro things going on in our economy. There was a big financial year and obviously a big financial collapse, and I was not immune to that. I got laid off as an attorney in the winter of 2009. That actually turned out to be a really good thing for me. It was certainly one of those times in my life where you know you can make the best of a bad situation, and it so happened that just before that, my brother had approached me with the idea [of opening a brewery] because he used to homebrew with me on the weekends, and he knew that I loved and had a true passion for it.
CBB // There are plenty of companies who use a kind of moral approach to sustainability, and they advertise that because it looks like good marketing. It can be a lot harder to put [such an approach] into real practice and have an effect on the people and community around you. What does implementation of those principles look like for your brewery?
DK // You know when a company is sincere in their message, when what they are talking about is really a core value. So going back to the beginning, before we made any beer and we were just drafting a business plan, we knew that we wanted this to be the single driving value of our company. And we gave a lot of thought to how we could embed this in our company and in our culture.
And so early on, before we even sold a bottle of beer, I was browsing craft-beer websites, just to learn about the industry, when I came across New Belgium Brewing’s website. I remember sifting through the website and just looking at their beers, not really looking for anything in particular. But I clicked on a tab that took me to their social-responsibility page and what they were doing. They are very active and engaged, but I came across this organization that they are a member of called 1 Percent for the Planet.
And so I did some more research on this organization, then I took the information to my brother and said, “Check out this organization that’s really cool.” I explained that it’s an [international] organization that’s cofounded by [Yvon Chouinard,] the founder of Patagonia outerwear. Chouinard [and Craig Mathews, the co-owner and cofounder of Blue Ribbon Flies, a retail fly-fishing outfitter,] started this organization with the idea that if every company in the world donated one percent of their revenue—not profits, but top-line revenue—to environmentally focused nonprofits, we could save the world. So if everybody gives just a little bit, we can have a huge impact. This is a way for us to keep ourselves honest and also show the world that we’re literally putting our money where our mouth is.
CBB // Was that motivated just out of love for the planet or out of a way to connect with consumers or some combination of both?
DK // Certainly both. It certainly is derived out of a belief that—and I believe it firmly and even more so today than I did back then—organizations or corporations tend to get away with externalizing a lot of costs. Some of the biggest externalities that businesses create are effects on our environment. And what I mean is that these are things that we do to harm things that somebody else has to pay for or somebody else has to live with. We’re externalizing that cost. I truly believe deep down to my core that that’s not right. That’s a free ride that companies are taking on the backs of their communities. For that reason, environmentally focused nonprofits are so important to us.
CBB // From the agriculture that produces ingredients to the manufacturing process and wastewater to shipping and distribution and the carbon that’s produced, as a production company in a business that makes things and creates waste, how do you live out those values?
DK // We certainly are in a resource-intensive industry. We use a lot of water; we produce CO2; we use a lot of electricity. I think it’s especially important for manufacturing facilities such as breweries to be conscious of these things. Not everybody has the same means, right? Certainly Sierra Nevada and New Belgium and other larger breweries can do a lot more [than small breweries] and have done a lot—all the credit to them in the world for doing what they do.
We started brewing 45 gallons of beer at a time. We didn’t have solar panels over a carport; we couldn’t capture the CO2 and reuse it. That’s just not our reality. So the rule we live by is you do what you can do. I think as long as you’re constantly reminding yourself of why you’re doing what you do—and for us it’s because we want to have this positive impact on our communities—you will make business decisions that are consistent with that purpose.
For example, three years ago, we had the ability, if we wanted to, to add capacity. We were selling all the beer we could make, and we could have bought some more fermentors and easily sold that beer and made more money, and that wouldn’t have been a problem. But we also knew that our mission was to minimize our environmental impact. So instead of investing in more fermentors, we invested in a quarter- million-dollar solar-panel project.
The reason was twofold. First, it was to keep ourselves honest. This is why we exist. We don’t exist just to make beer and to make as much of it as fast as we can. That’s not why we’re here. It was also to show the people who buy into our belief system that we haven’t abandoned them. We’re still staying true to who we are. To some people, it might be surprising because I think the typical business ethos is profit-driven. It’s just try to maximize profit, shareholder profit. If you can grow, you should, and if you happen to make money, then give back to charity. We flipped that on its head.
If you lead with your values, you lead with giving back, your commitment to the planet and your community and your employees. That’s going to resonate with the beer drinkers. That’s what’s going to distinguish you in a crowded marketplace. Values.
CBB // I think you have to step back and say people aren’t necessarily going to buy beer that’s not as good or as high-quality—if it’s just based on the values alone.
DK // That’s correct. But when you are on a fairly even playing field with other breweries producing similar quality of beer, then those values come into play. It’s not just transactional with the people who are into our beer. Yes, they’re drinking our beer in part because they enjoy it. You connect with them on a much deeper level, which creates a durable relationship. And it will be much longer lasting.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.