Community Supported Beer: Cooperative Brewing, Baking and Farming for Local Economies


Image credit: Topsham Ales
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has long been a staple of the local/sustainable food scene. More recently, we've seen the model applied to everything from a Community Supported Kitchen to a grain-growing, sail-powered CSA. Now Rob Hopkins of Transition Culture has put together a great compilation of how subscription models, and other types of community support, can help ensure sustainable, vibrant local businesses ranging from bakeries to breweries. Writing as part of his on-going efforts to create an updated, collaborative, crowd-sourced handbook for the Transition Movement, Rob writes about Community Supported Farms, Bakeries and Breweries. He traces the evolution of CSAs, starting with their birthplace in the States as a means to recognize how our communities rely on farms for their very survival, and to take on some of the risk and labor involved in running small farms in the modern economy in exchange for a share of the harvest.

But CSAs are far from the only application of a more intimate and collaborative approach to business. Rob tells the story of Topsham Ales, a cooperative microbrewery that was recently founded out of a Transition Towns initiative in Topsham, Devon in the UK:

"Transition Topsham held a few meetings, often in their local pub, which had been voted one of the 'Top 5 Real Pubs' in England. [...] Then, at a meeting, the idea emerged of creating a community brewery as a project that brought together all the strands the group was interested in: localisation, community ownership and social enterprise. The fact that one member already brewed beer on a small scale helped. They saw a brewery as a great tool for deep engagement across the community, as a passion shared by most members of the community, something attractive to both sexes, something tangible and a great way to demonstrate Transition in action."

Within 2 months the group had raised over GB£35,000 (about US$55,000) and is getting ready for its first launch in February 2011. The group plans to use local grains and hops, and is using a bike and trailer for local deliveries.

Rob also goes on to describe The Handmade Bakery in Slaithewaite, Yorkshire, whose owners used a clever mix of CSA-style subscriptions, co-operative relationships with other businesses, and a commitment to designing work around their desired lifestyles to get the business off the ground:

"Dan and Johanna started small, doing their first baking in their oven at home. They began building a base of subscribers, who paid for two loaves of bread a week, which were collected from a local pub. They observed that most bakers get up at 3am to bake, something, with a small child, they were understandably keen not to do. They also observed that most people make toast with bread in the morning, which can be done with staler bread, and the time you actually want fresh bread is at lunchtime.

They wanted to expand the business, but no premises and no big oven. Then, ingeniously, they approached a local pizzeria, whose oven was only used during the evening, and came to an arrangement to use their oven in the mornings. For two days a week they baked bread for their subscribers, and every Saturday morning the pizzeria became an impromptu bakery where people could drop in."

Interestingly, owner Dan McTiernan tells Rob that subscription-based sales aren't the only way to do things. Rather than basing their entire business on subscriptions, Dan and Johanna started out selling almost exclusively by subscription, but have since expanded to sell 1200 loaves a week, most of which are sold within 7 miles of the bakery. With an expanded customer base, the company now only needs to sell 10% of its products by subscription—although they are considering revamping their subscription offerings to help finance an expansion to larger premises.

Thanks, as always, to Rob Hopkins for not just bringing us the story of these businesses, but also providing some great analysis and comparison so we can learn from what they do.

More on CSAs and Community Supported Business
Hire Your Own Farmer: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
From CSA to Community Supported Kitchen
A Grain-Growing, Sail-Powered CSA

Tags: Agriculture | Economics | Farming | Local Food | United Kingdom