How drinking beer can save the Great Barrier Reef

Only in Queensland. It's 8pm on a Wednesday night and there are people everywhere. They crowd around the perimeter of a converted World War II blister hangar in the Brisbane inner suburb of Newstead, forming a giant, almost stationery queue. For what?

Free beer served by a gentleman named Jack, who's dressed in a T-shirt with a pair of sunglasses perched high on his burnt, bald head.

We're in the Triffid, a live music space owned by John Collins, former bassist for behemoth Brisbane rockers, Powderfinger. The 250 punters have been invited by local start-up The Good Beer Co. to taste and adjudicate between two beers (the second of which they'll obediently line up for all over again) as well as help decide on a label for the winner. And half the profits will go to saving the Great Barrier Reef. Only in Queensland, indeed.

Great Barrier Beer

But the brains behind The Good Beer Co. belong to an Englishman. A few days later at the Green Beacon, one of several boutique breweries just a stone's throw from the Triffid, James Grugeon lays out the concept: Australia's first social enterprise beer.

It involves one boutique brewery — in this case, Bundaberg's Bargara Beer Company — matched to one charity partner — the Australian Marine Conservation Society — with Grugeon and his team in the middle mobilising and engaging an audience. The result will be called Great Barrier Beer, with 50 percent of the profits given to the AMCS to help protect the Great Barrier Reef.

It's a deceptively simple idea, tapping into Australia's current craze for craft beer. The first round of funding will come from a $100,000 Indiegogo campaign, $60,000 of which will be channelled to production, the rest used to establish The Good Beer Co. as a going concern.

Mobilising action

The $100,000 target seems steep, but the 42-year-old Grugeon has the runs on the board. He cut his teeth working in corporate responsibility for UK banks and has since led Environmental Protection UK, one of that country's oldest environmental NGOs, acted as UK MD of Cool NRG, an Australian social media enterprise, and been a director of corporate affairs at Eaga, a UK outsource provider of energy efficiency programs.

In Australia, Grugeon helped launch Powershop, last year rated by Greenpeace as Australia's greenest power company, and established a Brisbane office for GetUp!, the social activism group. "I'm not a brewer," he says. "Where I have particular skills is in mobilising large numbers of people to get behind stuff."

To that end, Grugeon has been tapping the AMCS's 85,000-strong database of supporters, while other high profile organisations — WWF Australia and are just two examples, he says — are getting behind Great Barrier Beer on Facebook and Twitter.


Queensland attitude

And everything is crowdsourced. At the Triffid launch, punters were given bottle caps and asked to vote between two different brews, before being tasked with choosing a label for the final beer. "It's about building an engaged and interested audience who want to get behind your beer," Grugeon says, "and who like the idea of it being really easy to give back."

Still, while Grugeon laughs at the idea only a Queenslander would try to save one of the world's natural wonders with a few cold ones on a summer afternoon, he reckons it contains more than a kernel of truth. "Brisbane is genuinely really entrepreneurial," he says. "There's some really exciting stuff here from Stephen Baxter and the [start-up incubator] River City Labs right through to a whole bunch of different co-working spaces.

"Queenslanders don't take themselves too seriously. They work really hard and they play hard as well. And they punch above their weight," he says. "There's a competition between Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane kind of rises above that."

Coldie for a cause

But that sense of community — of the big country town where everyone knows everyone else — has helped too. It explains John Collins and the Triffid's involvement. And on the night of the launch, when Bargara Brewing Company finally exhausted its 200 litres of beer, it was another local brewer, Newstead Brewing Co., who came to the rescue.

"I could imagine if I was trying to do [this] in Melbourne or Sydney, it might be more, 'That's an interesting approach,' rather than what I've had here which is, 'How do I get involved?'" Grugeon says. "The craft brewers that I'm talking to [about a follow-up project] say, 'Why didn't you partner with us?' I think maybe [a Queensland] hustle is a good way of describing it."

But the next round won't necessarily be limited to Queensland. "I've already had about five or six really interesting charities from around the country say, 'Hey, next time can it be us?'" Grugeon says. "This is about growing a national organisation that can sell a lot of beer for good causes. In the process we'll support the craft breweries and have a bit of fun."

So, maybe not only in Queensland after all.