Birdsong Brewing Company was never meant to be the booming business it is today, but as it turned out, seven years ago was the prime time to start a small brewery in Charlotte, and the ever-expanding North Davidson Street corridor was the perfect place to do it.
The brewery began as a “side hustle,” said Chris Goulet, principal owner at Birdsong. At the beginning, it was just Goulet, his wife and a head brewer. The original plan was to open a small neighborhood taproom in which people could hang out or grab a growler to go. Now housed in a 17,000-square-foot facility they moved into a little further down North Davidson Street in the Belmont neighborhood in 2015, the staff is preparing for Birdsong’s seventh birthday party on Dec. 8, featuring four food trucks, three bands, a DJ and some anniversary brews. In that seven years, the brewery has become a model not only for how to succeed in Charlotte’s craft beer scene, but how to do it in a conscious, environmentally friendly way.
But first, let’s look at how they got there
Once Birdsong hired its first full-time sales representative, the brewery began to take off. Then came a distribution manager that created run routes for distributing kegs and cans across the city. As demand continued to increase, Birdsong expanded to Raleigh, Asheville, Wilmington and over state lines into South Carolina by partnering with wholesalers and other distributors.
More hiring, the move into a larger taproom and 30-barrel brewhouse and an increase in distribution have led to a 45-percent yearly average growth for the Belmont brewery, and that’s more than enough reason to celebrate.
During Saturday’s anniversary party, Birdsong will release anniversary canned beers along with a commemorative pint glass. The team couldn’t decide on just one beer to can for the party, so they went with three: a rum barrel-aged oatmeal stout called Rich Girl that clocks in at 11.5 percent alcohol by volume, a fruited sour titled Good Feeling and a continuation of its IPA series with azacca and centennial hops, Vital Signs — a session IPA.
The party also marks almost a full year into Birdsong’s use of solar panels, another endeavor that just continues the company’s already sustainable practices.
According to Goulet, a surprisingly busy second quarter in 2017, thanks in large part to the release of Paradise City IPA, lent them the opportunity to invest in a solar panel installation on the warehouse’s expansive roof, giving them the electric generation they need to decrease their carbon footprint and other negative impacts on the environment that many operations across industries can have.
“From the very beginning we tried to figure out ways to have as small as negative environmental impact that we could, because we realized that even though we were a tiny example, we are a factory,” Goulet said. “But the core of the business is to brew a really good beer, package it, distribute it, have people drink it and then do it again. So it’s a repeating process, so you want to be as efficient as you can and there’s a lot of ways that you can reduce how much you landfill or how much you pollute.”
In 2014, Birdsong Brewing participated in a benchmark study with the Brewers Association, a national organization that recognized Birdsong as the most efficient brewery of its size in water usage. Since then, Goulet said that the brewery is on course to use 3.8 to 3.9 gallons of water for every gallon of beer it brews, while the national average is about 8 gallons. After receiving that recognition from the Brewers Association, they’ve continued to challenge themselves to further streamline their water usage to make it as efficient as possible.
It’s all about sticking to the processes of sustainable water usage. Instead of hosing down the production facility floor to clean it, Goulet said that a simple spray and squeegee will do the trick with a little elbow grease.
When the facility moved from a 10-barrel production to 30 barrel, they switched to an oversized cooling tank that will never overfill, allowing the team to recapture water and reuse it.
“A lot of it is just mindset. If you’re going to run a cleaning cycle on a tank, you run it for the set amount of time. If it’s 30 minutes, you don’t run it for 45 minutes,” Goulet said of the team’s water sustainability processes in their production practices. “You don’t use the extra chemicals and extra water just because you didn’t set a timer, you just follow the process.”
Taking the sustainable mission a step further, Birdsong also takes the spent grain at the end of each batch and donates it to a livestock farmer, who then uses it to feed their livestock. Furthermore, the spent yeast and hops at the end of each batch are packaged and sent to a composting facility, a move which ultimately costs them a bit more, but means that the company doesn’t use thousands of gallons of water flushing out the tanks when they’re done.
Then came the solar panels. After a lengthy “bureaucratic process” with Duke Energy and an inspection from the county, Birdsong was able to make use of the solar panels in January. Since then, the panels have produced about 40 to 50 percent of the brewery’s total electricity usage, according to Goulet. Coupled with a switch to LED lights in the production facility, the stability in the monthly electric bill brings more benefits.
“Probably 90 percent of our power usage is temperature control, and most of that is keeping things from getting too warm,” Goulet explained. “So in the winter we actually use a lot less electricity, but the days are shorter so the panels produce less. But then in the summer we use a lot more electricity, but we have these really long days so we get tons of power from the panels, so my electric bill is essentially flat.”
So what could be next for a brewery that is already so firmly rooted in sustainability practices?
“One thing we talk about that I think is a cool long-term goal would be an electric delivery fleet,” Goulet said.
For in-city use, electric delivery vehicles would be perfect for short route runs and would further decrease the brewery’s carbon footprint. It’s the logical next step for Birdsong’s sustainability practices, and would bring about the same energy and appreciation for the environment that the recent solar panel installation did, Goulet said.
For now, Goulet hopes to expand community partnership and outreach programs to supplement the twice-a-year Little Sugar Creek cleanup events that the brewery holds. The creek clean-up usually brings about 60 to 70 people out and the group returns to the brewery with garbage bags full of trash and “weird stuff” to receive comped beer and food.
It’s just another way that the brewery practices what it preaches in sustainability and protecting the environment.
“That’s just fun because we have an opportunity to kind of show that we’re sustainable and not just talk about it,” Goulet said. “But people come and actually experience it, so I want to do more of that.” Birdsong Brewing Company’s growth in sustainability and its early days is easily attributed to the decision to set up shop early in a time when Charlotte breweries were few and far between.
Now, it can be a daunting task to open a new brewery, and Goulet advises against it.
“Well my famous, historic advice is: don’t do it,” he said.
His advice is not meant to discourage young entrepreneurs from following their dream of owning a brewery, but as a warning for those to understand the work needed and to have a business model fully fleshed out.
“We [had] the luxury of finding our way a little bit early and I don’t think you have that anymore,” Goulet said. “I think you have to hit the ground running, you have to have great beer and know exactly what your business model is, and execute on it. And the days of an undercapitalized brewery called Birdsong that just started up in the back of a warehouse and making it work are probably gone.”
But as for Birdsong’s own business model heading into the next seven years, everything looks sustainable.