5 minutes with Rob Wilson, the boss turning bread into beer

Social enterprise Toast Ale's 'Chief Toaster' is on a mission to prove that the alternative to food waste is delicious, pint sized and profitable.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 03 Apr 2018
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What’s your favourite beer? A traditional pint of english ale or maybe a strong european pilsner is more to your taste? But how about beer made out of… bread?

Beer made out of bread sounds like a strange concept, but go back thousands of years and you’ll find that bread was the base ingredient for some of the very first beer recipes. You may be less surprised to read that bread is one of the most wasted food products today, with 44% of the bread baked in the UK going to waste.

Social enterprise Toast Ale thinks it's found a way to kill two birds with one loaf  - turn the bread into beer.

Founded originally by the best selling author and foodwaste campaigner Tristram Stuart, the start-up donates 100% of all profits to foodwaste charities. Since 2016, it has produced 130,000 litres of beer, has franchises in five continents and supplies major retailers including Tesco, Waitrose and Wholefoods.

But what challenges are presented by running a growing social enterprise, and do they differ from other businesses? MT sat down for a slice with Toast Ale's 'Chief Toaster' Rob Wilson. 

Beer from bread? 

We are trying to tackle food waste in a very delicious and accessible way. So we brew our beer using perfectly good fresh bread that would other wise go to waste. There is at least one slice of bread in every bottle of beer we produce.

We get all of our bread from the sandwich industry. It is cheaper for the sandwich company to give us the bread free of charge than to pay for a waste disposal company to remove it. There is this financial no-brainer in the process where it is actually cheaper to produce, it tastes fantastic, it takes beer production back to its origins and it has an environmental impact. 

You have an interesting title. What does a Chief Toaster actually do?

I am the CEO. I run the business globally and it is a challenge. I know it sounds like we are not, but we are a totally regular business. We have shareholders, we incentivise our staff with competitive salaries and we're driven by profit - we want to make as much profit as possible, we just give it away.

We've developed a structure that we call 'Equity for good', where we've invited shareholders on the principle that they're never going to receive dividends - they'd rather those dividends go to good. We've also asked of our shareholders that if they ever sell their shares, or if there ever is to be a partial exit of the business, then we want them to reinvest any gains they make in other social enterprises or charitable organisations. 

It's really important to emphasize what a team effort this has been; the campaigner and author Tristram Stuart came up with the initial idea but isn't involved on a day to day basis. Then two other really important members of the team have been Louisa Ziane our CBO and Julie Prebble our Sales and production manager.

We've managed to capitalise the business, we've got money to grow and we're expanding the team. 

How quickly has it grown?

When we started in 2016, we were based in Hackney in east London, brewing very small batches. We quite quickly outgrew the facility there and moved to a much bigger brewery up in Yorkshire. Then we outgrew that, so moved to the brewery we are currently with [Wold Top Brewery - also in Yorkshire].

Last July 4th, we launched a subsidiary in the US and are now brewing in New York and distributing across the east coast of the US. It's a huge beer market but it is also one of the worst offenders when it comes to food waste.

We've also franchised a lot and are now brewing under franchise or licence in Brazil (in Rio), in South Africa (in Cape Town) and in Iceland (in Reykjavik). We have intentions to be brewing in over 30 countries in 30 years as we look to really build the brand but also the mission.

Because of our environmental principles, it would be hypocritical and counter-intuitive to export our beer, so what we are trying to do is brew locally all over the world, tackling local bread waste and producing really delicious beer for the local market.

What is the biggest challenge running a social enterprise, compared to a conventional firm?

We have the same challenges as any other business. We are two years old, cash flow is always tight. 

You're worrying about how much you should be brewing. Some of our bigger customers might suddenly order ten pallets of beer - and we're a business that is still quite small. We don't want to sit on it for too long because it's good if customers have beer as fresh as possible, but can we afford to be brewing as much as we can?

The challenges aren't necessarily so different because we're a social enterprise, it's just that we think - and I don't want to sound judgmental - at a very deep level when it comes to our impact. We're motivated by the mission, so we would never do something if it was only about money, but at the same time we would never do something if it wasn't financially sustainable. So it's really about trying to find a balance in business.

How do you measure success? 

We basically built the whole business on four core principles. First and foremost, really delicious beer. We do have a cuddly story behind it, but if it is not really good quality beer you may as well forget about it.

Secondly, its about trying to eliminate bread waste through our beer, but also the wider beer industry. Third thing we're doing is trying to communicate food waste in a really fun and successful way. The fourth principle is donating 100% of our profits to food waste charities.

So there is all of this environmental impact that is driven by a business model based on growth. Obviously the more beer we sell, the more money we can give to charity as well. It really does create this holistic model that is built on fundamental business principles, but those fundamental principles lead to positive impact rather than just capital growth where wealth creates wealth.

What's the ultimate objective?

Our ultimate mission is to see the entire beer industry shift. We've open sourced our beer recipe - that's been downloaded 20,000 times - and we're starting this sort of bread beer revolution as we call it. We've seen dozens of breweries now around the world copy our idea. We are nearly always involved in some way, shape or form as they take on the concept.

I think consumers - we're certainly seeing it anyway - are really hungry for brands with a purpose, but a really authentic purpose. A lot of brands are faking purpose and will have strategies on how to look and seem more impact and purposeful.

When companies just give 1% of their profits to charity, or sign up to some greenwashing campaign. I think consumers can see through it. They understand these days the brands that are authentic and those that aren't, so for us it is about driving something that is truly authentic in every sense of the word.

Image credit: Toast Ales



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