Business

It’s not just beer and money: What drives West Sixth Brewery founders?

West Sixth Brewery founders, left to right, Brady Barlow, Joe Kuosman, Robin Sither and Ben Self posed by new fermenters and liquor tanks in 2014 during their first big expansion. The founders think their company’s growth during its first five years has been fueled in part by community engagement, philanthropy and generosity to employees.
West Sixth Brewery founders, left to right, Brady Barlow, Joe Kuosman, Robin Sither and Ben Self posed by new fermenters and liquor tanks in 2014 during their first big expansion. The founders think their company’s growth during its first five years has been fueled in part by community engagement, philanthropy and generosity to employees. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Should business be about more than just making money?

When Ben Self, Brady Barlow, Joe Kuosman and Robin Sither opened Lexington’s West Sixth Brewery five years ago, they thought so.

“We started with the goal of not just making great beer but also having a positive impact on the communities we’re a part of,” Self said.

That meant they wanted their privately held company to be environmentally responsible, philanthropic, supportive of Lexington and other communities where it sells beer and good to their employees.

West Sixth Brewery just published its first annual Sustainability Report, outlining its efforts for the year 2016, and the results were impressive. Among the highlights:

The company has a goal of contributing at least 6 percent of annual profits to non-profit organizations “we believe in.” Last year, the company says donations totaled $122,141.

Fifty cents of every six-pack of Pay It Forward Porter sold went to a variety of charities. Each taproom customer who purchases a flight of beers gets a wooden nickel, worth $1 for company merchandise or a charity donation.

Six percent of sales at a monthly Sixth for a Cause event go to a designated non-profit. The company donated money and gift baskets to non-profits, it sponsored events and generated $69,831 in matching donations from partners.

“We specifically look for opportunities that are mutually beneficial,” Self said of the company’s philanthropy. For example, he said, non-profit events and sponsorship help attract new customers.

“The nice thing about making it mutually beneficial is that it also makes it sustainable long-term,” he said. “It’s not just that when times are good we can do these things and when times are bad we can't. It's something that's so integrated into our business that it will be there always.”

To help build community ties, West Sixth hosts a running club, yoga classes, a Wednesday night farmer’s market and a Pedaling for a Purpose charity program in partnership with the Bluegrass Cycling Club.

West Sixth’s 36 employees earn a “living wage” of not less than $12 an hour, plus they get health insurance, a fully matched 401k for full-time employees and other benefits, including a free meal from adjacent Smithtown Seafood during each shift.

Employees also get incentives for walking, biking or skateboarding to work; 40 hours of paid time off each year to do community volunteer work; and subsidized fresh produce through Elmwood Stock Farm’s community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

And after two years, employees receive a small ownership stake in the company (Self wouldn’t say how much.) This year, he said, 18 of 36 employees will be owners.

Self said treating employees well is good for the company’s bottom line: staff turnover is low and productivity and loyalty are high. “We try to make it really a top-notch place to work,” he said.

West Sixth reported that it spent $1,422,588 with Kentucky businesses and gave 519,904 pounds of spent grain to local farmers for cattle feed last year. It also saved 9,418 plastic cups by switching to reusable stainless steel ones for events.

Last year, the company took a big step in its environmental efforts by buying a 120-acre farm in Franklin County, where it has begun growing ingredients for beer. That includes an acre of hops, 100 apple trees for cider and more than 200 raspberry, blackberry and other brambles for use in its sour beers.

Plans call for the farm’s infrastructure to be completed this year, with a formal launch in the spring that will include public tours.

“We want to remind people that brewing is in fact an agricultural act,” Self said. “We’re working with natural ingredients that come from the Earth and that's why we place such a high value on environmental sustainability.”

Self said he has no doubt that investing in employees and the community has paid off in profits and growth, even as the company has declined opportunities to expand beyond Kentucky and Cincinnati. Last year, West Sixth produced nearly 14,000 barrels of beer, he said. “When we originally wrote our business plan we didn't think we would do that for at least 10 or 15 years,” he said.

In the five years since West Sixth began doing business this way, other Lexington companies have adopted some of its strategies, and that pleases Self.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “The more companies that do that, the better.”

West Sixth's nano brewery on Main Street is slated to open late this week/early next week, just in time for Lexington Craft Beer Week. Plus, Grace Cafe in Danville serves great locally sourced food on a pay-what-you-can basis. And VisitLex has som

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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